A basketball player steps -up to the free throw line, shoots and imaginary ball before the referee tosses them the actual ball. After a hard round of sparring in practice, the fighter walks around the ring with their hands held high as if the referee just announced them the winner. As a baseball player approaches home plate, they take a few practice swings, pausing on the last one as they imagine the baseball flying deep into the outfield and over the fence for a home run. In each of these situations, the athlete is creating a mental image of what they would like to happen in reality not just physically but emotionally as well. Whether you call it guided imagery rehearsal, mental rehearsal, meditation or visualization, the goal is to train both the body and mind to perform the actual skill with confidence, poise and accuracy.
In competitive sports, the difference between a win or loss, or even a new world record can come down to milliseconds and the minutest detail. As such athletes are always looking for training techniques to give themselves even the slightest advantage over their competitors. Just like shooting 100 free throws during practice can help a basketball players physical skills, the same type of practice can be applied to their “mental game” through visualization. Visualization draws upon an athletes senses beyond the physical. By imagining everything from the sound of a cheering crowd to the swish of the ball as it passes through the net, from the sight of the ball as it arches towards the hoop to the referee raising their hand to indicate the point, the athlete can prepare mentally and physically building upon their confidence and experience. It has been shown that mental rehearsal is just as powerful as physical rehearsal which should come as no surprise as the mind is such a powerful tool.
A few weeks ago while coping with a minor injury, I went in for a float. I was dealing with some frustration as the injury did not allow for me to work at my full potential while training jiu jitsu, forcing me to take a couple of rest days. With my body completely relaxed, I began to visualize a new technique that I was learning in jiu jitsu. I focused on the muscles that I needed to use and the little tips and adjustments my coach had given me in class. I could “see” the sun shining in through the gym windows. I could “feel” my toes pressing against the matted floors. And I could faintly “hear” my coach telling me to “keep driving your weight forward, this should be exhausting, your calves should be burning.” After “working” on this drill a few times, I took a break, and eventually my time in the tank came to an end. I slowly started to make my way out of the tank, but as I stepped out of the tank and on to the floor, I felt a weird sensation in my legs — they were exhausted. I felt like I just ran a marathon. The next couple of days my calves were sore as if I had been working on that drill for hours. I thought maybe it was from another work out I did, but I was just coming off of a few rest days. To this day, I still have a hard time wrapping my head around the fact that I could have exhausted my muscles by visualizing the work out. But in any case, it seemed to help me in class when I got back to my training!
Visualization is not just for competitive athletes, or ones dealing with injuries. Artists can use it while preparing for a performance or even students preparing for a school presentation and public figures getting ready for an important speech etc. It is amazing what the mind can do, and it doesn’t hurt to help it along by removing sensory stimuli and making sure the body is in a relaxed state. Visualization has been a huge helped to me, not just in athletic training, but in other areas of my life like when teaching yoga classes. And this is why I float.