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Using Visualization for Success in Athletics—and Life!

Visualization can be used not only to improve your athletic performance, but can also have dramatic effects on every other area of your life!

Visualization for Athletic Performance

Michael Phelps is the most decorated Olympian of all time with 28 medals under his belt (23 of them being gold). On a physical level, Phelps is a remarkable specimen, but it is his mental game that is often credited as the real source of his success. Specifically, it is Phelps’s ability to visualize that truly sets him apart from his competitors

What is Visualization and how do you do it?

The website dictionary.com offers a broad definition of visualization as “a technique that involves focusing on positive mental imagery in order to achieve a particular goal.” When it comes to athletics and exercise performance, such ‘positive imagery’ can include the specific bodily movements, emotions, and interactions of a certain exercise or athletic performance. For example, a hockey player might visualize the feeling of his skates as they glide across the ice of the rink, the stretch of his chest and bicep muscles as he winds up to shoot, and the sound of the puck slamming into the back of the net—and the buzzer—when he scores. Tiger Woods, Muhammad Ali, and world-champion golfer Jack Niklaus all credit visualization as an essential component to their success. It’s completely free, fun, and you can do it at any time, anywhere!

The More Detailed, the Better! 

Phelps has stated in various interviews that, leading up to a race, he visualizes not only his victory, but all of the different potential circumstances—including the other swimmers, the spectators, the water in the pool—leading into the competition, throughout the performance, and afterwards. Imagining in detail all of the possible circumstances, and his responses, helps him to regulate his emotional state and to program his body for optimal speed, force, and precision. Phelps has stated that he can spend upwards of two hours in a visualization session!

Visualizing for Training

Even if you’re not an athlete training for a specific event, many elite trainers and sports professionals use visualization every day in their workouts and training sessions. You might be visualizing and not even know it.

On a micro level, the ability to visualize the muscles and systems involved in an exercise can mean the crucial difference between a mediocre program and an exceptional one. I often use visualization cues with clients in order to improve their form and to encourage more effective engagement in their muscle fibers and joints.

For example, if a client is performing a bent-over row, I might encourage him to visualize the muscles of his lats stretching as he lowers the dumbbell to the bottom of the movement, and the muscles contracting as he rows the dumbbell back up. Doing this helps him to not only locate the muscles that he wants to target, but muscular engagement (and his form) will be improved, likely leading to greater fatigue—and greater gains!

This technique does require a rudimentary understanding of exercise anatomy—but you don’t have to be a kinesiologist or professional athlete to reap the benefits! A knowledgeable personal trainer or a course in exercise basics (conveniently offered through Infofit here) can help you to build a solid knowledge base.

Mental Imagery for Physical Results

Interestingly, just imagining lifting weights may actually help to build strength. One study asked thirty participants to imagine flexing just one bicep as hard as they could five times a week. In just a few weeks, the participants increased their bicep strength by an average of 13.5 percent—and they maintained that strength for three months after the training had ended!

There has not been much science performed on the limits of this kind of training, however—it is unlikely that you will become a world-class powerlifter or Olympic-level swimmer, for example, through sheer force of will and imagination, without actually going to the gym or stepping a toe into a pool. But, hey, the mind is a powerful machine and humans are pretty amazing, so, who knows?

Visualizing for a Better Life

I would be remiss if I didn’t mention that visualization can be used not only to improve your athletic performance, but it can also have dramatic positive effects on every other area of your life! Thought leaders and gurus such as Dr. Joe Dispenza, for example, have been gaining in popularity for their work on the power of the brain to effect real and radical change in the physical world. Dispenza, specifically, uses scientific inquiry to explore the potential of visualization. Whether it be your love life, your physical health, your career, or your creativity, he maintains that visualization may be the key to getting exactly what you want.

How to Get Started

If you want to try visualizing, there are some ways that you can get started. First, ask: what do you want to achieve? In the case of athletics, this might be a goal such as “Do ten pull-ups in a row” (my personal goal) or “Win my bowling league championship” or “Deadlift 300 pounds.” Some other examples might be “Get a promotion at work” or “Have an amazing date with this specific person” or “Become fluent in Finnish”—anything!

To start, bring up a mental picture of you reaching that desired end state. Engage all of your senses in your visualization. This is a fun exercise, so don’t be afraid to become immersed in it! Try not to let in any doubts or negative self-talk; you can use your imagination to literally push away your doubts or fears, or gently resolve them, or repeat an affirmation such as “I am powerful” or “I am the greatest” (Muhammad Ali’s personal favorite). Many experts recommend visualizing at the beginning or the end of the day, sitting up tall and closing your eyes. I personally find walking while visualizing most effective, but try out a couple of different techniques, postures, and times to find the best ones for you!

We hope you enjoyed this article! If you are interested in learning more, there are many resources online to help you get started with visualization—but it doesn’t need to be complicated. It can be as simple as thinking about what you want and knowing that you already have it!

Wishing you all the best on your journey to optimum health!

​​Written by Theresa Faulder, Master’s in English, Certified Personal Trainer and Infofit fitness blog writer

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