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Visualization, the Structured and Intentional Dream

confidence visualization Feb 04, 2022

“Man can create nothing which he does not first conceive in thought”. 

 Napoleon Hill (Think and Grow Rich)

If you have ever watched the winter Olympics, you have likely seen skiers standing at the top of the slope prior to a run moving their body left, right, up, and down.  They are rehearsing, and VISUALIZING their run using one of the most powerful  tools available to Peak Performers.  Dr. Jim Afremow, in The Young Champions Mind explains, “Imagery works to enhance one’s performance by sharpening the mental blueprint and strengthening the muscle memory for the physical purpose at hand.  Therefore, imagery is used by virtually all Olympic athletes as a critical part of their training regimens.” (Afremow J. P., 2018)  

Olympic athletes are not the only ones who visualize as part of their mental training program.  Many professionals, including military operators, use this powerful tool to rehearse complex operations; doctors to prepare for medical procedures; and lawyers to practice courtroom presentations to name a few.  Other notable professionals include actor Jim Carey, body builder / actor / Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger, and media mogul Oprah Winfrey.  (Williams, 2015)  Visualization is a potent science-based technique that can help you prepare physically and mentally for success both in sport and life. 

What is Visualization?

How many times have you heard someone say, “if you can visualize it, you can achieve it”?  Most of us are familiar with an informal visualization technique when we daydream about achieving a long-term aspiration, but are unaware of how simple visualization tools can help us prepare for difficult tasks.

Visualization is the creation of a mental image or enactment that helps you “bridge the gap” between where you are along your path to achievement and where you aspire to be. (Wilding, 2018)  Consider visualization as a structured and intentional dream, a mental rehearsal used to prepare for an upcoming event or to help you achieve a goal. 

Let’s look at how visualization techniques can help you achieve your best in all aspects of life.

The Science

While visualization techniques don't guarantee success or replace the physical work associated with your goal, they can serve an important part in your preparation and supplement your training regimen, and here is how.  

First, all human movements and deliberate thoughts are the product of a series of electrical impulses and chemical reactions occurring along designated circuits at precisely the right time resulting in a muscle contraction or recalling an important concept.  Consider the body has over 600 different muscles and countless muscle fibers, most of which work simultaneously and in coordination with one another during complex movements involving both upper and lower body such as throwing or catching a ball, serving a tennis ball, or swinging a golf club, etc.  The more frequent these circuits are used, the stronger the neural connections develop, and the more proficient we become.  Some refer to this concept as muscle memory. 

Trevor Ragan from Trainugly.com describes these circuits as pathways.  He states that the more used a path becomes, the easier and faster it is to use the pathway.  (Ragan, “The Launch Pad for Learning: Neuroplasticity with Dr. Michael Merzenich.”, 2019) 

Second, Dr. Jim Afremow states that “the brain does not always differentiate between real and vividly imagined experiences because the same systems in the brain are deployed for both types of experience”.  (Afremow J. P., 2018)  So, when you visualize an event, you are exercising the same neurological pathways you do when you conduct the physical movement itself.  Combined, these two concepts explain how you can use visualization techniques to supplement your preparation.

“Visualization Techniques

Like meditation, you can use visualization to achieve different objectives.  Visualization tools can help you learn new skills or reinforce existing skills:  rehearse an upcoming event, or even help you create a vision to move toward as you pursue long-term goals or aspirations.

I’ve built the  Peak Performance visualization system around three techniques.  They are:

  • Technique training: used to improve technical and tactical skills associated with your craft.
  • Event rehearsal: used to rehearse a specific event, or a specific portion of an event. 
  • Mind Conditioning: used to condition and prepare your mind to help you achieve a long-term goal.

There are two important concepts relevant to all three techniques that can help maximize your visualization efforts.  First is  scene construction.  The concept is that as you create your visualization, make the scene as vivid as possible by including as many of your senses as possible.  As you create your vision, incorporate the sights, sounds, smells, tastes, and tactile sensations you can anticipate in your pursuit.  Each of your senses is controlled by a different part of your brain and the more neural connections involved, the more effective your visualization becomes.  (Sullivan & Parker, The Brain Always Wins. Improving your life through better brain management., 2016)

The second concept is mental contrasting.  It involves the inclusion of realistic friction you will encounter along your journey.  The friction may include failed attempts, poor performances, days where you just don’t feel like working hard, or other hardships.  The natural tendency is to only visualize the fun and success, and exclude the challenges you will encounter.  Incorporating mental contrasting into your visualizations creates realistic expectations, and ensures you have adequately planned and prepared to handle obstacles along the way.  This subtle difference is significant. (Oettingen, 2014)

How to Visualize / The Process

You will note similarities between my meditation and visualization processes.  Both include a warm-up, the session itself, and a cool down.  Additionally, you can incorporate your visualization exercises into a meditation session as well.

