By Cheryl D. Hart, M.S.
When Flip Wilson said, “What you see is what you get,” he probably wasn’t thinking of visualization as a technique for attaining peak athletic performance. However, if you want to give yourself the best chance to realize full potential, it’s essential to incorporate mental skills practice into your training program.
The hot summer months when mileage is at a lull is the ideal time for runners to begin to learn and develop a strong mind-body connection. Injured runners can gain an advantage over their able-bodied competitors by using the time typically devoted to physical training to become mentally tough.
How you see yourself in your mind’s eye will positively or negatively influence present or future performances. If you see yourself running progressively slower with each mile, lacking energy and confidence, this mental image will most likely become your reality. On the other hand, if you see yourself maintaining a smooth efficient stride, powering effortlessly uphill, and surging to the finish, it is likely that you will perform like this in on race day.
Effective visualization engages as many senses as possible while creating or recreating performances in your mind. Paralympic sprint champion, Tony Volpentest described to me his secret visualization prior to winning multiple gold medals. As soon as he said or thought the word, “snow,” he felt an immediate calm. He also could feel the mountain’s coolness on his skin and smell pine in the air when visualizing his favoriteColoradopeak, which was helpful in dealing with the heat at the Athens Paralympics.
If the imagery is vivid and employs all the senses, it can actually affect physiological factors such as heart rate, temperature, nervous system as if the movement had physically occurred. Even though visualization is only completed in your mind, your body can experience it as though you actually raced. Research has indicated that since your mind can’t tell the difference between a visualized or actual competition, physical performance improves with this technique. The brain sends a message to the appropriate muscles and those muscles respond.
You create neural patterns every time you picture yourself racing exactly as you would ideally want to perform, which is like making a “mental blueprint” that is etched in your brain. This serves as a messenger to tell your muscles when and how to move when you compete.
Roger Banister, the first person to break the four-minute mile, used visualization techniques to prepare for the challenge that for thousands of years was believed to be humanly impossible. He knew precisely how the track would feel beneath his shoes as he toed off, the lean of his body from his ankles, the lift of his knees and the bend of his elbows as he powered his arms. He rehearsed the record-breaking performance successfully so many times that his body readily responded to his mind’s command.
This mental picture of excellence is just one example of how runners can maximize their potential by using a mind-body connection. Through visualization, athletes prepare the muscles and the mind for the task ahead, conditioning the body for peak performance. The more detail you include in your mental rehearsal, the more you can teach your brain and body.
If there are certain segments of a race course where you usually struggle, it is helpful to think of affirmations or key words that you can use during competition. Thinking of cues such as “smooth, relaxed, confident and fluid” are examples. The emotional component is also part of it as thoughts and images precede actions. See yourself performing exactly as you want to perform, mentally and physically working in sync to achieve your goal. A clear, specific goal will provide a solid foundation for an effective visualization session.
It is also important that visualization be done systematically and with careful consideration and control of the images. I want to caution that if visualization is done properly, it can be so powerful that it could pose risks of physical exhaustion if rehearsed on the day of a competition since the same muscles fired during a mental session are the ones used during the race. Therefore, athletes should design and practice these skills daily, with the help of a coach or sports psychologist, to achieve and maintain a more positive mind-set in the heat of competition.
The visualization or imagery process has been proven to be one of the most important mental training tools. The adage “the mind is a terrible thing to waste” is certainly highlighted here. The images that you create help to reinforce the belief that your goal is within reach and enhances self-confidence when facing a high-pressured competitive situation. This is what I call, “head over heels training” believing that successful performance comes from the inside out.
Image from: www.health.universityofcalifornia.edu.
Cheryl Hart, owner of 2nd Wind Motivation, helps individuals, teams and corporations establish and achieve goals. She is a motivational speaker, performance enhancement consultant and life coach. She is also a certified fitness specialist and has a master’s degree in sports psychology at the University of Tennessee. Cheryl has run in 40 marathons and is an All-American triathlete and duathlete, competing internationally on Team USA with podium finishes. She has received numerous awards, including National Inspirational Athlete, Kentucky’s NCAA Female Athlete of the Year, SCAC Runner of the Year and SCAC Coach of the Year. She conducts workshops and retreats designed to motivate and transform lives and businesses. To contact Cheryl call 693-7443, e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org or visit www.2ndWindMotivation.com.