Using Positive Imagery
(Excerpt from the book, Your Performing Edge)
Close your eyes, open your mind, & imagine!
One powerful resource for channeling your performance energies more efficiently is through the use of visualization or mental imagery. In the recent Olympics in Sydney we heard from a wide range of elite athletes who successfully used visualization in their training to improve performance. Regardless of your ability level, practicing mental imagery can make all the difference in how you experience your workouts and races.
Images are the mental representations of our experience. While verbal language is our most common means for communicating with the external world, images are a powerful means for internal communication. Using imagery or visualization you can create, in vivid detail, a replay of one of your best performances in the past, or you can mentally rehearse an upcoming event, and you can learn to see yourself doing it right. Imagery guides much of an athlete’s experience because it is a more efficient, complete language than self-talk. Try to describe to someone how to execute the perfect running style, in detail, using words; you could write a book. Now show the same running form through a video replay of a top Kenyan doing hill training. You convey the exact message you want in a few seconds.
Incorporate Imagery Into Your Training
Most of us daydream and re-experience situations in our minds in a haphazard way. The fact that we can remember previous experiences in detailed fashion is why visualization works so well for athletes. Most good athletes have discovered this technique on their own and may use it occasionally to improve learning and performance. For maximum results, you need to control your imagery, and practice it on a regular basis rather than just letting thoughts pass in and out. Through your imagery you can re-create the past in great detail, and transform it to fit any situation you may encounter.
Imagery is not wishful thinking, or daydreaming about the great athlete you would like to be. It is a learned skill that requires effort, concentration, discipline, and regular practice to gain the maximum benefits. Here are the key principles for doing effective mental imagery:
Do’s and Don’ts for Effective Imagery
1) Do use imagery most any time, at home, or before, during, or after training and racing. In the learning phases imagery is easier to do in a quiet, non-distracting environment. Imagery is most effective when the mind is calm and the body is relaxed.
2) Don’t begin your session without a few minutes of deep abdominal breathing. Put one hand on your stomach about two inches below the belly button, and feel your hand rise and fall with each breath. Imagine that with each inhale you are filling up a balloon inside the stomach; as you exhale, the balloon collapses back down.
3) Create an image in your mind as vividly as possible of what you want to achieve in your sport. Just let distracting thoughts and feelings float away as you refocus on your image.
4) Bring in all five of your senses so you can see, hear, and feel what it’s like to have a great training run or race. Sight, hearing, and touch are the most powerful senses for incorporating day-today imagery into your training. Bring the scene into the present tense so you are totally focused on the task at hand.
5) Don’t replay the mistakes. You want to remove the memory of errors. If you see yourself doing something incorrectly, edit the film in your mind and replay it exactly as you wish it to happen. Imagine that you’re performance is equal to or better than your previous best.
6) Mentally rehearse your training at the same rhythm and pace that you want in actual execution to establish the appropriate neurological pattern within the brain.
7) Use visual models. Before going to sleep at night try watching a video of a superior performance (e.g. get out your recordings from the last Olympics). Then visualize yourself moving just as fluidly and powerfully as perhaps Haile Gabrelsalasse or Tecla Laroupe.
Now we’ll use these principles in an imagery session designed to help you be more adaptable and resilient as an athlete.
Visualization for Receptivity: Reflection on the Lake
Find a quiet place, close your eyes and begin to breathe deeply. Picture in your mind a calm mountain lake, a serene body of water held in a receptive basin by the earth itself. The lake you see may be deep or shallow, small or large. Note in your mind’s eye that the lake seeks its own level; it asks to be enclosed and held. Sunlight sparkles in the lake’s ripples and dances on the waves.
Notice that when the lake is calm it reflects clouds, trees, and rocks; it mirrors everything in itself temporarily. As the wind stirs up waves on the lake, the reflections disappear. When the sun sets, the moon appears to dance on the lake along with the outline of trees and mountain shadows.
Now, let yourself become part of this quiet mountain lake. Allow your energies to be held by your awareness, in the same way as the lake waters are held by the accepting hands of the earth. As a tiny wave rolls up on the shore, take a deep breath in. As the wave moves back out, exhale fully. Allow the pattern of the waves to match the rhythm of your heart.
Allow your mind, body, and spirit to be open and receptive to whatever comes near. Feel the absolute stillness when both the reflection and the water are clear. Notice the difference when the surface is disturbed and choppy. Reflections can drift away for minutes or even hours.
As you continue to breathe deeply and meditate, enjoy the play of different energies of your mind and body. Experience the momentary thoughts, images, and feelings, which come and go just like the ripples and waves of the lake. Notice what effect or value they might have on your state of mind.
Examine the range of energies moving on the lake—the reflections of shadows and light, the wind and waves, the colors of the sun and moon. Do your feelings and thoughts disturb the surface of your mind? How do they affect you? How does disappointment or losing an event cause a rippling of your spirit? Can you see a choppy, uneven surface as a crucial, fundamental part of being a lake?
Let your awareness now take you beneath the lake’s surface. You can become the stillness below the surface as well. Notice that now you feel only a gentle rocking, even when the top of the lake encounters a powerful storm. Likewise, can you appreciate not only the substance of your thoughts and ideas, but also the enormous pool of awareness below the surface of the mind?
Now as you look in the mirror of the lake, view your own reflection. Make it your intention to acknowledge all of the qualities of the body, mind, and spirit, accepting both the wins and the losses of life, just as the lake is supported and contained by the earth, reflecting the sun, moon, stars, birds, and trees. The lake is content to accept the passing of the seasons, which bring out its vitality. Nature continually offers repair and preservation. You can become one with the lake, being reflective, maintaining total awareness and attention, and having the courage to be with what is.
JoAnn Dahlkoetter, Ph.D., author of YOUR PERFORMING EDGE, is an internationally recognized sports psychologist, past winner of the San Francisco Marathon and 2nd in Hawaii Ironman Triathlon.
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Dr. Dahlkoetter also provides coaching by phone for optimal mind-body performance for information, email firstname.lastname@example.org, or call 650-654-5500.