Visualization – What? I can practice just by closing my eyes and thinking? For real?

You are currently viewing Visualization – What? I can practice just by closing my eyes and thinking? For real?

Visualization is a broad topic. In this article I want to give you an introduction on the meaning of “using your imagination to practice”. Visualization developed its own field in sport psychology, but has findings that translate beautifully into a diverse range of hobbies, professions and even your day to day actions.

Our time is limited. For practicing a certain skill or action we might need equipment, facilities, partners or even more, sometimes unavailable things. Especially the worldwide pandemic increased the difficulty of practicing and disrupted our routines, but so can other circumstances like injuries, sickness or full schedules. The links to the statements made are at the end of the article.

Here is where visualization can create its benefits. Our brain cannot distinguish between the real practice of a skill and ones that are only visualized. They both have the same effect on the brain, it’s structure and capabilities (1).  Visualization also helps us to rewire our Reticular Activating System (RAS), which is the filter that decides which information coming to our senses (except smell) will actually get passed to the conscious mind (2). By visualizing, your RAS gets faster, can adapt better to real situations and focus on the right stimulus.

By overthinking details during visualization, you will further use the so-called “little sibling effect”. Older siblings can rely on strength, experience and size when they compete against their younger siblings. As winning might be impossible for the younger ones, they stop thinking about the outcome of the competition, but concentrate on what they are actually doing to improve and finally beat their opponents (3).

Own motivation

My own interest in visualization rose within the last few years, as I became more and more involved in Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu, a problem-solving martial art with an immense amount of detail-rich techniques and tactics. Suddenly I found myself overthinking and analysing the sport while I was doing other activities like walking through the city, driving a car or waiting in a queue.

The same happened to me a few years earlier, which I find worth sharing, as it did not produce the positive outcome I would expect from a highly analyzed action.  

“Are you going to jump? Are you brave enough? Will you chicken out”?
Jump or not to jump – This is what my family, friends and army comrades were concerned about in the weeks leading to my first parachuting jump. I jumped. I didn’t chicken out. The parachute opened and I was hanging 400m above the ground on a small piece of fabric.

Now i was aim together with 60 other guys for the snow coated army airfield close to the german alps. I had to stay present and concentrated, keep the distance to others (yes even in 2013 that was already a term), communicate with them and avoid harsh steering maneuvers. As the ground came closer, I had to prepare myself mentally for the landing with a velocity of 8 m/s, so I could finish the jump by squeezing my parachute as fast as I could into my backpack again and reach the gathering point.

But here I was. Looking up –  “Parachute is open, nice!” Looking down –  “Ok wow, this is high, everything is so small.” And then silence in my mind, not one single thought would come up. Spaced out, tunnel vision, apathetic. The jump – The most important moment passed by without letting me grasp it and now I have to deal with innumerous sensations I kind of ignored to a fairly extent.

Being confronted with those one-dimensional questions regarding the “jumping moment” during the preparation, made me forget about all the other details that actually occur, when one jumps out of a plane. Without knowing it, I involuntarily concentrated on one single specific event and not the holistic experience with all its facets. 

Being a few years older now, I started to experiment with visualization again. When my mind wants to analyze events, it communicates this by pushing topics repeatedly into the consciousness and deviates me vigorously from what I am actually supposed to do. This can be diverse things like an upcoming university presentation, workshops, social events or sport activities. I started to acknowledge those moments and address them by visualizing them in silence.

Testimonials

To get a better understanding of the topic and explore ways to visualize, I met people that made use of different visualization approaches. I was glad to find people that were willing to share their quiet personal experiences with me.

Thomas

He is a sports teacher and my kickboxing coach at the Fighters Gym in Kolding. In his kickboxing career he became, among other achievements, 23x Danish Champion, 3x European Champion and 6x World Champion. Before a training session we sat aside to speak about his use of visualization. 

A picture of Thomas the bow shooter.

I used visualization to deal with three different situations. When I was younger (around my early 20s), I had a problem with a really specific moment in a complex movement – merging from a backwards flick flack into a backflip. 

My trainer told me to overthink my technique, while I am isolated and off the gymnastic mat. So I locked myself into my room to be safe from any disturbance and started visualizing the complete movement patterns. Thereby I observed myself from a 3rd eye view like a spectator. As I was already able to perform the flick flack safely, this part of the movement went down at normal speed, but the important moment I was struggling with, passed by in slow motion. After around a month of imagining myself doing the technique right, I finally managed to do it in real life.   

