Trust the Talent

Exceptional performance in the game of life.

Visualize to Actualize

Practice mental imagery to peak your performance.

Scores of studies have been reported in the scientific literature confirming the advantages of mental imagery, or visualization, for performance enhancement. Olympians, mixed martial artists, and pros across all sports, use imagery to power their performance to higher levels. In fact, most athletes use mental imagery instinctively and spontaneously on and off the field. However, imagery can and should be used systematically in order to get the full benefit from this essential mental skill. Realize that with regular and structured practice the vividness and controllability of your images should improve.

Strive to practice mental imagery three (or more) times each week for 10-15 minutes. Find a quiet place where you will be uninterrupted, and breathe slowly and deeply from the belly. Take yourself into the performance scene using all of your senses. Mental images can be experienced from an internal perspective, as if seeing through your own eyes, or from an external perspective, as if watching yourself from the bleachers. Experiment with both perspectives and use what works best depending on the intent of your imagery rehearsal. Do your best to make your images "3-D" and as life-like as you can. Imagery can be likened to playing a video game in your head, and the more you play it the better you will become.

What you choose to image should always depend on your objective. Realize that there are a number of important ways that imagery can be used to enhance your overall performance. Imagery is particularly helpful for maintaining confidence, as you can have as much success as you want in your head. Replay in your mind previous high points, or pre-play future success. In addition to "success," picture executing the ideal steps to achieve the success. Also, feel deeply in your body what the experience is like making the ideal play or shot.

Imagery is great for refining technique, rehearsing strategy, and performing various sports skills. For example, a running back can "see" and "feel" himself making a great juke on a defender, while a defensive end can "see" and "feel" himself sacking the quarterback, on the days leading up to the game. Imagery can also be used for resilience by anticipating what could go wrong, and then imaging a winning response - if x happens, I will do this. For example, a runner might image herself hammering through tough segments of a race during inclement weather, and past other runners, like a military tank that cannot be stopped.

Although mental imagery will not guarantee success on the field, it will increase its likelihood as you begin to master this tool. When Andre Agassi won Wimbledon in 1992, he expressed that it was like a déjà vu experience because he had won it in his mind countless times since he was a kid. In sum, replay all of your highlights in sport, and create new ones by using mental imagery as a key part of your training and performance.

Jim Afremow, Ph.D., L.P.C., is a psychologist at the Health and Sport Psychology Clinic at Arizona State University.

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