Visualization: Tips For Getting More Out of Your Mental Practice
Visualization is the widely-used technique of seeing your performance in your mind. It can be done simply in passing by closing your eyes and imagining a play or can be used as a central training tool to take the place of physical activity when an athlete is injured or worn down.
We use visualization constantly during the day without realizing we’re using it. If someone asked you to describe the difference between a McDonald’s hamburger and a Wendy’s hamburger, you would have to picture them both in your mind in order to answer. You’d talk about how McDonald’s hamburgers are perfectly round and most of them have smooth buns instead of Wendy’s square burgers with the cornmeal buns that have lots of texture. And the more adjectives we use to describe our images, the more vivid they become.
Why Visualization Works
Visualization is effective for two reasons:
1. It strengthens neural pathways, the roads that our brain uses to send out messages to our bodies. A strong neural pathway is like an exact route you know to get from your house to the airport, the mall, etc. The more you picture yourself executing your skills, the stronger your neural pathways become until eventually you feel so comfortable playing your game that the movements feel automatic.
2. Our brains see real performance and imagined performance the same. We experience this phenomenon often in our dreams. For example, you might dream that you are falling and wake up bracing yourself or dream that you are in a panic and wake up sweating. When you’re awake you might experience a real feeling if someone describes that “perfect thud” you feel on you instep when you strike a shot just right.
Batman and Visualization
When practicing visualization, you should describe the sounds and feelings that go along with swinging the bat, fielding the ball, and throwing pitches. In comic books, Batman and Superman would beat up the villains by punching them, but to get added effect, the artist would draw in a big POW and BAM. When a bomb went off, you’d read KABOOM! These words strengthen our pictures and make our visualization exercises more effective.
Shooting and passing words: Driving shot BOOM, Curving Shot SLICE, Chip shot CHOP, Quick pass POP
Control words: SOFT, FEATHER, STICK
Dribbling words: DANCE, GLIDE, CONTROL
Using Visualization to Build Physical Skills
The biggest obstacle many athletes have with using visualization is NOT that they can’t imagine the details of their performance, but that they can’t see themselves succeeding. For this, we have to reference the difference between process and outcome and separate from using visualization to build confidence and positive attitude. Visualization to build physical skills should regularly reinforce the execution of the process. In this way, mechanical processes can become automatic. Strikers can practice feeling their body drive through the ball when they are shooting – feeling balanced and powerful as they make contact with the ball and follow-through towards the target. Defenders should be focused on the ball — nimble, balanced and ready to quickly dispossess their opponent –their position and angle of approach anticipating where the point of “attack” will be. Images that are outcome-oriented do have a purpose, but they should be used to help build skills for performing under pressure.
Using Visualization to Perform Under Pressure
Visualization is most commonly used to build confidence and positive attitude. The stereotypical sport psychology reference involves “seeing yourself” score the game winning goal or make that magical save. It’s true that picturing what you want to accomplish will help you accomplish more. But if you really want to become better in pressure situations, then you have to practice seeing yourself get into a jam and then deal with it successfully.
Mental toughness is built through overcoming adversity, not through dominating your competition without being challenged. Don’t make the mistake of picturing yourself executing your plan successfully without any hiccups along the way. If you want to get better at controlling your emotions then think about those situations in training or matches where you may encounter specific challenges or pressure. How would you want to feel when taking a decisive penalty kick? Cool, calm, confident? How would you approach the shot? Where would you look? What would your approach to the ball be like?
If you typically have pre-match jitters, then imagine yourself feeling anxious before the game (really get into character). Then, take yourself (visually) through a routine that you’ve developed to help you relax and focus on playing hard and enjoying the match. Maybe all you need is a good pre-game sweat and some time with the ball. Perhaps you’ve learned some breathing techniques that help take the edge off.
If you have a fiery temper, then imagine yourself getting worked up (was there a bad tackle, a series of mistakes…). Then imagine yourself regrouping and calming down. Whatever you are working on, try to create realistic situations with practical ways to improve your performance.
“See You” Later
Remember that the goal we are trying to reach in using the mental game is to know what to do without thinking about it. Using visualization helps us practice our skills so we are more familiar with them and we feel like we’ve already “seen” our performance happen when it does.
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Geoff Miller is a Partner at Winning Mind, LLC (http://www.thewinningmind.com). Winning Mind clients include English Premier League teams Liverpool FC and Manchester City. For more information on Winning Mind programs for building mental toughness, please contact Geoff at email@example.com.