The Soviet Union started using visualisation in sports from the 1970s, and now it is in the toolkit of most elite athletes. From scoring the goal, to flipping the somersault, to winning the race, visualisation helps you succeed.
I used visualisation daily as an elite trampolinist. I performed a few minutes of visualisation before practice to imagine what I wanted to get out of the session, a few seconds of imagery before each time I got on the trampoline to perform a skill, and each night I’d visualise my routines in their entirety. This practice helped set me apart from other athletes and I’ve carried it with me into my new sports – beach volleyball and CrossFit.
In a study by Dr. Biasiotto, athletes were tested to see how many basketball free throws they could make.1 He then split the athletes into three groups for thirty days:
- The first group practiced free throws for an hour every day.
- The second group visualised making baskets.
- The third group did nothing.
Unsurprisingly the third group didn’t improve. The first group improved by 24 percent. And incredibly, the visualisation group improved by 23 percent, without even touching a basketball for thirty days.
So why does visualisation work, and how can you get better at it?
How Visualisation Works
It Builds Confidence
First, visualisation builds confidence in your ability to perform when it counts.Doubt makes you tense and drains your energy. Confidence keeps you relaxed and helps you achieve flow.
When you’ve seen yourself perform a difficult skill hundreds of times in your mind, it doesn’t seem so daunting when you attempt it in real life. When you’ve imagined winning the race over and over again, it only seems natural to find a burst of speed in the critical moment to take the win.
I might visualise the grains of sand stuck to the ball as I toss it up to serve.
It Builds Neural Pathways
Second, visualisation works because of the plasticity of your brain. Your brain is made up of millions of connected neurons. When you perform an action for the first time, a new pathway of neurons lights up in your mind. You can think of this new pathway as a footprint in the sand. It’s pretty indistinct and can easily be brushed aside.
Once you take that action a few more times, your neural pathway becomes a proper path. Perform the action a few hundred more times and you have a paved walkway with railings. Do it a million times and you have a Grand Canyon sized neural pathway in your mind. You don’t even have to think anymore – there is only one path to take. Changing the course of that action would take the mental equivalent of hiking ten miles uphill to get out of the Grand Canyon.
Visualisation works because it lights up the same neural pathway in your brain as actually performing the action. This means you can “perform” a winning action over and over again in your brain and form deep neural pathways for successful outcomes.
It Builds on Your Training
However, visualising an action or outcome is not quite the same as actually performing it. Your mind gets distracted, your imagery is imperfect, and there isn’t the same intensity attached to the experience. Some theories suggest your muscles contain memories of movements. These memories aren’t being created when you sit and visualise using only your mind.2
A study by Guang Yue compared participants who performed physical exercises with those who visualised the workouts. Those who went to the gym gained 53 percent in muscle strength, whilst those who only visualised gained 35 percent.3 Visualisation adds to your training, but it can’t replace it.
This is where supercharging your visualisations comes in.
Supercharge Your Visualisations
The more realistic and intense your visualisation practice is, the more effective it will be. You want to use all your senses. Picture both yourself and the environment, imagine plenty of detail, and use an abundance of emotion.
Below are a number of ways to increase the effectiveness of your visualisation practice and bring it closer to completely mimicking the real-life action. This is an extensive, but by no means an exhaustive list. Please feel free to comment with additional ideas you have for supercharging your visualisations.
Colour: An image in bright, vivid colours is easier to remember than one in dull greys. It is the same with visualisation. Colour is much more powerful than black and white.
Video: The brain is hardwired to focus on movement. This harks back to our hunter-gatherer days, when seeing animal movement meant food or possible death. So when visualising, don’t use still frame images in your mind. Make it a movie.
Perspective: Each individual tends to gravitate towards either an internal or an external visualisation perspective.
- An external perspective means you watch yourself as a spectator would see you.
- An internal perspective means you are yourself during your visualization. You see out of your own eyes and feel your own body.
To get the most out of your visualisation, you should be able to switch between the two. For instance, a soccer player might use an external perspective to see himself on the entire field of play and improve his ability to make strategic plays, and then use an internal perspective when he visualises his foot connecting with the ball to score a goal.
