By Michael Krueger
Have you ever seen a car or truck and thought, “I can see myself driving that”? Or someone mentions an activity and you say, “I can’t see myself doing that at all”? This is the basis of visualization—putting yourself in a situation mentally. The next step is doing it effectively and applying what you “see” in real time.
Every accomplished athlete uses visualizations. They use them to stay calm and focused on the process they will use to achieve their ultimate goals. They are useful in the lives of us mere mortals, and health and fitness are great places to use them.
Some people are a bit skeptical about this sort of stuff, but if you give it a chance and put in a little effort, you may be pleasantly surprised with the results.
Anytime you hear about something that is outside of your experience, it can sound a little goofy. Visualizations fall into that category for a great many people. It has been around for a long time, resurfacing under a variety of names and associated with an assortment of people and movements.
What it isn’t is imagination or “make-believe.” It’s a physical and mental discipline. It’s using you mind to rehearse your skills in different scenarios. It’s hard work to do it right, but you will get better at it the more you use it.
The first time it was suggested to me, I tried using visualization to address something I was having problems with at the time: high school track. I was a sprinter, and I had problems anticipating the gun, so I tended to be the last out of the blocks or I would false-start. I was complaining to my then girlfriend, and she suggested I try meditation and visualization. She had introduced me to yoga to improve my flexibility, and that had worked, so I was open to giving this a try as well.
She got me to sit quietly, close my eyes, and breathe deeply and regularly so I could relax. Then she said to create in my mind the image of the starter’s pistol in the hand of the official. She said to “see” the metal of the gun, the way he held it, how his finger laid across the trigger, and how the barrel pointed up toward the sky. I was to “look” for as many details in this scene as I could find. Then she told me to “hear” the starter’s commands and continue to focus on his hand. I was to hear only his words to the exclusion of all other sounds. I was to watch for tension in his hand and his finger as it curled around the trigger. As he pulled the trigger, I was to see it happen in slow motion. Even the gunshot should come from the barrel slowly. As I saw the gun fire and heard the sound, I was to see myself exploding from the blocks. I did as she said; I opened my eyes and said, “OK, now what?” She swatted me upside my head.
Obviously, I was an impatient teenager and didn’t completely understand what she was trying to teach me. Fortunately, she continued to work with me, and I began to see results. I learned to filter out all the distractions of the track meet and only hear the starter’s voice. Soon, I seemed to know when he was going to pull the trigger, and I could come out of the blocks right with the shot.
I was never a champion sprinter. Other athletes were simply faster than I was, but I got better and continued to set personal records nearly every meet.
From my personal experience, I can say that visualization works. So, why does it make so many people roll their eyes when it’s suggested as a way to improve performance?
Visualization works, but not in the way most people think. To “prove” visualization doesn’t work, I’ve had people say to me, “Well, I can visualize myself flapping my arms and flying, but it isn’t really going to happen.” I won’t disagree with that, but they totally miss the point.
We can visualize outcomes and processes, but we can’t control outcomes, only processes. So, you may not be able to fly, but you could flap your arms just like you saw yourself doing in your mind. You can also see yourself playing well in a basketball game and winning. But, when the time comes, perhaps the other team is a lot better than you, and the player guarding you shuts you down. Does that mean your visualizations didn’t work? Not if you played your best, without frustration, choking, or tanking. When the game was done, you could congratulate the opposing team, take the lessons they taught you, and become a better player. You still control the process, but the outcome is outside of your direct sphere of influence.
You can also visualize eating healthful quality food, but if you walk into a greasy fast-food joint, it’s going to be tough to follow through. So, here’s how you can gain control no matter the situation.
As you go to bed tonight, you may think that you’ll get up early tomorrow morning and exercise. You put out your exercise clothes, your shoes, and your Fitbit. You sleep soundly knowing that tomorrow you’ll finally begin an exercise program. Your alarm goes off, you push “snooze,” and it’s all over. What went wrong?
Well, thinking about something isn’t the same as using visualization. For example, today, you think you’ll eat a salad for lunch. You get together with your crew and stop at a restaurant and order a burger and fries. You knew you had thought about having a salad, but everyone else ordered sandwiches and fries, so you did too. Why did that happen?
In terms of visualizing, you only dealt with seeing the outcome, which was you eating a salad or exercising. Thinking about something but having no plan in place means you can see the wonderful outcome that doesn’t come to fruition.
Here’s how it might work better: Once you decide you are going to have a salad for lunch, start visualizing how it’s going to play out. See yourself going into a restaurant and picking up the menu. Go directly to the salad options and choose one that appeals to you. You look at the dressing options and pick one that appeals to you and fits in with your calorie intake goal. You see yourself telling the server what you want. The server then brings it to your table, and you see yourself eating it. You feel the crispness of the greens and taste the acidity of the tomato. You notice the contrasting textures and complimentary flavors and note how satisfying they are. After a few bites, you begin to feel full; you’re comfortable with your choice, and you feel good.
OK, that’s sort of how visualization works. I say “sort of” because this simplified scenario doesn’t take in all of the extraneous people and distractions that will conspire to knock you off the course you saw for yourself. In the lunch scenario, there will be crew members who will order burgers and fries. There always seems to be that one guy who gives grief to anyone who tries to eat healthy. Maybe he didn’t go to the restaurant you had envisioned, and that throws you off. There are always things happening that you didn’t figure on; this is where nonsituation specific visualization comes in.
You can’t possibly anticipate every situation in which you might find yourself; there are just too many possibilities. What you can do is visualize how you will respond in high-stress or dangerous environments, regardless of their cause. These situations might include fires, accidents, injured people, or lunch. They might include sleep deprivation or having to operate in cold or extremely hot environments. Perhaps it’s dealing with angry or panicked people in terrible situations—whatever causes you anxiety. In all these examples, visualize performing in a positive way. This means visualizing the perfect performance of your skills. Controlling your emotions so that you can think clearly and always visualizing yourself performing to the best of your abilities.
Coupled with training and practice, proper visualization techniques will enable you to be better prepared to deal with whatever your job or life throws at you. Nothing will take you by surprise because you’ve already seen yourself prepared, proficient, calm, and confident in every situation.
So, practice visualization regularly; it’s a very calming meditation with real-time benefits. Do this every morning and every night. Before every new experience, and before something you’ve already done 1,000 times.
With proper training, preparation, and positive visualization you’ll always be ready to perform at the top of your game…
…because in your mind, you already have.
Michael Krueger is an NSCA-certified personal trainer. He got his start in fitness training while serving in the United States Coast Guard. He works with firefighters and others in and around Madison, Wisconsin. He is available to fire departments, civic organizations, and athletic teams for training, consulting, and speaking engagements. He has published numerous articles on fitness, health, and the mind-body connection and was a featured speaker at the IAFC’s FRI 2009 Health Day in Dallas, Texas. E-mail him at MKPTLLC@gmail.