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What is Visualization? How Successful Athletes Practice This Proven Technique

Visualization has become a buzzword in sport psychology, and in other aspects of performance, and for good reason. More and more athletes in all sports are using and crediting visualization with better outcomes and improved success. Sports have never been more competitive than they are today, and winning margins are becoming ever finer as we reach the upper echelons of human speed, strength, and agility. Anything that can give you an edge has to be seized and made part of your training regime, and the importance of psychology cannot be overlooked.

What is visualization?

At its simplest, visualization is imagining an action or situation in the first person, and seeing it through to a successful outcome. The action could be a short one: for instance, a tennis shot, golf swing, baseball pitch or football pass. Or it could be far more complex: an entire race or ski run.

Despite its name, visualization is far more than a purely visual exercise. The closer you get to reality, the better. So an athlete is encouraged to engage all their senses when going through this exercise. What’s the weather like, where is the wind coming from, what can you smell, and what can you hear? What does your body experience, and how does it feel to win?

What an athlete should concentrate on is often guided by a sport psychologist or the sportsperson’s personal coach. They have in-depth knowledge of the technique plus knowledge of the individual to know which buttons should be pushed to give the biggest benefit. However, it’s also something you can start working on alone, too.

Which successful athletes are using visualization techniques?

The answer to that question is probably all of them! Certainly, most (if not all) elite athletes use visualization extensively and routinely as part of their preparation for competition.

Michael Phelps, the world’s most decorated Olympian, was an early and enthusiastic adopter of visualization techniques. It is on record that in the 2008 Olympics in Beijing, during his signature event, the 200m butterfly, his goggles began to leak. By the time he turned for the final 50m, he was effectively blind. He swam that last length of the pool entirely relying on stroke count and the fact that he had visualized the event so often it had become ingrained in his every fiber. When he touched the wall, not only had he won another gold medal but had shaved six one-hundredths of a second off his own world’s record.

Three-time Olympian, Emily Cook, excels at freestyle skiing and is convinced of the value of visualization and takes it to the highest level, though she quibbles with the name. She has said, “[the word] visualization, for me, doesn’t take in all the senses. You have to smell it. You have to hear it. You have to feel it, everything.” Because of this, the term imagery is growing in popularity as it encompasses the use of all five senses

The following gives an idea of the detail she brings into play: “I would say into a recorder: ‘I’m standing on the top of the hill. I can feel the wind on the back of my neck. I can hear the crowd,’ kind of going through all those different senses and then actually going through what I wanted to do for the perfect jump. I turn down the in-run. I stand up. I engage my core. I look at the top of the jump. I was going through every little step of how I wanted that jump to turn out.”

Another swimmer, Katie Ledecky, is a further example of an elite athlete who insists that visualization has helped her achieve five Olympic golds and 15 world championship gold medals. The most ever by a female swimmer. Ledecky stated: "I have my goals, and I visualize things to help me achieve those goals ... I know what my stroke should feel like at different parts of the race, and I can just kind of picture that in my mind."

How can I use visualization to become a better athlete?

Visualization can help all athletes, whatever their aspirations and level of performance.

Here are 5 proven methods to help you visualize like a pro: points to help you with your visualization pathway.

1. Get Clear On Your Goals

You must be clear about what you are trying to achieve. It may be that it is a certain technique you are trying to nail down or a particular event you want to get right. Visualization works best when you are specific and detailed. It needs to be as close to reality as possible.

2. Use More Than Just Images

You have to involve all your senses. Visualizing is more than just images. You need to see, feel, smell, hear, touch, and even taste what the experience will be like. Use physical movements if that helps – anything to make it like an actual experience.

3. Do It In Real-Time

Don’t try and speed through the process. If you are visualizing a 200m race, then the visualization should take over 20 seconds. Similarly, if you’re counting down for the game winning jump shot, then the visualization should reflect that duration. However long the actual race or event is going to take is how long the visualization should take. Don’t skimp.

4. Practice, Practice, Practice

Visualization is a skill that needs to be practiced to get right. Do it daily, make it part of your routine and go for near reality.

5. Make it a Habit

Visualization can significantly improve your performance. It can help you both with the physical skills you need, and the mental ones. So, make it a habit that you visualize your success whenever you have a few quiet minutes. If you have to take some time off to recover from an injury or simply need a physical break, use visualization to continue your practice. Psychologists have seen that serious mental practice is almost as effective as the real thing, so it’s one of the best tools for continuing to hone your skills.

Sport psychology can be open to interpretation, and arguments can be made regarding what is beneficial and what isn’t. Visualization is one area where all opinion is united in agreeing that it is a vital part of making a great athlete. It is used by world-class athletes, whether a swimmer, ballplayer, track athlete or race car driver. Whatever your sport and whatever your aspirations, visualization can provide that edge that will allow you to realize your potential. It may not be easy at first, but treat it like any other skill and you will be rewarded with improved performance levels.  

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