Imagine it to be true
Do you see something in your mind when you think about it? This mind-bending question is at the core of the technique, theory, and practice of visualization, mental imagery, mental rehearsal, or any of the other numerous ways to describe it. In sport psychology, the use of mental imagery is profound and prolific. So is the research. Study after study, with and without the many combinations of factors or variables, mental imagery emerges as one of our “go-to” techniques because of the reliability of results over time. How it works has been a cause for disagreement spanning the ages in psychology, philosophy, and neuroscience, with its origins as early as the Greek philosophers. Aristotle believed thought was impossible without an image and Socrates assumed our perception of the external world consisted of mental images (1). I will spare you the historical overview but just know it has not been an easy road for mental imagery.
“Imagination is what makes our sensory experience meaningful, enabling us to interpret and make sense of it, whether from a conventional perspective or from a fresh, original, individual one. It is what makes perception more than the mere physical stimulation of sense organs. It also produces mental imagery, visual and otherwise, which is what makes it possible for us to think outside the confines of our present perceptual reality, to consider memories of the past and possibilities for the future, and to weigh alternatives against one another. Thus, imagination makes possible all our thinking about what is, what has been, and, perhaps most important, what might be,” (2). To consider…possibilities for the future is the part of this quote I like the most. Whenever I teach an athlete to use mental imagery, the first question to ask is always, “Have you ever fantasized about winning?” Usually a curious pause is the answer as most of us are too embarrassed to admit this. With a little encouragement, a yes typically sneaks out followed by a laugh. Mental imagery is really a controlled fantasy. So there, now that you know you can do it, let me tell you how.
Mental imagery is also called mental rehearsal, indicating the practice of a physical task without the physical movement and only cognitive work, or thought, as the rehearsal vehicle. Unable to find the citation now, I remember reading in graduate school a study where they hooked up an EMG or Electromyography machine to a bicep muscle to measure electrical impulse. They had the subject lift an object to obtain a reading. Then, they had the subject visualize lifting an object. The surprise result, or maybe it wasn’t such a surprise, was that the bicep had actual electrical impulses from just the cognitive practice or visualization. Not as high as the actual task but high enough to create the case for the use of visualization. As a graduate student new to the world of research and results, this blew my mind. Now, a couple of decades later, each time I hear a competitor say they get physically nervous just thinking about their event, I am reminded of this study. Our thoughts don’t just stay in our brain or skull, they go out and about and into our body, and what happens next is more controllable than we think (did I just say think?).
When I learned mental imagery, it was 1987 and “sessions” were nearly an hour. I still have some of the old cassette tapes, even though I have to hunt for a tape player. A fifteen minute, full-body relaxation based on Jacobson’s progressive relaxation method was first (3). A breath-focused, tense and then relax script started at the toes and ended at the head. It was really relaxing, so relaxing I fell asleep each time. Heck, I was swimming competitively and training thirty hours a week so lay me down anywhere and I fell asleep. Then came the visualization. Going back and listening to these tapes, it was such a long and detailed process, I have trouble even now staying focused for that long. My sport psychologist left no stone unturned, no detailed ignored in my 23 second race. Tons of images and colors and smells and tastes and sounds. The key now as it was then, is to use as many senses as you can in your image. Sight is the one we think about first, it is called visualization after all, but it is when you engage hearing, taste, touch, smell, and mostly feel that imagery comes alive.
Knowing that athletes do NOT have an hour a day to train their mental rehearsal muscle, adaptation has been necessary. I used to call them “Polaroids” and now they have become Instagram’s, indicating them as a snap-shot of a moment in time. We all have a picture of what our success will or should look like. Regardless of accuracy or even possibility, using a snap-shot as a visualization tool is powerful. If you have practiced it and are connected to it, it can get you out of a negative thought rather quickly and efficiently. Then, there are the “movie trailers,” 10, 20, or even 30 second image reels of you performing your event or speech or presentation with excellence. I stay away from the word perfect because it is tough to really be perfect (but that is another article), but we can all strive for excellence in whatever kind of performance we engage in. The movie trailer is great. Piece together the best parts of your “event” and play them over and over in a loop. Remember, it is the BEST parts of your event or performance. This means you leave out the parts that aren’t so great or you worry about and focus your mental rehearsal on the greatness. Do NOT mentally rehearse mistakes or even fixing them. You do not want to create any more permanence around a mistake so don’t use it in your image. You should feel amazing when you do this exercise—and that is part of the point. Performance or competition creates enough stress that you need to have a part of it that feels good, really good if possible.
