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MENTAL TRAINING: Creative Visualization and Athletic Performance Part III – How it Works

By Paul Schienberg PhD.

It is a good idea to let you in on how creative visualization works to enhance your performance. If you’re like most athletes, without a logical explanation, there is not as much motivation to practice an alien skill. So, this article is dedicated to building an understanding bridge between the creative visualization and your improved performance.

Neurology plays a significant role. Whenever we take an action, whether it be playing a note on the trumpet, stirring the garlic and oil, picking your nose, or shooting a jump shot from the top of the key, a specific set of linked electrical charges are set in motion in your body. When we try an action for the first time, the body “decides” which neural pathways governed an action in the past most similar to the one being tried in the present. It fires that neural pathway. The pathway is made of cells called neurons.

After an action is attempted, we evaluate how well we performed it. Assuming it wasn’t as good as we would like it, our neurons will fire in a slightly different way next time so that our performance is improved. When this new pattern of firing gets repeated many time over, it will automatically occur the next time we are asked to perform that action. Now, the great advantage of imagery is that we can imagine the action and the same neuron firing occurs as if we were actually performing the act. It is just not as strong.

One of the great advantages of imagery is that it can be practiced anywhere at any time. You can practice it before taking the foul shot; you see the arc to the ball and the swish of the net as it goes in. After you miss one free throw, you can use imagery to see an accurate toss and thereby strengthen the neuron firings that create accuracy. This process can be employed with any skill required to play in your sport. The first step is to acknowledge some skill that you are not doing well enough. Then imagine yourself performing the skill to perfection. Finally, go and perform the skill again while imaging its perfect execution.

If you are trying to learn a new skill, it is helpful to imagine it before practicing. The one difficulty with this approach is that you will be relying on your own thoughts about how to perform it. You could rely on a teammate’s or your coach’s advice. A better approach is to ask someone who performs the skill exceptionally well to perform the skill in front of you. While watching him demonstrate it, ask what it feels like to do the action. Immediately afterward, imagine yourself trying the skill. Slow motion instant replay provides an opportunity to watch professionals perform the skill on a very high level. Then close your eyes and imagine that you are performing the skill. The more senses you use the more effective your imagery will be in improving performance.

Carl Lewis has won many gold medals at the Olympics for the 100 meters dash and long jump events. When he was asked how it feels to have run100 meters in less than ten seconds, he noted that it was “not my first time. I have run under the ten seconds many times over in my mind.” Imagery can help repeat goals already achieved, achieve goals that have never been reached before, prepare for a game or training session, preparing to make a speech, confronting someone who has treated you badly, etc. You will gain confidence the more you practice imaging these activities.

If you are recovering from an injury, imagery can facilitate the process. First, you can keep up your skills even though you are not able to play. Just visualize yourself playing the sport. Relevant muscles and neuron passageways will stay in shape. When you are healed enough from the physical injury, you will more likely return to a high level of performance at a faster rate. Your confidence level will be higher. By imagining yourself making the moves that are necessary to play the sport and feeling the movement of your muscles as you do it, you will feel more confident that you will not re-injure yourself during the game itself. Finally, medical studies have shown that if you can imagine the injured part of your body healing, it will occur at a faster rate. If blood flow and warmth can be applied to the injured area, it will heal faster. Athletes were trained to imagine blood flow and warmth going to the area. Greater blood flow and warmth were recorded than with athletes who were not trained to image.

Let us go through another image enhancement exercise. Follow these instructions. Go on a series of walks and take note of all senses in your experiences. Completely go over every part of the scenes after you are finished. Try to have complete control of your image. Practice. Practice. Practice and your control of the image will get better. Then move to more complicated activities like swimming, rowing, shooting a jump shot, etc. Again, execute the activity and then imagine the entire scene. Now you are ready to deal with your sport. Play an aspect of the sport. Then imagine playing it perfectly. Have the image unfold at the same pace it happens in real life. Be patient! Practice! Be disciplined! Run through the images before going to sleep and as soon as you wake up. Eventually, you will end up imagine winning a championship it your sport.