When physically practising a sequence or learning a new skill, we have known for many decades that no one learns perfectly the first time.
Completing a skill-set or sequence exactly the same way each and every time, and even escaping physical, emotional and psychological fatigue when working through countless repetitions is beyond human control.
So the reality of learning a ‘perfect’ skill or sequence is unlikely, yet there is a recurring question directed towards athletes every day to be just that – PERFECT – or to continually replicate something they have previously done or achieved or should achieve.
Is it any wonder the burnout rate is escalating in young athletes?
So how do we overcome these high expectations when in reality we know it is physically a mammoth task they are expecting?
For years, athletes and coaches have recognised the huge benefits of visualisation training to hone a specific sequence or skill. You can watch the effects of this technique played out each weekend on pitches, in gyms and poolsides, as athletes are seen with their eyes closed mimicking their skills before they perform them.
As a Mind Coach, on the surface this is an encouraging sight to see, athletes taking mental preparation seriously. I have to wonder, however, have they missed the point, are they really making the most of visualisation’s full potential without consideration of the cognitive training?
From the number of clients contacting our office looking for help, I am inclined to think, perhaps they have [missed the point].
When I first ask a client, be that an athlete, coach or coaching body to show me what specific visualisation training they have been doing – typically they will close their eyes and loosely go through the motions with arms waving and bodies twitching as they vaguely picture themselves doing whatever it is they are trying to perfect. This form of visualisation is basic ‘point to point’ visualisation – and unfortunately normally done exceptionally badly.
To visualise winning a race or completing a skill, or remembering a sequence is one thing, but if it is done one-dimensionally, from an observational distance (disassociated) and with little attention to detail – we know irrespective if it is a perfect technique or a sloppy technique – it will be imbedded into our neurology with the same intensity and same neural paths. So best to make it a good one!
Visualisation is a much broader, deeper and far more effective tool than just waving your arms and body around with your eyes closed and hoping you are neurally flagging a blueprint for success.
- It has applications that can hone the exact technique of a specific skill or a complete routine
- It can correct and free areas of past emotionally damaged – those which have heavy emotional attachment such as those associated to injury or disappointment
- You can learn high risk physical skills without ever putting yourself at physical risk of injury or even death
- It can help you control your heart rate, your oxygen intake and distribution
- It can lower anxiety, raise adrenaline levels, cement strategy, set neural patterns of rhythm and many, many more practical applications
… if applied correctly.
It can be as complex or as simple as you like and the only boundaries to its effectiveness is your own imagination, dedication and knowledge.
Visualisation, I believe, is one of the most misunderstood and under utilised skill-sets available in sport today. Many athletes have dabbled in it at one time or another as a tool. However, people are typically unaware of it’s hidden potential or how to really maximise on it’s effectiveness, so is left out of the mainstream coaching / training structure.
It really is the ‘cousin nobody talks about’.
So how do we realise the full potential of this skill we call visualisation?
The first thing to recognise is we have been visualising since childhood. As highly visually stimulated young children we play-out scenarios in our mind to work out the most effective option available to us, which has less risk and which one will please others.
If we are born so highly visual, it makes sense that we use mental pictures more than any other sense to give us a realistic perspective of our situation and then problem solve.
So when decision making, our subconscious will play a multitude of visual options to us, being as specific as possible, including benefits and drawbacks, past experiences and externally observed scenarios – then when the decision has been made, our brains will again replay the winning option for confirmation and loading it up as a viable option in our subconscious.
This is constantly building new neural pathways in our neurology, ones that we will then store and utilise in the future – If faced with that or similar situation again.
Our brains constantly search for a viable, already established option before looking to actively problem solve and build a new path – its incredibly efficient that way. So the skill of visualisation is nothing new to any of us, is highly effective and time efficient. However, creating the conscious mechanics of visualisation is new!
We tend to go wrong with this form of cognitive training if we allow our unchecked and highly creative imagination to run wild, rewriting our pragmatic decisions with emotionally charged disasters. We do this based on our creative potential to imagine the worst possible outcomes, to create crazy scenarios and manufacture our own personal dramas.
Yes, that’s right we create the issues we most fear and want to avoid long before they could ever be a reality. And we cannot not think of what we are thinking of, so subconsciously we gravitate towards those disasters at an uncontrollable rate of knots.
Rather than thinking “How do I make this the most effective and efficient pattern possible?”, we think “What if I fall, trip, lose, die or even worse – embarrass myself?”
All based on emotional triggers rather than skill-set, and on fictitious outcomes not yet a reality rather than reality itself. And as they are so emotionally tagged they are slotted into our outcomes with ease and self generated importance.
So what are the effective mechanics of visualisation, and how do we keep the creative ‘emotion monster’ at bay – leaving the pragmatic stepping stones of success to lead us forward?
Well, the secret to effective and replicable visualisation is in the detail and making the practice as realistic as the event!
We have five senses to satisfy in order to paint a perfect picture. They are our Visual, Auditory, Kinesthetic, Gustatory and Olfactory senses and each are an important piece of the puzzle that make up the big picture convincer.
By creating an environment that is as realistic to the desired outcome as possible allows our brain to create an accurate neural flag and pathway. This will also increase our chances of having our mind select that created pattern when called upon in the real situation.
How do we create the perfect template?
1. In the details – Gather as much information as possible, for example, if you race F1, get a detailed map of the track; the weather forecast for race day; find out the optimal approach for each corner, down each straight; the optimal time to drop a gear and accelerate away and when to hold back; build a neural success strategy (KPIs or motivation milestones); design a verbal chant or verbal sequence that calms you down or enables you to focus.
2. The specifics of the set-up – Sit in your vehicle, with the vibrations of the engine rippling through your body; wear your racing suit, gloves, shoes and helmet etc; smell the high-octane fuel in the air; and the sound of other vehicles around you.
3. Then visualise – your race down to the last gear change, every twist and turn of the track, the language pattern you tell yourself in your mind, the neural success points you have set, you coming across the finish-line and the reward you give yourself for winning the race.
Visualise this first from a spectators point of view (or imagine watching yourself from a hovering helicopter) seeing yourself doing these very strategic and specific maneuvers and skills. Then complete the same visualisation again, seeing the race from your own eyes – looking out over the proceedings.
The first disassociated observation will allow you to clinically observe perfect technique without any emotional discoloration before becoming emotionally associated to the perfect performance – making it both replicable and memorable.
It is then you will have as near to perfect replicable neural pattern as possible.
And all without error, fatigue or any real chance of injury.
So to recap – The 10 Steps to creating the perfect point to point visualisation:
1. Gather as much specific information as possible about the end objective
2. Create as realistic an environment as possible
3. Build neural success points into the picture (Milestones)
4. Design a verbal chant or verbal sequence
5. Tick the box for each and every sense, same clothes, same smells, same sounds, same feelings, same weather etc
6. First visualise the event from a disassociated perspective (From the sideline or from above)
7. Then visualise the event from within yourself, see what you would see, hear what you would hear, feel what you would feel, smell and taste what you would taste
8. Be as specific as humanly possible about the visualisation
9. Make it as replicable as you can
10. Repeat until you feel comfortable that it is in your head – then do it one more time!
11. The Bonus point – Reward yourself for your achievement. This will stimulate the brain to release serotonin and dopamine, the body’s pleasure chemicals. This natural high will cement the emotional trigger required to replicate for the same reward.
These are the basics to visualisation and we are only just getting warmed up! Stay tuned for future posts as we dig deeper into how visualisation can transform YOUR performance.