Sports Psychology
Visualization Preparation for Athletes

        Remember back when you were a little kid, just how easy it was to use your imagination?  Children see almost everything clearly and in exciting and different ways.  Their perception does not always match up with objective reality, but it is creative and inventive.  Kids play games imagining that they are soldiers, or spacemen, or fire fighters, or scientists - in fact, anything they want to be.  They create playmates, situations, and amazing inventions with no trouble at all, and have a ready answer for almost any problem in the world (whether it's functional or not).
    So what happens as we get older?  We become more "realistic" ("get real man"), forcing us to give up some of that creativity for well-thought-out answers that we can defend under difficult questioning.  Our environment restricts us (more or less gradually) to the point that we nearly fear creativity because the risk of humiliation or taunting is greater than our perceived rewards. 
    For some time, visualization in sports has been granted "weird" status by many who do not understand it.  In spite of that bias, visualization has continued to grow as a valuable tool used by nearly every Olympic and professional athlete.  There was also a time when people pooh-poohed the idea of using computers to analyze physical movement and train for improvement, but that is now commonplace also.  Whether you call it visualization, imagery, mental rehearsal, or mental practice, the idea is to place importance on improving your cognitive performance along with your physical performance.

    Studies demonstrate conclusively that the cognitive aspects of athletic tasks are nearly as important as the physical ones.  Cognitive components of skill acquisition include memory, interpretation of feedback, decision-making, problem-solving, and visualization.  This means that we must be able to (a) remember what we have done, what worked, and what didn't; (b) have an understanding of the relative success or failure of our tactics; (c) develop an ability to choose quickly from among our various options and make an informed, sensible decision; (d) use our abilities to overcome unique or new obstacles we face; and (e) create a visualization of what exactly we are doing now, what would be best to do, and imagine ourselves performing the skill successfully.
    There is a famous story about a gymnastics coach who taught one of his students an entire routine with no physical practice whatsoever.  Because of an injury, she was prevented from actually practicing the routine except within her mind, yet when she finally went out to try it, she hit every move perfectly the first time.  The coach was so freaked out that he never used the technique again.  (Ironic, since you'd think he'd use it all the time after that.)  Is it advisable to quit physical practice altogther and use only visualization to train for something like a soccer match or football game?  Of course not.  But, if there are ways to benefit by adding this technique to your arsenal, you'd be foolish not to use it, wouldn't you?

    When we are mentally rehearsing, we are both recalling skills we have already performed and preparing our motor senses to perform successfully again.  We are strengthening our cognitive patterns through repetition, and making our successes more automatic.  We can use it to imagine exactly what we want to do in certain game or personal situations.  We can imagine everything that might go wrong in competition, and envision how we will handle it.  Some athletes have used specific types of visualization to speed their recovery from injury.  We can use it to block out "mind games" that our opponents are trying to play on us, or anticipate criticism from coaches, teammates, or parents and take the sting out of such comments.  We can even use them as "pep talks" to keep negative thoughts out of our processing.
    Good visualizations include 5 aspects:  (1) break your task down into tiny parts and see each part separately; (2) see the activity in slow motion, and notice the nuances that you might miss at full speed; (3) control the exact time and place of occurence so it will fit your needs for performance; (4) determine the exact outcomes of your actions, what will be the results?; and (5) regulate your feelings about those outcomes.  Even in mental practice, the discrete elements must be practiced correctly and positively.  In other words, you must practice as efficiently and correctly mentally as you do physically, if you expect to succeed.  "Practice makes permanent!"

    It is also important that we use all 5 senses in the process.  When you examine the methods and even the language we use in sports, you can tell how important these senses are.  A good visualization should include all your senses, even when the image is relatively short-term.  Here's how they relate:
    Sight - It is important to actually "see" what you will do.  Again, think of those bobsledders at the Olympics, golfers, etc.who stand and "see" what they are about to do, then go and do it.  We even use the term "you have that look in your eyes", as though we can recognize when someone looks as though they are about to succeed (though we can certainly see determination or concentration or seriousness of purpose.)
    Touch - What will you literally feel during the activity?  It may be the touch of the ball/bat/club in your hands or the grass/turf under your feet.  We talk about an athlete having "that feeling of power" when they are performing exceptionally.
    Smell - Will there be popcorn, fresh grass, rain or water, locker room odors, etc. in connection with your activity?  At a recent All-Star game, Ted Williams was seen talking to Mark McGwire in a private moment.  When he was asked what the great hitter had said to him, McGwire admitted that Williams asked him if he ever smelled the wood burning on his bat after a hard foul ball.  McGwire had to admit that he had.  Forty years after playing his final game, Williams still remembered a smell as an indicator that he was close to great performance.  In a connected way, we often hear the phrase "the sweet smell of success", even though we know that success has no actual odor.
    Sounds - There are lots of natural ones that occur in games and practices - bat hits ball, pads crash, swish of the net -  so it is important for us to filter the ones we enjoy into our visualizations.  We say, "It sounds good to me".
    Tastes - In sports, these are not always the greatest things.  We might taste our own sweat, blood in our mouth, acrid odors, etc., yet we recognize others as positive.  We say that victory is "sweet", and that losses are "bitter".
    It is vitally important that when you are structuring your visualizations, you incorporate as much from your senses as possible, so the image will be as real as possible.  The more real your imagery, the more successful your technique will be.

    Your visualization sessions should be internal, and either be very short (less than one minute) or of more than 10 minutes in  length.  The short visualizations are best for use during practices and games, while the longer ones are best suited for private times alone.  It is very difficult to concentrate deeply on your imagery if you have too many distractions.  You can easily use your longer "alone time" to set up the shorter visualizations that you will use in practices and games.  As with any other skill, if you do not practice your visualizations regularly, they will not function properly. 