There are many reasons to use visualization or mental imagery as part of a mental toughness program. The main one, with many layers, is preparation. Prepare for the noise of the crowd. Prepare for the skeptics in the audience and how they will instantly make you doubt yourself even though you really don’t know what they are thinking even though their faces look awful! Prepare for how nervous you will get and see yourself kicking butt anyway. Prepare for how to recover your focus when you get distracted because you will. Prepare a way to connect to all of your physical preparation. Prepare a consistent way to return to feeling good, like you do during your visualizations, when you start to feel bad during an event. Prepare to win, which sadly, most people don’t.
If you get nervous just thinking about something you have to do or a competition you will have, mental imagery can really help take some of the power out of the fear. It requires practice though, lots of practice. If I had a dollar for every time an athlete called and said they can’t control their nerves even though they use visualization, I could retire. The best part is when I ask how they use mental imagery. “Well, the night before, I visualize my event perfectly.” When pressed a little more, they typically admit they can’t visualize an entire event really because they keep getting distracted and end up imagining a doom’s day event. My response is usually, “It might not be working so well for you because you are really ‘cramming’ for a test by only ‘studying’ the night before.”
There are many different data points on how long it takes to form a habit (more stuff I will spare you the details of) but really, three months is a pretty good bet. If you did the snap-shot a dozen times a day, each day for a month, you would notice yourself thinking it on your own without even trying. And if you freaked out at the word “dozen” then you need to consider how badly you want to get better. It only takes about 15 seconds to do a snap-shot mental rehearsal: stop when you are doing, stop moving your body, keep your spine straight, take three deep breaths, and then focus as hard as you can on all the senses you can connect to when you “look” at this picture of yourself performing with excellence. It can be first or third person, doesn’t matter, just make sure you see it clearly. Once you connect on all the senses and really feel it, you are done. Because of how brief this is, you can do it just about anywhere.
The next question is usually about how to create an image or what image to use. Use an image that is part of your fantasy or a photo someone else actually took of you when you were doing great. Don’t overthink this one, just get a picture of how it should look and feel. A great way to cement the image is to hand-write a description of it. Yes folks, paper and pen are the best way to connect to content. Write the “story” of the image or even the movie trailer and then go to work on practicing it. Practice it every day. When there is push back at this instruction, and there is always push back at this instruction, pointing out that we all waste at least fifteen minutes a day on social media tends to calm things down and create perspective. I am not trying to add more to your busy day, and you can certainly trim the fat from somewhere else, but even if I was trying to add to your day, isn’t excellence worth it?
Aristotle linked motivation to imagery, with the image serving as the source of motivation. Sort of if you could see it, you could do it. If you think about the things you like to think about, they all include images in some way. Most people I speak with can identify a visual image to accompany a thought, or intention, or especially a person. Think of your neighbor right now. Did a picture of how you saw them last pop into your mind? A betting person would say yes. It is hard to ask you to think of something without eliciting an image. Even music. During a freshman speech class, one of the speeches I will never forget was a guy with strawberry blond hair and a flannel shirt talking about how instead of photo albums, he used musical albums. His description of how each album brought a powerful memory to him of the person he had once enjoyed it with was captivating. And now, when I notice I have been brought to a visual memory from a song, I am also brought right back to his stringy hair and clever smile. We love to image, to imagine, to fantasize, to feel…perhaps this why this technique has created such a lasting impact on human behavior and performance. Now that you know it’s a good thing, I wish you much fantasy today and every day.