One night in the fall of 2009, I laid down in my bed for the night. Rather than falling asleep, I found myself thinking about my desire to run and race well. As I relaxed deeper into my bed in my darkened room, I began to daydream. I recalled all the factors that created a burning desire within to run. I imagined short and long-term goals that sent my heart soaring with joy and excitement.
And I imagined myself running. Not the way I was running at the time, or had in the past, but in a completely new way. I imagined vividly, feeling with every sense and deeply feeling myself actually running. I imagined flying effortlessly across the earth, my arms pumping fluidly at a rate that was shocking to me. I saw my heart open wide, like a lion's yawn, to encompass the universe around me in ecstatic joy.
I felt my body wanting to tense and slow down even in this imagined scenario, but chose to just go with it, imagining with all my heart and my senses the way i truly wished to run- flying effortlessly in ecstatic joy at speeds no human has any right to go.
And then I fell asleep, and six months passed.
That night receded into my memory, fondly remembered but dim. And then one day I realized I was running exactly as I had imagined six months before.
That is the power of visualization. Its one of the many powers of it. Now, by itself it won't make the impossible happen, as I discovered to my dismay. A whole wide array of psychological and physical skills relevant to the sport and the human psyche in general are required for that.
What is visualization, exactly? What are its benefits?
Charles A Garfield, in Peak Performance: Mental Training of the World's Greatest Athletes, provides a detailed description in Lesson 2 of that book.
It began, according to him, with the Soviets as a refinement of mental imagery techniques. Resarchers such as Alexander Romen found that visualization acts as precursors to the actual muscle movements. They prepare and program physical motions in advance of doing the actual task. To do so, athletes or anyone must visualize precisely in complete detail what it is they wish to do. These are holographic images that impact us at the subliminal level.
What became clear to the Soviets was this: we can add greatly to the speed and effectiveness of any physical training by including the mental training as well. The Soviets credit Pavlov's work with self-regulation as the precursor to their visualization work. Pavlov, of course, is most famous for his work in discovering how animals can have conditioned responses to a given stimuli. Georgi Lozanov demonstrated this was the case in humans as well.
Evelyn G Hall and Charles J Hardy reported to the Fifth World Sport Psychology Congress that "too much verbiage can cause frustration and anxiety. since abstract verbal phrases evoke no visual images, verbal instructions should be concise and relevant to the movement. A single correct image is worth more than tons of verbiage".
V.M. Melnikov did research showing the value of clear and accurate imagery of the desired actions. According to Garfield, one of his claims is that "the smaller the difference between the imagery and actual movement, the lower the probability of errors in performance and the greater the opportunity to influence the process of learning".
Lars-Eric Unestahl works with hypnotic goal-programming. The basic idea is to get into a deeply relaxed mental state and then create mental images of goals. In 1978, he studied Swedish downhill skiers and found that the best achievers clearly visualized. According to Garfield, he said the "best skiers seem to have better ability to experience the actual course visually."
While these studies are difficult to find online and mostly known for being discussed by Charles A Garfield, there are others more readily available for those interested in the science behind visualization.
For example, a 1995 study by Kathleen Farmer attests to power of visualization, emphasizing the need to incorporate all five senses in visualizations. Linda Warner and Evelyn McNeill provide a good review of the literature regarding visualization here and its demonstrable value for both sports and physical therapy:
You can also check out my article on mental preparation and my sample race visualization for more.
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