From Jack Nicklaus to Mohammad Ali, many elite athletes are known to incorporate visualization into their training. It’s a powerful cognitive technique where you create a multisensory simulation of yourself executing a task. By mastering the movements in your head and familiarizing yourself with the accompanying sensations, your body is primed to achieve peak performance on the next training day or competition.

Mind Over Matter

The ability of mental rehearsal or motor imagery to alter psychological states have been well documented. In the study done by Garza & Feltz in 1998, not only did visualization significantly enhance the self-efficacy beliefs and competition confidence among figure skaters, it also resulted in higher performance ratings. The findings, along with many others, validate a basic tenet in sports psychology: Lower anxiety, driven by positive self-efficacy beliefs, boosts athletic performance.

Mind Over Muscle

Physiological effects can also occur with regular visualization: Researchers at The Cleveland Clinic Foundation observed increased muscle strength among subjects who performed “mental contractions” of specific muscle groups without actually doing the exercise. How was this possible? EEG monitoring during the mental training revealed elevated cerebral cortex output signal which has been linked to the control of voluntary muscle contractions. This means that visualization triggers areas in the brain that activates the muscles and consequently improves strength.

Five-Step Technique

You may not have a personal sports psychologist who can create a recording of a detailed imagery script that you can listen to but you can still harness the power of visualization by following these steps:

  1. Find a quiet time where interruptions are not allowed.
  2. Do this sitting up or lying down: With your eyes closed, focus on breathing slowly and deeply through the nose, making sure that your jaws and shoulders are relaxed.
  3. Now picture the environment where your performance will take place. Visualization is most effective when you employ several senses: colors, smells, sounds, even the feel of the wind, when applicable. Are you about to compete? Then fill in the image with spectators.
  4. What are you wearing? What are you holding? In your mind’s eye, see and feel that object in your hand. Take time to recall the specific sensations as you move into the starting position.
  5. Visualize yourself executing all the necessary movements until you reach your goal.

Visualization Tips

  • Use motor imagery not only to reinforce your confidence, but to refine your sports technique and to stay motivated.
  • In the event of a competition, visualize different scenarios and create strategies on how you can cope with them.
  • Experiment from a third-person perspective. External visual imagery is believed to be more effective for tasks where positioning (e.g. in a group) and body posture are crucial.
  • Remember to make the imagery as real as possible.
  • Set aside 10 to 15 minutes for each session, three times or more a week. With practice, recapturing and manipulating the details become easier.

Sources:
https://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/flourish/200912/seeing-is-believing-the-power-visualization
http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/14998709
http://www.bases.org.uk/Use-of-Mental-Imagery-in-Sport-Exercise-and-Rehabilitation-Contexts
http://www.nytimes.com/2014/02/23/sports/olympics/olympians-use-imagery-as-mental-training.html?_r=0
http://www.appliedsportpsych.org/resource-center/resources-for-athletes/sport-imagery-training/