We all heard it, ” If you can see it, you can be.”Although the taboo saying can bring your teeth to the edge, the practice behind the stereotype is an instrumental technique that top athletes use to strengthen their mental health and go after big dreams. Visualization, the practice of projecting into the movements of an activity, has been shown to have a great positive impact on performance. The best part? It is available for everyone and any destination.
“Visualization is one of the most powerful techniques to achieve optimal performance because it has a direct impact on our neurology, which is essential for the rapid and smooth execution of motor skills, emotion management and stress treatment,” says Eric Bean, PhD, CMPC and board member of the Association for Applied Sports Psychology.
Anyway, if you’re reviving your exercise routine or aiming for something bigger, the visualization—if implemented correctly—can boost confidence, reduce anxiety, and help you feel ready to navigate stressful scenarios, says Dr Bean. To learn more about it, we talked to badass experts and athletes who regularly use the tool. Here’s what you need to know.
What exactly is visualization?
“Visualization is a process in which we use all our senses to create a mental image to create or recreate an experience. In fact, they integrate all their senses to create or mentally recreate an experience that triggers physiological reactions similar to the real experience of the event,” explains Dr. Bean.
Built on three essential pillars: the perspective, the vividness and controllability for visualization and his big brother, mindfulness, was used to visualise phenomena such as Katie Ledecky, Venus Williams and Simone Biles. The NBA, USA Swimming and USA Gymnastics offer mindfulness programs to their athletes and employees.
Why is visualization so popular among the best athletes in the world? During visualization, your brain uses the same neural pathways that are activated during a movement and during competition. “If you imagine an experiment, a person stimulates the same neural patterns of real experience,” explains Dr. Bean. Let’s say you visualize yourself doing squats, he says, as you go through the movement in your head, the same areas of your brain that are responsible for executing the movement pattern of a squat.
“Essentially, we get a mental representative without further straining the muscles,” continues Dr. Bean. More exercise without body exertion? That’s a big win.
When you practice visualization, the brain goes into overdrive, especially when you fold as much detail—and meaning—about the event as possible. “The fascinating part is that when we bring visualization to life, we can actually illuminate more areas of the brain during visualization,” says Dylan Firsick, PhD, clinical assistant professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences at the University of Southern California, who helped lead the mindfulness program Student-athlete 2017 NCAA Innovations and Practice
The more meaning they have, the better, he says. That means imagining what you might feel during the event, how the equipment might feel in your hand or on your feet, and what sounds you might hear. It can also be helpful to check the installations, the race map, or any other details you can collect to include in the visualization.
For fitness goals, Dr Bean recommends using a so-called external perspective. “The external perspective can be from the third-person perspective, where an individual imagines himself playing another person; or it can be from the second-person perspective, where a person imagines himself looking at his own performance as if looking at a video of the performance. Visualization from the outside is particularly beneficial for performance where fitness and alignment are critical—such as diving, gymnastics, skating, and dancing,” explains Dr. Bean.
Both Dr. Firsick and Dr. Bean emphasize that it is important to focus on positive results when viewing. This is where the Third Pillar-controllability-comes into play. “If a person has difficulty imagining performing a task, then it’s probably difficult to perform it,” says Dr. Bean. Controllability includes not only how you bodily perform the skill, but how you feel about doing it. Therefore, mindfulness-the awareness of your thoughts – is the key to a productive use of visualization.
Who is the visualization aimed at?
Visualization can improve the performance of anyone. But you might find the visualization especially useful if you suffer from nervousness on race day or if you are bullied before hard workouts.
It can also help calm anxious thoughts or get-down. In a 2014 survey conducted among USC student-athletes, 56 percent shared that they experienced deep anxiety, nearly 33 percent of respondents struggled with get-down, and more than six percent had seriously considered self-destruction. According to the 2017 Student-Athlete Mindfulness Program, participants reported a “significant decrease in anxiety, an increase in overall well-being, and an improvement in mindfulness in the fifth session [mindfulness],”according to the same survey results. After the end of the program, 89% of participants implemented mindfulness in their respective sports.
“Visualizing yourself by responding constructively to stressful situations can help athletes regulate the anxiety they feel during the Games,” says Dr. Bean. When you visualize, you not only action the fear of failure, but also develop self-confidence, explains Dr. Firsick. That is, visualization should not take the place of other forms of assistance, such as talking with a certified therapist.
