We’re all aware of the power of the mind when it comes to athletic performance. Alongside goal setting, visualisation is the most-practiced method among top athletes. In this article, mental toughness sports psychologist Dr Rob Bell shares four effective visualisation techniques
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Visualisation is a powerful mental toughness tool but, nowadays more than ever, our minds are like wild horses in a stable - we’re constantly distracted. This makes visualisation difficult.
Perhaps you’ve never thought it worth trying, or you’ve given it a go but didn’t see any results? Do you find it hard to focus your mind? Like any skill, it needs practice and, let’s be honest, who really needs to add more work to their training and life ‘plate’?
What is visualisation?
Before we get stuck into how to do it, what exactly is visualisation? Visualisation is the mental practice of creating images of what you want to feel or how you see an event unfolding. Visualisation includes imagining a positive performance, but also picturing negative moments in order to foresee how you’ll cope with them.
It’s not just about imagery either. Those well practiced in visualisation can hear, feel and even smell what they want to unfold.
Visualise how you’ll feel standing on the start line of your next event
Professional marathon runners, for example, will visualise what it feels like to touch the ground lightly and efficiently. They’ll visualise what the wind passing their ears will sound like and how their body will feel when working hard but under control.
They will also visualise how they will react if they begin to get dehydrated, what they’ll do if they miss a drink at an aid station, or what it’ll feel like in those final couple of miles when the pain really builds.
Ultimately, visualisation is about picturing possible scenarios within an upcoming event – both good and bad – and using that imagery to prepare for better performance.
So now, without further ado, here’s four quick tips from mental toughness sports psychologist Dr Rob Bell to maximise your visualisation.
Visualisation technique #1: Make it short
Many think of visualisation a long, drawn out and protracted affair where you need to dedicate at least 45 minutes to the practice. It does not need to be this way. Mental imagery can be done quickly and effectively by simply making it part of your current routine.
Use the five minutes you spend cooling down, stretching, or in the shower post-session to focus your mind on what went well and what could be improved upon next time.
You don’t need to be a Buddhist monk to practice visualisation
Visualisation technique #2: Make it meaningful
Most experts tout that you should always visualise how you want your perfect race or game to unfold. “Visualise feeling strong, crushing the competition and winning that gold medal”, you’ll hear them say.
There is a place for this imagery, but don’t forget that it’s just as important to visualise what might go wrong. If you’re a triathlete, visualise how you’ll handle losing your goggles, or being kicked in the face. How will you cope with a puncture? Visualise what it’ll feel getting off the bike with heavy legs and what it will be like when you’re absolutely shattered but not even half-way through the run.
Visualising positive outcomes is important, but mentally putting yourself in that place of stress, anxiety and pressure is what will help you cope with these situations if they arise.
There is certainly value in picturing a great finish to a race, but don’t neglect visualising the potential obstacles too
Visualisation technique #3: Make it purposeful
What part of your race have you had the most difficulty? Is it the pre-race jitters? Is it pushing through the tough stretches or perhaps finishing strong? Whatever has been a sticking point in the past should now be a focus for your future. Put yourself in that state of pushing through and feel yourself overcome the obstacle. Don’t jump around from image to image - instead, go over and over just this part of your race. Keep doing it until you make it clear!
Billy Mills, 1964 Gold medal winner of the 10,000m, would visualise himself at the end of every workout sprinting past the leaders to win the Gold medal and that’s exactly how it panned out.
Visualisation technique #4: Make it clear
If you have trouble controlling the scenes then start by reliving past races where you’re both felt strong and raced well and those when you were sub-par.
What was your focus, your mind-set, and how did you overcome? Dwell on those good feelings and ponder how you could handle the negative ones better.
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Visualisation techniques – conclusion
Visualisation is a powerful tool for enhancing athletic performance. For me personally, I feel that visualising the possible negative scenarios is even more beneficial than picturing the positive, because you’re left more prepared to overcome obstacles.
For little time-investment, practice visualisation a couple of times per week and see what difference it makes in your next event.
To learn more about mental toughness, check out some of Dr. Rob Bell’s books.