The Warm-up

The purpose of the warm-up is to get comfortable, create focus, slow down heart and breathing rate.  Prepare for your visualization session by finding a quiet location and a comfortable position.  Just like meditation, you can either lie on the floor or find a comfortable sitting position. 

Next ease into your session with 5-10 deep breaths followed by 5 repetitions of box breathing.  During the warm-up, focus on your breath.  If your mind wanders, recognize the distraction, and refocus on your breathing.  Once your warm-up is complete, you are ready to continue into the body of the session.  

The Session

Each session has its unique purpose.  Determine the objective and duration of your visualization session, and set your alarm.  Typical durations for each are:

  • Technique training: 10-15 minutes.
  • Event rehearsal: usually 10-20 minutes, but maybe longer depending on what you intend to rehearse and the level of detail.
  • Mind Conditioning: 10-20 minutes.

Technique Training

The goal of technique training is to improve or reinforce proper technique, decision making skills, and your pre-performance rituals associated with your activity.  This approach is ideal for skills that have specific techniques or sequential steps associated with them.  It may also include a series of actions involving yourself or others. 

You may be:

  • A doctor, nurse, dentist, or other medical assistant in-training learning how to conduct a medical procedure.
  • A new police officer, firemen, or first responder refining a newly learned technique.
  • A craftsman learning a new skill.
  • A golfer working a drive, putt, chip shot, or specific iron.

Start by identifying the specific aspect of your craft needing the additional training.  If you need help verifying proper technique, ask your teacher, mentor, or coach to assist.  You don’t want to visualize and reinforce poor or sloppy technique. 

Next, create a mental image of yourself using perfect technique executing the task.  Start with the set-up or any preparatory actions, followed by a step-by-step walk through from start to finish of the task, and ending with the follow through or completion steps.

Ensure you are precise throughout the entire movement or series of actions.  Make the visualization as realistic as possible incorporating both mental contrasting and scene construction.  

Several years ago, LeBron James was unhappy with his three-point shooting.  He decided to work with Bob Rotella, a renowned sport psychologist to improve his shot.  After meeting and discussing the challenge, they developed a plan to improve the shortcoming.  Bob Rotella prescribed a combination of visualization techniques and actual shooting practice. 

The visualization drill included creating a short video clip of LeBron making three-point shots against actual opponents.  The video would include music, helping to add realism and create the feel-good sensation of making the shot (scene construction).  LeBron would watch the video each night before going to bed.  The idea was that the video would help “feed the right sorts of images to his subconscious, helping him become a more trusting, confident shooter”.    

The other part of the prescription was MAKING, not taking, but MAKING 400 three-point shots each day.  During the shooting sessions he would visualize being guarded by the best defender in the league (mental contrasting).  I’m unsure how many shots it took to make 400, but based on a league average of ~35%,  I’m confident it was more than 1100 shots.  (Rotella, 2015)

LeBron’s approach worked.  His three-point shooting average increased.  

Event Rehearsal

This technique works well for events such as briefings, presentations, client visits, demonstrations, sales calls, important exams, job interviews, or any other significant event.  This technique involves a mental rehearsal of the entire event, a specific portion of the competition, or even different contingency plans or scenarios that may occur, and you need to be prepared for. 

Before you begin to incorporate these into your mental rehearsals, ensure you physically prepare for these scenarios.  Finally, ensure you include a detailed image of your finish.  Envision setting a personal best, or a performance you are extremely happy with.

I’ve used this technique hundreds of times both personally and professionally.  Below is an example of an Ironman triathlon I completed in 2016 where I used the event rehearsal technique to supplement my preparation.

Ironman 140.6 Example

An Ironman is 140.6-mile triathlon consisting of a 2.4-mile swim, followed by a 112-mile bike ride, followed by a full marathon (26.2 miles).  I trained for over 14 months and accumulated over 4,600 miles of combined training.  Comfortable with my training and preparation, I still felt unsettled.  I studied, watched videos, rehearsed my events and transitions, but still needed to create more confidence.  I created a script in support of my training and used it regularly during my morning meditation sessions.

Approximately 45 days prior to the race, I incorporated a daily visualization drill into my morning meditation sessions.  This visualization drill took approximately 20-25 minutes from start to finish.  I began by defining my objective for the session, followed by 5-10 deep breaths, followed by a few repetitions of box breathing.  I then began to visualize the entire race day, from waking up at 3 AM to crossing the finish line an estimated 21 hours later, and everything in between to include:

  • What I would eat for breakfast.
  • My hydration plan from the time I woke up until I entered the water during the swim.
  • Moving through and completing the equipment drop off and body marking process.
  • Moving to the swim start point and getting into my wet suit.
  • Jumping off the dock and experiencing the shock of the cold water taking my breath for the first 5-10 swim strokes, the nasty taste of the Ohio River, and the constant contact and beating from my fellow competitors’ strokes as we moved through the water.

