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MENTAL TRAINING: Creative Visualization and Athletic Performance Part I – An Overview

By Paul Schienberg PhD.

In order to perform an action at a high level, it is necessary to visualize (imagine) yourself going through the motions. Watching others do a sport well can be very helpful in the implanting of a visual image. If you watch children play, they are often imitating professional sports figures. One well-known professional athlete told me about watching TV as a child when Sandy Koufax (pitcher for the Los Angeles Dodgers) wound up to throw. He stood in his living room and performed the same motions – from the wind-up to the follow through. He did this for every pitch. Not only were his muscles learning the motion – also his mind was developing an image of what it looks like for a left hander to throw a great curve ball and strike batters out. He could here the crowd roar as the catcher threw the ball down to third base. Sometimes he closed his eyes in class and visualized the same behaviors. Little did he know, he was creating and practicing a visualization that would have huge payoffs in performance later on in life.

This article will illuminate the way in which athletes can learn to use creative visualizations in ways that enhance their performance. Creative visualization uses your imagination to create what you want in your life. Anyone can visualize or imagine. It is a natural ability that we are born with. It uses a basic human energy whether you are aware of doing it or not. Athletes have used this power of creative visualization in an unconscious way. When an athlete is having difficulty with a sport, some negative concepts might be getting in the way of success. After a problem has persisted for a while, he may automatically and unconsciously expect and imagine lack, limitations, difficulties and problems. So, what we are going to describe and teach is a conscious approach to the use of this incredible power for positive results.

The ability to create an idea or mental image is imagination. First, we are going to help you construct a clear image – something you want to occur – in your athletic life. You might imagine hitting out of a sand-trap and coming to a stop close to the hole, taking a toss from your shortstop and throwing to first for the double play, beating the opposing guard and tackling the quarterback, hitting a back-hand across court against a powerful server, etc. Second, you will continue to focus on that idea or picture regularly, giving it a positive charge until it becomes a reality that you can observe.

Imagine you are having a difficult interpersonal situation with a coach that is very aggressive. It is important for you to create a more harmonious condition. The initial step of the method is to relax into a deep, quiet, meditative state of mind. The second step is to imagine you and the coach are communicating in an open, honest and easy manner. Third, get a sense that your mental image is possible – experiencing it as if it is already occurring. Last, repeat these steps as often as possible. If you are sincere about your desires to get a better relationship going with your coach and open to change, you will notice the relationship is improving, the coach is becoming an easier person to get along with and the problem resolving itself completely.

An important point should be made here. The technique of creative visualization CANNOT be used to control the behaviors of other people or make them do something that they don’t want to do. An athlete cannot make an opponent miss a foul shot, hit the tennis ball outside the court, drop a fly ball, miss a putt, etc. Creative visualization works to eliminate our barriers to achieving what we want for ourselves in life. An athlete must have the desire to enrich their experience and knowledge as well as a mind open to trying something new in a positive way.

Understanding certain interconnected tenets of creative visualization is important. Some of these may seem a little odd. Try to read them without judgment.

  1. The Physical Universe is Energy. The tangible world is made up of energy – not matter.
  2. Energy is Magnetic. Energy of a certain type is attracted to a similar energy.
  3. Form Follows Idea. Thought is a form of energy. Before we create something, we have a thought about it. “I will lob the ball.” The idea is like a plan, which directs physical energy and creates behaviors. As an athlete if you hold an idea close to you for a long enough period, it will manifest itself in a physical form. This is true whether it is a positive or negative idea. If you hold the thought “I can’t hit a second serve with power”, you will always have that problem. The opposite is true as well.
  4. The Law of Radiation and Attraction. The translation of this law is that we will bring into our lives whatever we think about most, believe in most, expect and/or envision will happen. If an athlete is negative and fearful, insecure or anxious, that very kind of experience or situation will be attracted into his/her life. If that same athlete changes thoughts into a positive attitude, events and people of a more positive nature will surface.
  5. Using Creative Visualization. It is important to start using creative visualization at specific times for specific goals. Do it before the game begins as part of the getting ready process. Maybe another good time could be the morning of the game. Also, select a highly identifiable goal. K.I.S.S. stands for “keep it simple stupid.” The more complex and general we make our goals, the harder they are to achieve. It may take some discipline. But, keep your goals within range and you will likely find success. The success will breed more success.

Summary: Part I is an overview of some basic principles that govern create visualization. As an athlete, we hope you have gotten a taste for the potentials of this technique in the enhancement of your performance. In the two parts to come, you will read about this technique in greater detail and offer opportunities to try it out under our guidance.