High Performance Tool: Visualization

Maybe you’re not the visual type. You could be more auditory or kinaesthetic. There is merit in utilizing your slumbering visualization skills to help improve myriad areas in your life. Loosing weight, athletic goals and health goals may not be evident subjects for visualization. Maybe it sounds too good to be true or too esoteric. It might sound like something monks do when meditating. It certainly doesn’t appear as something for daily life. There is biological and psychological science behind the practice however. Top-level athletes are among the people who’ve benefited from visualization to build confidence, improving skills and to reach an optimal mindset for the task at hand, whether this is a deadlift, a marathon or a high jump.

Why Visualization Works

Within our bodies there is a system called the endocrine system. It controls hormones and chemicals in our body. These molecules influence our emotions and physical state. For example, when we are frightened, norepinephrine is released in our bloodstream. Norepinephrine makes us alert and prepares us for action. Hormones can also relax us. This activation and relaxation is constantly monitored and adjusted within our body. Could this also work in the other direction? Can our mental and physical state affect the hormonal balance within our system? As it turns out, it can. In the 1970s and ’80s Russian sport scientists performed research into this phenomenon to increase the performance of their elite athletes. To this day visualization is a practice that Olympic athletes continue to use all over the world.

Visualization Research

Here are some interesting items found in the literature on visualization.

  • From the abstract of a study done in 2009: “We quantitatively establish that the spatial distribution of local neuronal population activity during motor imagery mimics the spatial distribution of activity during actual motor movement.” They show that activity in the brain when actually performing a movement is similar to the activity when visualizing the movement.
  • A study done in 2003 had groups train finger and elbow muscles. One group used only visualization, another group performed strength exercises. The group that did physical training for the finger muscle had an increase in strength of 53%. The visualization group that trained the finger muscle had a strength increase of 35%. This is an amazing increase for only visualizing.
  • Regular visualization helped to lose less strength when immobilized in a cast for four weeks. In this 2014 study, researchers show that the nervous system is an important part in strength, though a part that is less understood.
  • One of the cases in Psychiatric Annals reports on a young gymnast whom felt more relaxed and focused and had more fun through the use of visualization. From the abstract: “After 3 months, she had improved her performance/scores in competition and felt relaxed and focused. She also reported that she had more fun during competition.”
  • Phillip Post, assistant professor of human performance, dance and recreation in the College of Education at the New Mexico State University, talks about basketball players who imagined free throw success before a game had significantly more success during their games.

Based on this information, visualization is a powerful tool worth considering to put in your toolbox. It can help skill acquisition, performance and can help reduce anxiety or nervousness before a game.

Visualization Practice

Here is a quick and easy visualization:

  1. Relaxation: Find a comfortable and quiet space where you won’t be disturbed for the duration of the session. Sit or lie down. Whatever feels better at the moment. Breathe deeply. Imagine your muscles relaxing. Start at the top of your head and move to your feet, relaxing all areas one by one.
  2. Picture a specific goal: This could be whatever you want to work on, whether it be learning a language, running a marathon or waking up earlier.
  3. Start filling in the broad strokes: What does it look like running the marathon course, speaking the new language or waking up earlier?
  4. Add in the details: What time of day is it? What are you wearing? What are you smelling? Is someone else present? What are you feeling?
  5. Keep repeating the picture: See yourself reaching your goal. Keep the picture positive and successful. Keep repeating until you feel satisfied. Once you feel satisfied, come out of the visualization.

The first time will probably have little detail and last a short time. The more you do it, the better it will take root. The better you get at it, the more details you’ll create and the longer you will keep up the visualization.

Of course, continue your practice. Continue exercising, learning, or whatever action steps you have to take to reach your goal. Every time you make a positive choice you are reinforcing the new you.

Further Reading

Olympians Use Imagery as Mental Training https://www.nytimes.com/2014/02/23/sports/olympics/olympians-use-imagery-as-mental-training.html

Cortical activity during motor execution, motor imagery, and imagery-based online feedback http://www.pnas.org/content/107/9/4430

From mental power to muscle power—gaining strength by using the mind https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0028393203003257

Mind over matter: Can you think your way to strength? https://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2014/12/141231154012.htm

Cases in Visualization for Improved Athletic Performance https://www.healio.com/psychiatry/journals/psycann/2012-10-42-10/%7Bb39a71aa-2e68-49c7-9367-dd3eed3f4f52%7D/cases-in-visualization-for-improved-athletic-performance#x00485713-20121003-07-bibr1

Imagery Research Uncovers How Athletes Prepare Mentally https://education.nmsu.edu/post/