Mental Tool 3: Sports Visualization

Sports visualization is an experience… a training experience, a preparation experience and a warm-up experience. Visualization for athletes is a skill that you can improve and benefit from.

Whether you realize it or not, you visualize during sports or mentally rehearse naturally. Everyone thinks in pictures or images.

Some athletes unintentionally have recurring images of missed opportunities, injuries, mistakes and losses.

One thing separates elite athletes from average athletes…

Elite athletes utilize the power of guided imagery or visualization.

Mental imagery has long been a part of elite sports and many Olympic athletes have mastered the skill with the help of Sport Psychologists and Mental Game Coaches.

Guided imagery for athletes is consciously controlling the images or directing an athletic script in your head.

One example of guided imagery that you having unknowingly used is when your coach was teaching you a new skill. You created an image in your mind of how the skill should look or the successful execution of the skill.

Guided visualization or imagery is purposely rehearsing a skill, routine or performance in your mind’s eye to program your body for success.

However, visualization or mental imagery is more than just a visual experience. Many athletes prefer to feel movements and engage in the kinesthetic past of imagery.

Does visualization really work?

Jack Nicklaus once said that he Never hit a shot, even in practice, without having a sharp picture of it in his head. “It’s like a color movie,” he explained. “First, I ‘see’ the ball where I want it to finish, nice and high and sitting up high on the bright green grass. Then the scene quickly changes and I ‘see’ the ball going there: its pathtrajectory and shape, even its behavior on landing.”

Visualization, or mental rehearsal, is one of the most common psychological techniques used by sports professionals. The idea is that you can create a mental image of something you want to accomplish—like a golf shot—replay that image repeatedly and then perform the action in a manner consistent with the image.

There are essentially two types of visualization. In the first type, a golfer watches herself performing as if watching a movie. In the second type, the golfer rehearses his performance as if he were actually competing. Research suggests the latter strategy is more effective in most situations. Furthermore, the most successful athletes break down their performances into very specific details and engage all of their senses in imagining how they will feel and react in, say, a sudden-death playoff. They see the putt go in, hear the crowd roar and feel the trophy being hoisted overhead.

How does simply thinking about a future performance actually influence performance on the day of the event? Brain research using electroencephalogram (EEG, which measures electrical impulses in the brain) and electromyography (EMG, which measures electrical impulses in muscles) equipment sheds some light on this process. Psychologist Richard Suinn tested a group of downhill skiers usingEMG equipment and found that the brain sent the same electrical impulses or instructions to the muscles whether the skiers were simply thinking of a particular movement or actually carrying it out.

Some scientists believe mental rehearsal works much like “priming the pump” by creating neural pathways necessary for actual performance. The brain and body work together on creating an outcome, increasing the likelihood of producing that result when you are actually performing.

However, many golfers I work with tell me they cannot visualize their shots, especially with the clarity of Jack Nicklaus’ visualizations. There are numerous reasons golfers might struggle, including not understanding how the brain and body communicate, having unrealistic expectations about the time it takes to develop and maintain neural connections, having skepticism about its effectiveness, and not willing to take the time to practice this skill. It’s also worth stating that some people just don’t have the natural ability to visualize as a way of processing information and will do better using their sense of feel or hearing in the image.

Coming up next is tools to improve your visualization!

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