How to start a visualization practice
1. Easy start
For Jo Anna Mixpe Ley, English teacher, community organizer, artist and co-founder of the group of running Running Mommies, based in Los Angeles, the visualization was learned from his ancestors and was used in various facets of his life. “Visualization for me starts with an intention. It is a gift of ancient knowledge through the practice I learned from my native people, ” she says. “At first it was more of a practice in my daily life when organizing with the community or for ceremonies.”
In fact, this is not a bad way to start, says Dr. Bean. “The first step to integrating visualization is to start with something simple and familiar,” he says. But before you start visualizing, you may want to take a step back and develop a mindfulness practice first.
2. Build a mindfulness sessions or Foundation Breathing work on
“Before visualization, start with mindfulness or just breathing,” says Dr. Firsick. “Give yourself time, there is no need for much time, it can be three or five minutes a day, but give yourself time to learn to breathe, relax and practice mindfulness.”Mindfulness allows you to hold your breath and focus on the task at hand, which can take a long time-or just be visualized.
When you start a mindfulness or visualization practice for the first time, Dr. Firsick emphasizes that consistency is key. Instead of trying to” crush ” a single visualization or mindfulness session, bite for a short time throughout the day to build skills, he recommends.
Mireille Siné, MPH, a USATF Level 1 running coach who has run her share of Marathons and Ultra-Marathons, came to see me through her mediation practice. “When I started meditating, I had recently run my first Marathon and started training for my second. I wanted to take what I learned from my first Marathon and see how I could improve. I used visualization to imagine how I would feel during certain parts of the race, it was pretty much a part of my training strategy, ” she says. By folding mindfulness and visualization into a workout routine, the practice becomes more and more enriched and accessible-like any part of a fitness program.
To use Visualization to achieve Your Goal
Do you have a goal? Familiar with mindfulness? Great, you can start visualizing. In the end, it’s up to you to find the right method, the right perspective and the right Timing. Try these steps first to bend the technique so that you can achieve everything you see.
1. Make yourself comfortable practicing mindfulness
Going back to what Dr. Farsick said, it is essential to lay the foundation for consistent mindfulness practice in order to develop visualization abilities. “A fundamental foundation of mindfulness is learning to breathe so that the brain and body receive oxygen, and then learning to use breathing to relax the body, mind and muscles while staying present,” he says.
To do this, he suggests practicing mindfulness or breathing work three times a week for only three minutes per session, until you can hold these sessions with minimal distraction. Once you feel comfortable with these skills, you can focus on visualization. “For performance, it all depends on the breath. Slow down your mind, relax your muscles and get comfortable with [visualization], ” he continues. “Before training, give yourself time to start visualizing.”
2. Drill holes in the details
When you start visualizing, make sure you are as detailed as possible in the images for best results. “Typically, the more experienced the senses are, the greater the liveliness and realism,” says Dr. Bean. “Optimal visualization includes visual and tactile experiences, sounds, smells and emotions. Imagine vivacity as a high-resolution 3D TV that immerses you in the experience, as opposed to an old black-and-white TV with blurry images.”
3. Talk to yourself
Ryan Flaherty, senior Director of Performance at Nike, who has worked with big names like Serena Williams and others, developed “the Athlet Mindset” after studying what sets top pros apart from others. The first Part? The personal conversation of an athlete. “The brain is interesting and has developed for many years,” he says. “The brain is trying to look for problems around us. Champion athletes talk to themselves, they do not listen to each other.”
In addition to preparation, Siné uses positive affirmations during particularly difficult periods of a race or course. “I can prepare my visualization of how I will overcome this difficult stage and continue the race,” she says. “Maybe I think of statements that go hand in hand with practice, like’ you got this ‘ or ‘one step at a time’, when I see just putting one foot in front of the other.”
4. Practice Patience
Like anything else, it can take a little time to create vivid and successful visualizations. This is correct—and more, quite normal. “[Visualization] is a Muscle like other things,” says Dr. Firsick. “The first day in a gym, you wouldn’t try to gather people who do Max-Out or super-heavy workouts. Don’t jump to long visualizations.”
“As with all skills, visualization requires practice,” says Dr. Bean. “If you have difficulties, go back to something simple and familiar and slowly add more difficult or complex elements.”