Later in my life I competed in Kickboxing on an advanced level in European and World Championships. I tried to visualize the competitions, to deal with the internal stress that comes with the competition. When the fight starts, there is no problem, but in the lead up to the tournament and in between several fights over a few day period it can become really intense. I tried to imagine the whole experience around it, so I would have already been there when the event took place. I imagined going to bed in the evening before, to eat breakfast in the morning, going to the location, walking around in the sportshall and so on. 

But visualization didn’t work too well for me there, i wouldn’t feel that much of a difference inside. I never visualized certain techniques in Martial Arts, as my main focus in the sport training is physical and I improve in lots of sparring rounds (fighting under training conditions).

The last few years I got involved in archery and started competing there as well. The consequences in shooting the arrow are very direct. If you make just a small thing different, you will just not hit where you’re supposed to. My main goal is for my results to become more constant over a longer time. As I train and still struggle with this, I noticed I have to do something different. So I started to visualize my technique in archery as well and think I want to continue with it in the future. 

Naomi

She is a IT-Product Design student at SDU, originally from the Netherlands and trains in the climbing gym in Kolding. She holds over 10 years of competition experience and came out 3. place in last year’s Danish Championship. She is also part of the elite climbing group knt (Dansk Klatreforbunds Nationale Talentudviklingsgruppe).

a picture of the climber, Naomi.

Many climbers use visualization to overthink the techniques and moves they already know. I use it personally in competition. There we have 6 minutes to see a route, then we go into another room, called isolation, until it is our turn to climb. This is because we are not supposed to see the other competitors climbing the route. If I can remember the sequence in isolation, I can use the waiting time to pick the moves I want to perform on the route.

In bouldering (type of climbing, lower height, no security gear), every unsuccessful attempt is an energy waste. So if you are sure how you want to climb it and know that you can do it, you can use 100% of your energy at the first try.  It’s also really good for confidence, if you know what you are doing, before you actually do it.

In isolation you can talk to yourself and at the same time go through the moves by moving your body. When I imagine myself climbing, I see it through my own eyes. But while reading the route, sometimes I kind of zoom out. That happens because I need to see, if I fit into the route I chose, to be sure I can reach the holds on the wall. 

Within the club selection of a youth team, we got introduced to visualization. I think visualization is acknowledged as a part of climbing. My trainers told me to read routes and tried to teach me visualization. I had a coach that told us to read a route, then turn around and explain the route with our backs towards it. And then we have some mental training, where we have really tough routes and we should use as little tries as possible. These training methods helped us to get equipped for competitions where we can use visualization to find the best way to climb a route.

I don’t use visualization in any other organized context to work on techniques. I think a lot about climbing, but I am not actively sitting down to visualize outside of the gym. I guess it happens subconsciously, so sometimes solutions for problems pop up f.e. in bed. But I recall that I have somehow tried to use visualization to image myself having successful events and thereby boost my positivity and confidence.

Guide

As the entrance to visualization sounds fairly abstract, I prepared a small guide you can orientate yourself on, if you want to give it a try:

1. Make yourself feel comfortable

If you have decided to visualize, prepare yourself and your surroundings. Try to eradicate all distractions, so you won’t get interrupted once you start. Find the right position to sit or lay down and play some moderate background music. 

2. Make it a holistic experience 

Think about the skill you want to improve and observe broader aspects of it. Ask yourself different questions, that could open up a better understanding of the skill. Those questions are just inspiration, adjust them to make them fit your scenario.

How is the setting around it?
How many people will watch?
How many others are involved?
What is their task?
Where are other people located?
Which uncertainties come along the way?
How would you respond to them? 

3. Be creative

Experiment when observing yourself performing during the visualization. You can for example vary the angles between a first-person, third-person or birds eye-view. You can also change the speed of your imagination to slow down important details, transitions or elements of your performance.

4. Enjoy it

There is no right or wrong in visualization. Some things work for specific people, some people need different adjustments. Enjoy the exploration of visualization and make it your own unique experience!

Reflection

I find visualization a fantastic topic to explore. I see many benefits in getting familiar with different approaches and will definitely continue to implement it to my daily routine. I observed increased improvement in my sport activities, but feel also way more comfortable in other situations like pitches, presentations or social events.

Get in contact with me, if you also want to share your experience, I would be delighted to hear from you and discuss the topic more. Also much appreciation to Naomi and Thomas, who were open to share their personal thoughts and experiences with you and me! 

Links to the statements made:

1: https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/7500130/

2: https://www.sciencedirect.com/topics/neuroscience/reticular-activating-system

3: https://fivethirtyeight.com/features/why-are-great-athletes-more-likely-to-be-the-younger-siblings


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