Zoom: Play around with close ups and long-distance images. As a beach volleyball player, I might see the individual grains of sand stuck to the ball as I toss it up to serve. I might then zoom out to see my opponents’ movements. I could zoom out even further to see the entire stadium of people cheering. Don’t limit yourself to one range.
Volume: Hear the screams of the crowd, the crunch of flesh as you tackle an opponent, the soft swish of air after you hit the golf ball down the fairway, or the slap of hands as you high five a teammate. Make these sounds loud or soft as you go through your visualisation. The changes in imagined volume make your brain pay attention.
"Playing music while visualising or imagining music within your visualisation can act as a trigger for moods and performance."
Pitch and tone: Accents, cadences, and tones add life to a visualisation. Imagine the hoarseness in your coach’s voice as he yells across the field, the foreign accent of an announcer when you compete overseas, the hasty instructions to a teammate in the heat of the moment, or the whisper of your own voice as you talk to yourself before you leap off the diving tower.
Rhythm: There is emerging research on how attention, focus, memory, and brain power can be enhanced by rhythmicity.4 Finding rhythm in your movements, thought patterns, and the structure of your sport can enhance the effectiveness of your visualisation.
Music: Playing music while visualising or imagining music within your visualisation can act as a trigger for moods and performance. For example, imagine the victory of your football team and the emotions that come while listening to your club song. When you hear that song at the start of the game, it will trigger the same emotions and confidence you developed using visualisation.
Kinesthetic sense: This is the feel of your own body during movement. Think of a gymnast standing before the apparatus before a routine. You will often see them practicing the movements of their routine on the ground. They put their arms up, tighten their abs, spin around to mimic the feel of twists, and bounce on their toes to get the feel of jumps. They are engaging their kinesthetic sense as they visualise. You don’t have to actually stand up and do the movements, although it can help, but you should bring what your body feels like into your visualisations.
External sensations: Imagine contact with external objects and people. Visualise the coolness of the trophy, a tackle by a competitor, a hug from your coach, the feel of the ball in your hands, the grass as you slide along it, or the water as you dive into it.
Bringing how your body feels into visualisations is a powerful process.
This can be the most overlooked sense, but it is a powerful one. The sense of taste connects more directly to the memory system than the more obvious senses of sight and sound. Bring this into your visualisations by including the dry taste in your mouth from the heat of the day, the sweetness of sports drinks, or my personal favourite, the mint of toothpaste. I always brush my teeth right before I compete, and the taste helps me trigger the right mental state for competition.
Similar to taste, your sense of smell connects directly with the memory centers in your brain. Taste and smell are connected as well. The sensation of flavor is actually a combination of both senses. Bring smell into your visualisations by imagining scents such as the freshly cut grass, the chlorine of a pool, the saltiness of the ocean, the scent of the locker room, or the petrol of your car.
If you want to take it one step further, you can use a particular smell when doing your visualisation, and then bring out that scent again before competition. This acts as a trigger for mood and mental readiness.
Add novelty and interest to your visualisations by playing with speed. Speed makes your brain pay attention. Think of the super slow-motion shots they show during the Australian Tennis Open. Can you imagine your own movements in that much detail? How about speeding up your visualisation so you can see a whole string of victories over an entire season? You can even treat your visualisations like a DVD – fast forward, rewind, pause, slo-mo, and play. Have some fun with them.
This is the most powerful visualisation tool. Remember, visualising something once is like making a set of footsteps in the sand. Instead of visualising something thousands times to make your neural pathway into a road, you can add powerful emotions to your visualisation and shortcut the process.
The memories that stick in our brains are linked to strong emotions. Likewise, the most effective visualisations are those that incorporate feelings. Add the pride you feel when your coach says he or she is proud of you, the jubilation of the team as you kick a goal in the championship match, the relief at bringing home the gold medal, or the intense satisfaction of executing a skill perfectly.
Emotions will ultra-supercharge your visualisations and take your performance to a level you never imagined - or perhaps you did.
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