Standing on the beach, waiting for the start looking for the best spot to minimise the experience of hundreds of people swimming over me, pushing hard once the whistle blows then slowly stretching out the stroke and settling into my freestyle pace. Then I open my eyes, leave the car and actually head down to the beach for my first triathlon.
Last week I discussed outcome visualisation and how you can increase your success when it comes to the goals you want to nail in life. Today I want to switch to ‘process visualisation’, which is equally powerful and something I also regularly use.
Using the example of a triathlon:
Outcome visualisation involves envisioning yourself achieving having finished the race. It is a detailed mental image of the desired outcome using all of your senses.
Process visualisation involves envisioning each of the actions necessary to achieve that outcome you want – a focus on completing each of the steps you need to achieve the goal, but not on the overall goal itself.
According to research using brain imagery, process visualisation works because neurons in our brains, those electrically excitable cells that transmit information, interpret imagery as equivalent to a real-life action. When we visualise an act, the brain generates an impulse that tells our neurons to “perform” the movement.
This creates a new neural pathway — clusters of cells in our brain that work together to create memories or learned behaviors — that primes our body to act in a way consistent to what we imagined. All of this occurs without actually performing the physical activity, yet it achieves a similar result.
In essence, you imagine your physical performance without actually physically moving. And no this is not hocus pocus!
It’s a proven technique supported by a significant amount of anecdotal feedback. Javelin thrower Steve Backley is renowned for winning silver at the 1996 Atlanta Olympics despite being unable to throw a javelin during the build-up after rupturing his Achilles.
Backley replaced physical training with visualisation and worked with a specialist coach:
“He helped me visualise the perfect throw, down to the time it took to throw and land. I saw it in 3D.My daily mantra became ‘see it, feel it, trust it’.”
And science supports the theory:
“If you put athletes through an MRI scan who are visualising performance, almost all the parts of the brain that are active when you’re actually doing it are active when you’re imagining it. It’s only the final pathways tied in with sending signals to the muscle that aren’t active.”
Ian Robertson, professor of psychology at Trinity College, Dublin
My most prominent memory of using this technique in the military was with the annual tactical shooting test we used in the build up for the counter-terrorism role. The test involves various scenarios on which you are scored for speed and accuracy, and before each one I would take 5 minutes to mentally rehearse exactly how it was going to play out.
How did this help? It increased my confidence and made it easier to control those competition nerves, both of which lead to better performance. In my head I had already carried out the actions numerous times so with positive feelings attached and this meant when i actually stepped up I felt calm and prepared.
It doesn’t guarantee success but when I left the service I still held the third spot across all squadrons. And I’ve used the same technique for everything from sporting events to job interviews or academic tests.
Where To Go From Here
For such a simple idea the results can be very powerful in my experience so it is something I would highly recommend experimenting with.
For whatever it is you want to achieve spend 5-10mins visualising a certain element of performance, logically the area that you’re physically working on at the time. To maximise that time, you should spend visualisation time in a calm, quiet environment.
Picture yourself performing the way you’d like to perform and, ideally, how you’re beginning to perform in training. You then play that video back in your head. Alternatively you can also follow a process called ‘modelling’. This is finding somebody who you’d like to copy. Play a video back in your head of them performing. Then think about how you would execute that skill, and merge the two.
And because you’re learning a new skill, you need to channel your concentration in that area. You should think about the entire environment that the action will take place in, for example noises at the time – anything to sharpen the colour of the picture. Before the triathlon I imagined the wild splashing that would occur in that first minute of the race.
As well as honing individual techniques, you can apply visualisation to the whole scenario, and this is where reconnaissance comes in. In a sporting scenario that means picturing yourself running through the course in your head in fast-forward, and slowing things down for these significant areas.
For something like a job interview it might mean going over how the entire day will look, from the moment you wake up until you exit the interview room, including your journey to the location.
This is where tools like Google Maps come in, to put you in the situation. And that’s what you want – to paint as vivid and accurate a picture as possible. So that your mind ends up with a blueprint of what you’re facing.
One final note is perspective. Some people like to picture themselves working through technique in the third-person; others the first-person. Just choose the one that comes naturally to you.
The key to effective visualization is to create the most detailed, clear and vivid a picture to focus on as possible.”George St-Pierre
As the quote suggests, the key to success with any kind of visualisation lies in making it as real as possible, and this takes practice.
For me, I’ve found the best time to do this is after my morning meditation and journaling. But, I will also find myself doing it throughout the day in the form of active daydreaming. (Incidentally George St-Pierre is widely regarded as one of the greatest fighters in mixed martial arts history.)
Finding just 5 mins each day to visualise your best is something achievable for everyone and I would argue it is a highly valuable habit to build into your life.
The Limitless Challenge
Stressproof Your Mind And Body For Bulletproof Focus, Resilience & Mental Calm In Just 30 Days.
We are running a 30 day challenge to:
- Eliminate chronic stress
- Unlock your mental toughness
- Optimise long-term health
- Build confidence and self-reliance
- Enhance your ability to thrive