Thousands of years ago, armies put down their weapons, battles and wars were put on hold, so everyone could attend the Olympics in Greece. It was a celebration of athletic excellence and greatness that we still honour today. Athletes have always been searching for an edge that will help them be triumphant. In Greece, one such athlete lost his garment in a race and won. All the athletes thought he had an advantage over the rest of them, so they took off their clothes and competed naked. From that point on all athletes competed naked at the games. I can’t imagine competing in the nude and the thought of being in the audience – well, not something I can imagine either.
Today’s athletes use all the tools from science, diet, how they train, and their equipment to maximize their performance in their sport. “Own the Podium,” a program the Canadian Olympic team implemented for this Olympics has been a huge success and included the use of sports psychology for all the athletes.
You may have noticed skiers performing their visualization of the course and their run just before their actual run.
The Americans first started using this in the 80s. NASA had been using a technique for years called Visual Motor Rehearsal. The U.S. Olympic team hired Dr. Denis Waitley to teach athletes the power of Visual Motor Rehearsal. Here are the observations from Dr. Waitley. “Using this program, Olympic athletes ran their event –but only in their mind. They visualized how they looked and felt when they were actually participating in their event.
The athletes were then hooked up to a sophisticated biofeedback machine, and its results told the real story about the value of visualization. The neural transmitters that fired were the same that actually fired the muscles in the same sequence as when they were actually running on the track!
This proved that the mind can’t tell the difference between whether you’re really doing something or whether it’s just a visual practice. Dr. Waitley says, “If you’ve been there in the mind you’ll go there in the body.'
Visualization is a powerful tool that most people accept as part of an ongoing athletic conditioning program. Most professional athletes use it on a daily basis. Most sports psychologists teach their clients the value of creative visualization. Most Olympians, golfers, football players, soccer players, even hockey players us it before major contests. Why? Because it works – proven over and over to have significant impact on an athlete’s performance.
I ask you then, if it is such a powerful tool for athletes, why don’t we use it and benefit from it in conditioning our minds for success.
Here is what science has shown us. Visualization, or imagery or feelization strengthens the neural pathways (ie psycho-neuromuscular explanation). When you imagine performing a particular sport, your muscles fire in the same sequence as if you were actually performing the skill. Second, imagery may function as a coding system in the brain to help form a plan or mental blueprint; imagery strengthens the mental blueprint, enabling the actions/ movements to become more familiar or even automatic.
Recent research (Taylor 1995) has focused on the effectiveness of imagery as an important self-regulating skill – ie the ability to set goals, plan and solve problems, regulate arousal and anxiety, manage emotions effectively.) The key is to program your mind and emotions for success, and to make your imagery as vivid, realistic and detailed as possible. When you vividly imagine yourself accomplishing a plan your central nervous system becomes programmed for success. It’s as if the activity you have visualized has already happened.
Imagery can also be used for relaxation or to improve interpersonal communication skills – visualize yourself asking someone a difficult question, asserting needs to a boss, or when recovering from an injury – direct healing thoughts to an injured part of the body – and there is enough anecdotal evidence to show that actual healing results. Chronic patients use it for pain management.
What we have discovered is that the imagery must get as close to real as possible in terms of thoughts, emotions, the feelings, senses and actions. You must feel yourself moving, hear the sounds, smell the smells and create the feeling in your visualizations. It may seem foreign at first, because this part of our brain has atrophied. But with practice your visualizations will become more powerful.
You can use visualization for just about any change you want to make in your life. It is more than just positive thinking or using positive affirmations. It is one of the tools you posses to create the world you want to live in.
So the next time you want an edge, think of using visualization.
Until next time, enjoy the celebration of the moment, enjoy this short video on visualization and have a great day.