Mental imagery or visualization: The process of mentally practicing your performance either to prepare for an upcoming competition, enhance the learning process, replay a past great outing or to “practice” effectively handling difficult performance situations. As a mental skill, visualization is a good tool for you to add to your mental toughness toolbox. The following principles and guidelines will help you learn to use your imagination to take your game to the next level.
1. MENTAL REHEARSAL IS THE SYSTEMATIC RECREATION OF A PERFORMANCE EXPERIENCE – It is not just “seeing” in your mind’s eye, but hearing, smelling, and, most important, feeling what’d you would as if you were actually in that competitive situation. The effectiveness of visualization lies in an athlete’s ability to mental recreate, in as much vivid detail as possible (i.e. seeing, hearing, feeling, etc.) the performance.
2. AS WITH ANY SKILL, IMAGERY TAKES PRACTICE – Some athletes naturally “see” things better in their mind’s eye. Other’s don’t see really well but can almost “feel” what they would as if they were actually performing. Still others have the ability to vividly play an experience in their head with all the critical detail to the point where it almost appears real to them. Then there are athletes who try to do imagery and all they “see” is a blank or dark screen. Be persistent when you practice and keep at it. With daily repeated practice you will improve your ability to “see”, “feel” and “hear.”
3. TRY TO ADOPT AN INTERNAL PERSPECTIVE – You can do mental rehearsal from two perspectives: Internal or External. In an internal perspective you see, hear and feel what you would as if you were actually in the performance. In an external perspective, you’d see yourself performing from outside of the performance, as if you were a coach watching an athlete. Some athletes use both perspectives simultaneously. That is, while they see themselves from the outside, they can actually feel what they’d feel as if they were inside of the performance. Both perspectives are useful, however, learning to feel yourself inside of the performance is always ideal.
4. BEGIN EVERY MENTAL REHEARSAL SESSION WITH RELAXATION – Imagery breaks down when the athlete is nervous or anxious. For your images to be as vivid and therefore as useful as possible, precede your practice with 3-4 minutes of relaxation. Similarly, be sure that your imagery is done in an environment that’s quiet and free from distractions.
5. HAVE A SPECIFIC GOAL FOR EVERY IMAGERY SESSION – That goal could be working on trying to get a better feel for a specific part of your performance. For example, let’s say that you’re a swimmer and your turns are weak. You can “practice” the proper feel of a turn (attacking the wall, holding your breath going into and coming out, flipping hard, pushing off powerfully, etc. Your goal could also be, staying calm and relaxed right before or during the performance. If this were the case, then you’d mentally practice experiencing yourself staying calm and composed when it counted the most.
6. ONLY USE PEAK PERFORMANCE IMAGERY LEADING UP TO AN IMPORTANT PERFORMANCE – Coping imagery involves experiencing yourself handling upsetting or problematic situations. i.e., you just made a mistake and you want to practice mentally rebounding quickly and getting right back in the performance. However, a week before and then right up to that big performance you want to stop the coping imagery and only practice seeing yourself performing at your best.
7. MAKE SURE YOU STOP USING IMAGERY AT THE RIGHT TIME BEFORE YOU COMPETE – Some athletes can successfully use mental rehearsal right up until they perform. Many others, however have found that when they use imagery the night before or closer to the competition, it generates anxiety and backfires, hurting not helping performance. The key is to figure out when you as an individual athlete need to stop using the skill in relation to the start of the competition. This is a trial and error proposition.
8. MAKE YOUR IMAGERY SESSIONS SHORT – Mental rehearsal is far more effective when it’s done in short sessions, (10 minutes) rather than longer ones. More frequent, shorter practices is a good rule of thumb.
9. FOCUS ON THE PROCESS IN YOUR IMAGERY SESSIONS, NOT JUST THE PERFORMANCE’S OUTCOME – The most effective mental practice involves “practicing” the proper technique and strategies. In your sessions, concentrate on repeating the right technique, feel, timing etc. rather than just the game’s outcome. It’s fine to imagine the outcome that you want but that should be a minor part of your mental rehearsal.