Now that the Olympics and the Paralympics are over, I wanted to write a short piece on how the mind can improve athletic performance. Setting aside mental strength, which was clearly demonstrated by Andy Murray when he won the US Open Tennis the other day (I’m writing these words the following morning after having stayed up to 2am to watch the game), visualization – or mental imagery as some call it – can have a huge impact on performance.
The technique is to imagine yourself running the perfect race, or hitting the ball perfectly, or jumping or throwing perfectly. And the key is to do it not just once, but over and over and over again. I’m forever telling people that thoughts are not impotent. I think we grow up believing that thoughts are just inert, floaty things that once we have them they just disappear into the ether. Not so! Every thought alters brain chemistry. The same kind of thought repeated often actually shapes brain structure and has a chemical impact around the body.
Studies into brain plasticity, for instance, show us that imagining something over and over again is just as good a actually doing it. Harvard researchers had volunteers play piano notes each day for 5 consecutive days. They were compared to volunteers who imagined playing the notes. After the five days, there were significant brain changes in the brains of both groups. The brain had grown millions of new connections in both those who had actually played the notes and those who just imagined it. If you mixed up the brain images, you wouldn’t be able to tell which was which. Indeed, in many ways, the brain doesn’t distinguish between real and imaginary.
And the effect extends throughout the body. Visualizing moving a muscle actually impacts that muscle as well as the brain region linked to it. One study saw volunteers gain 53% strength by moving their little finger for 15 minutes a day. Other volunteers imagined moving their fingers instead. They gained 35% strength. OK, it wasn’t 53% but, hey, they didn’t even lift a finger to gain their 35% strength. Who needs the gym?
The technique has now helped stroke patients, those with spinal cord injuries, and even people with Parkinson’s disease. Most top sports performers use visualization. After breaking the 100 metres world record with a time of 9.58 seconds, Usain Bolt was quoted as saying, “I just visualized and then executed my plan.”
My first attempt at visualization was in 1996, a few months before I joined Sale Harriers Athletics Club in Manchester as an amateur athlete. I spent a few months listening to a visualization tape 3 times a week. At the same time I’d started training down the track on my own. After impressing the head of the club, I was invited to join as a long-jumper. When I did my first competition for the club a few weeks later, I increased my PB (personal best) by over half a metre – at the time, increasing from 5.94 metres to 6.66 metres. I was hooked on visualization after that.
I turned team manager and coach a few seasons after that and helped many athletes to be the best they could be and win medals at National Junior League level.
A few years later, after I’d left athletics, I decided to alter my visualization strategy. I was using a hilly circuit of around 1k to train to keep fit and would run it 4 times with a 3 minute recovery in between each. I’d never tried visualization for training before and had an idea to visualise increasing my stride length.
My mental strategy was to imagine being inside my muscles and feeling them stretch massively and effortlessly, as if I was an Olympic gymnast. As I did that, I imagined a longer stride that was effortless. My average lap time in that session went from 4 min 30 to 4 min 10, and it felt much easier than my previous sessions. At the end, I felt I could have run another 2 or 3 laps. For me, flexibility was clearly a big thing.
Visualization can be used to increase strength, flexibility, mental strength, calmness, or technical ability. So how to do you actually visualize?
Here’s the steps:
1. Sit or lie down, close your eyes and focus on your breath. Do this for about 1 minute.
2. Imagine yourself doing your thing – running, jumping, hitting a ball, etc. Spend at least 5-10 minutes doing this. You can do it over and over again over the time period if you wish. See yourself doing it perfectly, gracefully. Some people find it easier to see themselves in the 3rd person (looking at themselves), others in the 1st person (seeing through their own eyes). Use whichever technique is easier for you. Some research suggests that 1st person visualization is slightly better, but the jury is out on that one. You could try both techniques and eventually work with the one that brings you best results.
3. After 5-10 minutes or more, bring your attention back to your breathing and then open your eyes.
It depends upon how serious you are about your event. I’d recommend you do it every day as the neuroscience research shows that repetition is the best formula. Your mind is a powerful tool. Don’t underestimate it!!
Copyright 2020 David R. Hamilton PhD.