There are many different techniques for applying visualizations effectively.  As with any other strategy, you must choose what feels most comfortable and effective for you.  Here are some options you can explore:
  ~   Write down specific visualizations you want to use - be very complete about the details.  Make a "script" from this writing.  Record a tape of yourself reading this "script" - it will help you visualize.  Then play the tape while you are relaxing, so you can concentrate on the images. 
  ~   Make a video of yourself during a practice or game, and use the best clips to help you see exactly what you look like when you are doing an excellent job.  Use these images when you are visualizing a good performance.
  ~   Focus on the key moments that will occur during your game.  What will be the most important moments?  What are the key moments during warm-ups, the first minute, the point at which something goes wrong, a time when we're behind, when we go  ahead, at halftime, the critical moment, the big play, a major turning point, at the final buzzer, in your postgame locker room, and with your family afterward?  If you have visualizations that "predict" these moments (or even a few of them), and you then have a plan for how you will react, you are 100% closer to handling them effectively.  [As an example here, if you knew your coach was going to berate you about one specific skill that you've been struggling with, and you had already visualized that confrontation, and you had prepared a positive response that would make both you and your coach feel better, then when your coach came to talk to you, the exchange would be both positive and productive.]
  ~   Some folks use anchoring with their visualizations.  If you have a quick and easy physical "key" that allows you to immediately access your imagery, then you can call it up on demand.  This is especially helpful if you only have a brief moment during a practice or game to visualize.  For example, you line up to kick a field goal, take a foul shot, or smack your serve.  You don't have much time to use your visualization, but your anchor helps you reach it all immediately, so you can "see" your success before it happens.

    As with any technique, not all of us will feel accomplished or comfortable with using the tool as quickly as someone else.  Therefore, we might need some practice, and Harvey Dorfman, author of The Mental Game of Baseball has listed some exercises to develop your visualization skills.  (Which I adapted slightly for you, of course.)
    (1)  You have just been called in by the police.  They have informed you that in order to be released, you must describe your own bedroom with nearly perfect accuracy.  Imagine that you are observing your bedroom very closely (within your mind, don't do this in your bedroom silly!).  See the colors, positions of objects, sizes and shapes.  Feel the textures present, smell the odors, hear the usual sounds that are there.  Make a mental note of every item in your room, and see just how many things you can recall.  Then go and look at your room, and see what you left out.
    (2) Imagine you have 3 colored balls on a table in front of you.  Practice moving them around on the table, slowly at first, then faster and faster.  (Kind of like the guy with the walnut shells and the pea.)  When you are doing well, add another ball of a different color.  See the details of all the balls - shades of color, imprints, indentations and flaws in them.
    (3) Invent a vacation spot, and put in all the geographic features you can think of.  How does it smell?  What sounds are there?  Fill in all the plants, people, buildings, etc. that might conceiveably be there.
    (4) Imagine that someone hands you a paper bag.  Inside the bag are some objects, but you haven't been told what they are.  Pull out the imaginary objects and explore them carefully.  See them in sufficient detail that you could describe them to another person who had not "seen" them.

    As a word of warning, you must beware of overvisualizing.  You don't want to play the game so many times in your head that you become exhausted before it actually gets played.  There is a story abou a 4 X 100 meter relay team who had very little time to practice together, so they ran the race dozens of times mentally on their own.  This worked very well, and they were actually a better team when they came together for their few practices.  On their way to a major competition, they "ran the race" many times over in their minds, and actually measured what would be a record time for them.  Unfortunately, when they got to the competition, they ran very poorly.  Afterward, they described being exhausted.  They had used up all their energy in mental practice, and were too tired to actually perform.  You may have experienced something like this if you have ever anticipated a "big game" all day long with great excitement, but then found yourself "flat" at game time.

~ (1)  Visualize the most upset, angry, or failed you have ever felt.  Really get into that moment, work at it, feel those feelings, make the memory as real as possible.  (Do this right now.)
    Afterward, how does your body feel?  Likely, you feel upset and uncomfortable - this shows the power of visualization.  We will feel actual physical effects of mental practice.  Does your heart rate escalate when you visualize?  It should, if you are visualizing competitive situations.  You may even feel "winded" if the visualization is extremely realistic.  (Of course, less so if you are using the proper Breathing techniques.)

 ~ (2)  Use exercise #3 from Harvey Dorfman (above) to create a "special place"  for yourself.  In the following section, when you develop your relaxation technique, it will be important to have a comfortable, peaceful, protected place to go in your mind when you feel threatened, need to concentrate fully, or simply want to "get away" from it all.  Develop this "special place" as fully as you possibly can, and be certain that it is a place you can feel completely relaxed, fully at peace, protected and safe from any care or concern in the world.  Practice seeing your special place at least once every day from now until your season ends.

 ~ (3)  Go back to the Problems and Goals you have previously constructed.  These are the important things that you want to control about your athletic life.  Create a visualization, even a brief one, that relates to your goals.  Have your visualizations contain elements related to goal achievement - what exactly do you need to do to "succeed"?  See yourself performing your skill successfully, or handling situations effectively.  Make these visualizations as real as possible.  Use all your senses, as it was described above.  If you need to, write down what each of these visualizations look like until you get them fully internalized.  Practice each visualization every day - maybe several times a day if it is a recurring thing.  Remember that as your season progresses and your success rate improves, you may need to modify these visualizations so they will carry you further.  If you are struggling with this, write the visualization more fully so you will have a sort of "script" to go by.

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