One of the things that comes up time and time again in interviews with Olympic athletes are questions about how they train to be able to compete at that level. Common responses that people expect to hear are things like perseverance, dedication, a strict training regimen, and that sort of thing. One very powerful training tool is frequently not mentioned though, and for many athletes it is one of the most important. This is a skill that we all have at our disposal, and can be developed with practice into a valuable resource. This priceless ability is mental visualization.
Mental visualization is the ability to use your imagination to see something in your mind’s eye so vividly that your brain thinks that you are actually experiencing it. This can be an extremely effective tool because your brain cannot differentiate between something that you are actually experiencing and a well constructed mental image of the same event. This has been proven scientifically by mapping the brain activity of people who are performing a task and also people imagining performing the same task. It has been found time after time that the parts of the brain that are active are the same in both cases. We have all seen this for ourselves as well every time we awaken from a nightmare sweating, out of breath, and shaking. We weren’t really being chased by a gigantic, scary monster, but our brain certainly would beg to differ.
I know some of you are thinking “Scott, this is kind of out there. I am not sure I’m buying this one.” Let me show you how powerful your imagination can be by having you slowly read the following paragraph.
Imagine you are holding an orange in both hands. You feel it’s waxy, textured exterior as you run your fingers over it. You lift it to your nose and breathe in its citrusy aroma. You set it down and slowly begin cutting into your Sun colored treat. The sweet juice erupts as you slide the knife slowly through its layers, and it’s succulent fragrance fills the air. You feel a drop of juice sliding down your thumb, leaving its sticky trail as you pick up a wedge. You can hear the sound of each fiber breaking as you carefully tear the rind away from the fruit. You feel your teeth break the skin and the juices gushing into your mouth as you bite down. This sugary nectar coats your tastebuds as your tongue is tickled by the texture of the pulp.
Now, I know that I am not a Chaucer or a Shakespeare, but I would be willing to bet that by reading that paragraph your mouth probably started watering, wanting an orange. Pretty powerful stuff, right?
As someone who has gone through life not being able to actually do lots of things, this skill has allowed me to “experience” so many activities. By carefully watching others and then playing it over and over in my mind, I feel like I have had the experiences of driving a car, shooting a basketball, and baking a cake. Even though I have not actually done these activities, by developing my ability to imagine various events, I feel as if I have. If my body and mind believe that it is something I have done, doesn’t that make it “real” on some level? At the very least, it is close. I mean, if it looks like a duck and quacks like a duck…
Through years of practice cultivating my imagination, I also am now able to use mental visualization techniques to help control my body and feelings. I can alleviate my pain, slow down my pulse, and even raise the temperature of my hands simply by using my mind. In an effort to better control my emotions, I use visualization techniques to pre-set myself into a particular emotional state before and after certain situations. If I am going into an office to meet a potential client for one of my Roll Models workshops, I will get myself into a confident, charismatic place. If I’m heading to give a talk to grade school kids, I know I need to be in a high-energy, fun emotional state and imagine a memory when I felt that way.
Whether it’s an Olympic bobsledder visualizing turns, a speaker seeing the audience cheering to get pumped up, or a young child using a bench as a stage imagining singing to a sold out crowd, it is all visualization. I could write forever going on about the benefits of using your imagination, and the numerous ways you can apply it, but I won’t (if you want to learn more, I have Roll Models workshops and provide coaching on it). By developing this skill, I have opened up whole new worlds to explore and understand, that due to my disability I never would have known. I highly recommend that all of you take some time to grow and use your imagination and take advantage of the wonderful benefits it brings.