Imagery and visualization is a hot topic within mental performance. Many athletes have utilized this mental skill, such as Michael Phelps, Muhammad Ali, and Tiger Woods. Its success is that imagery and visualization create and reinforce neural pathways in the brain. It’s not uncommon now to hear success stories where injured individuals were told they would never walk again; they visualized themselves walking and then miraculously made that first step.
When you create vivid imagery, the brain cannot distinguish between what is real and what is not. You can practice the skills or behavior you want to achieve without physically doing it. There are several ways to utilize imagery, starting with visualizing your success.
Visualizing your success can benefit your performance in many ways. First, it may help you feel more confident, focused, and mentally tough. If you can visualize yourself overcoming a challenge, you may be more likely to accomplish that task and feel confident doing it. Second, imagery allows you to work through weak spots in your training. We frequently get questions about the land navigation portion at SFAS and Ranger School. It makes people nervous, and we understand that. Sure, the obvious answer is just to practice more. But there are deliberate ways to prepare for it mentally.
In this example, you can visualize how you want to get through the land navigation course successfully and even create backup plans for how you want to physically and mentally manage a setback situation. What’s a setback here? Well, consider how you’ll feel after searching for a point for 90 minutes and still being lost. What will you do?
We can go through this thought process and practice beforehand. This allows us to replicate our training in real-life situations, and they become effortless. We're more prepared for them when they inevitably happen.
Imagery is a great way to practice your training and to get in extra reps to maximize your physical training. Remember, mental skills can be practiced too.
If you have never utilized visualization before, or need tips to enhance your current imagery, here are some great ways to get started:
- Remember, the more vivid your imagery is, the better. Your brain cannot tell the difference between what is real and imaginary. Suppose someone were to ask you about your imagery. In that case, you should describe the environment and what is going on in great detail by using all six senses (vision, taste, hearing, smell, touch).
- You should always be in control. If you visualize yourself being successful, you are more likely to succeed. If you imagine yourself failing, you are more likely to fail. If you want to visualize managing setbacks, you should visualize perfectly overcoming them and being in control. It helps when you can anticipate specific setbacks, like in the previous example about being lost on your land navigation course.
- Create an audio recording. Just sitting there, visualizing, isn’t as easy as it may seem. Many beginning meditators share this difficulty and will listen to guided meditation scripts. You can create your audio recording by writing a script and then have you or someone else make the audio recording. Remember, all of this stuff is personal. Even if it sounds silly, it can help you. No one needs to know you’re trying this.
- Decide when you intentionally practice your imagery. Is it before bed? Before you train? What works for you?
- Tailor your imagery to how you learn. If you are a visual learner, you should spend more time perfecting what you see. If you are a kinesthetic learner, you should spend more time imagining how your body will feel or how you want it to feel doing certain activities. This does not mean you shouldn’t include the other senses because this takes away from vividness, but you should emphasize one over the others.
Commit to it.
This material is written by Dr. Neva Barno, the Blue / Green Mental Performance Coach and a subject matter expert in helping military athletes get more from themselves. Her perspective is that although our thoughts and processes are often ignored, they can play a significant role in producing desirable outcomes.