Ok who has seen the movie the Santa Claus? Remember the phrase the elves used to help Tim Allen and his son understand Santa Claus and the Magical North Pole? They said “seeing isn’t believing, believing is seeing!” This is exactly what visualization is all about! Visualization helps us see our true potential in our mind first so that we can bring them to fruition!
What Is Visualization?
“Visualization is a cognitive tool accessing imagination to realize all aspects of an object, action or outcome. This may include recreating a mental sensory experience of sound, sight, smell, taste, and touch.” - Jennifer Baumgartner Psy.D.
How Do I Use Visualization?
Visualization, asks you to “step in” to a scene. You want to start off by imagining what you want to accomplish. This could be finishing a race, competing in a lifting event or even working on your own PRs within your own gym walls. It is helpful to be as specific as you can so that your visual can be as vivid as possible. You want to imagine yourself in that moment, successfully accomplishing your goal and along with that, picture how you are performing, what your muscles feel like, what your mind is focusing on, maybe the outfit you’re wearing, the environment around you, possibly the people or other distractions that may be around you, how you are breathing, the sounds, and even potentially the smell around you. To get a better idea of how to go about this, let’s talk about 2 different kind of scenarios. Since this is a first-person activity I will write as if I am imagining myself completing each.
Scenario A: You want to complete a 5k in 25 minutes.
I would start by imagining myself at the starting line. Since the 5k will be in June I am going to assume it to be a warmer day so I am wearing my favorite running shorts, a loose tank top, my trusted running shoes, and the perfect head band to keep my hair under control. I can feel the crowd of people around me with a slight nervous/excited energy. The sound of music is in the air but I’m focusing on my own thoughts. The gun fires off and I can feel my legs begin to pump. I feel fast and energized! As I am running I picture myself passing one person at a time, cruising by at a good pace. I look down at my watch for each mile and picture a perfect 8-minute split for each one. The buildings and scenery pass by but I am focused with my eyes looking dead ahead. I can hear my breathing pick up more towards the last mile. I know I need to pump it up for the last mile. I can feel my legs pumping hard and my arms working in unison. I see the finish line in front of me, spectators cheering on the sidelines. I give it everything I have for the last drive. I cross the finish line and see on my watch 24.28, a perfect 8-minute mile split! Success!
Scenario B: You want to be able to squat 200lb. in your powerlifting meet.
I stare down the loaded bar in front of me. My powerlifting singlet is tight to my skin making me feel secure. My hair is in my top knot, it’s time to do work, bun. I walk up to the bar with confidence and place my hands on the bar. I can feel the grip of the knurling in my hands. It feels familiar and solid. I swoop myself under the bar and wedge it on my back as tight as I possibly can. The bar feels like it is an extension of me. I stomp my feet to feel them grab the ground through my old black Nike shoes. I stand up, take one, two steps and a third little wiggle of the left heel to get into place. I take a big inhale into my belly and feel the pressure against my belt. I feel secure and strong. I picture the crowd out in front of me as I lower myself down into the hole. I feel the point where I know I have hit depth and think about exploding up! I can feel my quads working and grinding through the rep. My chest stays tall and I exhale hard. I make it to the top and lock out! 200lb. completed!
You can see through these explanations that a lot of detail goes into the visualization. It’s not just picking up a heavy weight or seeing yourself at the end of a race, its all of these feelings, thoughts, sensations put together to create a full picture. The more detail you can create for yourself, the more confidence you will be able to build before the event.
When Do We Practice this technique?
These techniques can be used at different times based on what you are trying to accomplish. You can practice visualization while you are training to help you get excited and feel more confident during your training. Sometimes I picture myself completing a set before I actually do it or I place more emphasis on something I specifically want to accomplish in terms of form. This helps create a mental map to accomplish the form change in real life.
You can also practice visualization when you wake up, or before you go to bed. There is a limited time one can spend physically working out; visualization allows you to continue to work on these skills without physical exertion. Don’t get me wrong, this is still a learned skill and takes mental energy. And it can be mentally tiring when first developing this ability. But just as with any skill, visualization becomes easier with more practice and will help compliment a tough training schedule.
Why Does it work?
It has been proven many times over, in many different studies, that athletes who use visualization tend to perform much better than those who do not use any kind of mental imagery at all. Why is this the case? Our brains actually have a very hard time telling the difference between you mentally completing a task vs. you physically completing a task. This allows us to believe these acts as true, building confidence and accepting this outcomes as a real possibility.
- Visualization will work for other areas of your life as well! Once you start using this technique, you may want to try it with giving presentations, an important meeting with your boss, a difficult discussion with a loved one, or even as a relaxation technique to take a mental vacation. You will find that positive outcomes become much more believable when you can mentally see them first.
- Just because we have subconscious negative thoughts does not mean they will come true. Active positive thoughts are what’s important, not subconscious negative thoughts. I used to think that having these subconscious bad thoughts meant that they were more likely to happen or that I was a bad person for them. This is not the case. We all have subconscious negative thoughts and images from time to time. We are human. Its ok. Allow these thoughts and images to pass by and then actively work to change your thoughts to a more positive outcome. Make these changes in imagery achievable and believable so you are more likely to accept them.
- Visualizing skills while injured or unable to compete helps maintain skills. At some point, you might find yourself recovering from an injury, surgery, etc. Your body may physically not be able to perform certain tasks, but visualizing yourself practicing your skills will help your body maintain that muscle memory and make you feel more confident when you return back to the skill, sport, or competition.
- Watching videos of yourself, as well as video of individuals with expert technique, helps improve the skill of visualizing. I often video myself during training so I can coach myself but also to help later on when creating a mental picture for what I want future sets to look like. Watching expert videos helps me apply their skills to my own abilities. Especially with highly technical moves like Olympic lifting.
- A trick I have used to help me with visualization is to go through the scenario from a first-person perspective and then go through the same scenario, watching myself succeed in that situation.