I went through the same painstaking detail for all the transitions, refueling points, and the entire bike/run.  I also included a few mishaps into my drill including swallowing an unexpected mouth full of water (clearing the water, regaining composure, and continuing the swim), a flat tire, and a cramp while running.  I concluded the visualization drill with a vivid image of the emotional finish line. I went through this drill every day during the last month and a half prior to the race. The process worked.  I completed the Ironman, safely and uninjured, and finished approximately 90 minutes earlier than anticipated.

Mind Conditioning

Visualization tools can also help you achieve long-term goals or aspirations.  I refer to this type of visualization as mind conditioning and it integrates well with the Peak Performance Goal Setting System.  This technique helps you manage your expectations and keeps you focused on your long-term goals or vision, but grounds you in the reality of your supporting habits and necessary waypoints you must negotiate to get to your destination. 

View this process as an elongated, or long-term rehearsal.  visualize yourself implementing your daily  “supporting habits” moving along the route defined by your designated “waypoints” toward your destination, or “vision”.

As part of the warm-up, review your goal setting system refreshing your memory of where you are along your journey.  Once your warm-up is complete, visualize yourself at your most current waypoint.  Then, envision yourself utilizing your daily and supporting habits moving toward the next waypoint.  Once you arrive at your scheduled waypoint, visualize a short celebration commemorating your milestone.  Then repeat the process, waypoint by waypoint, until you accomplish your goal arriving at your destination.  Complete this portion of the visualization with a major celebration noting how you will feel, who will be present for the celebration, and any other special moments you have planned. 

Below is an example of a professional certification I completed where I used the mind conditioning visualization technique. 

Professional Certification Example

As previously mentioned, mental preparation is necessary for other challenging undertakings, not just sport events.  This example demonstrates how I used this technique to prepare for a difficult certification requirement.

Background:  I decided that I needed and wanted to become a Certified Strength and Conditioning Specialist (CSCS).  The CSCS is an important and difficult credential for those interested in working with sport teams to improve their ability to perform.  The certification is extremely challenging and has a 50% pass rate for first time participants. 

I knew I possessed the interest and passion, but lacked the technical Exercise Science background necessary to complete the certification.  I acquired the necessary books and DVDs, and began to study.  The first section of the textbook included a detailed review of muscular, neuromuscular, cardiovascular, respiratory systems, bioenergetics, and biomechanics.

Immediately I felt intimidated, overwhelmed, and began to doubt my ability to complete the program.  I stopped, moved onto, and completed a shorter less involved sport nutrition certification program.  I knew I still needed, and wanted to complete the CSCS certification, but for several reasons, delayed (more appropriately- procrastinated) for over a year.  I felt I had a dark cloud looming overhead that would not go away.  I eventually became frustrated and disappointed, and for the second time, started the course.

The second attempt was no better than the first.  I struggled studying the material for over two weeks, and I finally became angry, and decided to apply my Ironman mental toughness techniques to this endeavor.  Suddenly “the light went on”. 

Like most, I always associated mental toughness with a physically oriented challenge. I had never seriously considered how I could adapt the same process to a completely different, but equally challenging event.  I quickly created a script, and found myself needing and using this script more frequently than I did during my Ironman effort. 

The textbook chapters and associated quizzes became my waypoints.  I slogged through the exercise science portion of the course, and finally reached more familiar material. 

After three full months of studying approximately 2-5 hours a day, my team’s wrestling season was fast approaching.  I knew I had to complete the certification before the season started, or risk delaying the completion for another six months.  I buckled down and increased my effort.  I registered for, and scheduled the exam approximately two months in advance.  I continued my mind conditioning visualizations and eventually transitioned to the event rehearsal technique as I approached exam day. 

Like my Ironman experience, I integrated this visualization drill into my morning meditation sessions.  Once again, my preparation worked.  I convincingly passed the exam.  This experience continued to fuel my interest in mental preparation and reaffirmed the applicability of these techniques to all types of challenges, not just physically oriented sport events.

Cool-down

Just like your meditation sessions, complete your visualization session with 5-10 deep breathing repetitions.  Also, take time to make notes or to capture any thoughts that surfaced during the session.  As you progress, you may identify the need to refine your visualization.  Use your cool-down as an opportunity to identify necessary changes or adjustments.


Initially you may feel uncomfortable when learning to visualize, but be patient and persistent because the techniques work.  Remember, each visualization session is like a hike along a newly established trail.  The more frequent the trips, the more worn the trail becomes, and the easier it is to navigate your way.  Visualization techniques are a great way to learn new skills, to reinforce existing skills, or to "get in some reps" and help improve confidence.  It is critical to involve as many of your senses as you can.  Your sense of sight, smell, touch, taste, and hearing are all controlled by different parts of the brain and the more senses you include, the more pathways you create in association with your visualization.  Lastly, visualization tools are not designed to replace physical preparation, they are designed to supplement training.  Without the physical work, visualization is little more than a dream.

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