Raise your hand if you’ve ever had to do/say/perform/present/complete something difficult. Something that makes you nervous. Something that carries a lot of weight, or that has a lot riding on it. Maybe it’s something that you’ve had to do/say/perform/present/complete in the past and it didn’t go smoothly, or you weren’t as successful as you’d hoped to be. Maybe you HAVE been successful at it and you’d very much like to duplicate that result. Hands? Anyone? Well, look at that. I’m not kidding – everyone in the room right now has their hand up. (Full disclosure: I’m the only one in the room.) But seriously, chances are good that something pretty specific popped into your head, or maybe even a few things. If that’s the case, I am so glad that you’re reading this.
There’s a tool we like to use with athletes that’s known as mental imagery. And, like so many mental skills that we teach (and practice!), it can have serious power both in sport and in everyday life. Here’s why: the more accurately you can see yourself successfully completing something, the more likely you will be to successfully complete it. Make sense? So, the more times and the more realistically I am able to visualize myself successfully making a pitch to a potential client, the more confident I will be going into that pitch, and the better my chances are at successfully completing the pitch. Or maybe I have trouble turning down sweets, but I really want to get my nutrition in check – I can whip out my handy-dandy imagery skills and visualize myself nearing Stan’s Donuts on my walk home (which happens all too often) and choosing to walk right on by without breaking my stride: Not today, Stan!
Now in order for this to work, I need to create an image in my mind that includes sights, sounds, smells, emotions - anything that will add to the realness of the experience. That’s a key word right there – experience. It’s one thing to run a series of images through your mind, it’s another to feel as though those images are actually happening; the more realistic, the better. The second vital ingredient should be obvious, but you’d be surprised: the outcome that you visualize MUST be a successful one! I can’t tell you how many athletes I have spoken with (prior to practicing imagery skills with us) who admit to occasionally picturing a negative outcome when they imagine themselves in a scenario within sport. To a degree it’s natural to catastrophize situations and to imagine them not panning out the way we’d hope. BUT it’s also extremely unhealthy for our confidence levels and it can actually lower our potential. So here’s a hint: when visualizing a task or a skill, it’s okay to include a conflict within that image as long as you are able to combat that conflict and the end result remains a successful one. Let’s go back to my sweet-tooth example – perhaps I’m walking past Stan’s Donuts and I cave; I take the bait and I press my hands against the glass panel on the revolving door. I’m only human, right? I can’t let it end there! I remind myself that I am in control and that my successful outcome is still possible. So (still visualizing here) I keep pushing and revolve myself right back out onto the sidewalk and continue on home.
It can be hard to tap into this part of our brains, especially if we’ve never tried it before. So to help you out, I’ve included 5 simple tips that you can apply and adjust technique as necessary:
1. Examine the realness of your imagery experience. Consider the rate of your breathing, the pace of your heartbeat. Are any physiological responses triggered? Be honest with yourself in evaluating how realistic the experience that you’ve created truly is. And don’t get frustrated if it’s difficult to incorporate your senses at first – this aspect may come more naturally for some than it will others. Practice makes progress.
2. Establish your vantage point. Are you seeing yourself from a spectator’s point of view, or are you standing in your own shoes while performing the task? (Hint: either way is acceptable, but an “in-your-own-shoes” approach may make the visualization experience feel more realistic.) This may take some experimenting on your part to determine which method makes for a more true-to-life image.
3. Contingency planning – one of the most useful aspects of imagery. I don't know about you, but if something can go wrong in my life, it usually does. Imagery allows me to not eliminate these unpredictable parts of the experience, but at least prepare myself for the various ways success can be threatened. For example, maybe it is FREE donut day, or a celebrity is sighted in the donut store, or they finally introduced the Shamrock donut (only my favorite). I can prepare for these events through imagery and still see myself being successful.
4. Limit distractions. In our lives today we have so much to think about that it can feel impossible to sit down for 60 whole seconds (or however long you wish to visualize) without our minds wandering to what we need to pick up at the grocery store, or if we remembered to respond to so-and-so’s email. If you find it hard to make it from the start of this process all the way to a successful outcome, you may need a change of setting. Find some place quiet where you can get comfortable. Outside sounds and images can often interfere. If you STILL become distracted, write out your imagery as a script or a story. This can help to keep your mind on the task at hand.
5. Nothing is too small, unimportant, or not worth the time. Maybe you aren’t an Olympic athlete or you don’t have to present to a group of world leaders. That doesn’t mean that there aren’t important things in your life that could benefit from mental imagery. Remember, ‘important’ is subjective. Maybe some of you could walk right by a bakery without even being tempted to meander inside for a harmless donut (or twelve). But for me, that’s real! It’s not the most important thing that’s happening in the world right now, but it’s something that I want to improve.
So, what is it for you? What do you want to work on? What area of your life could benefit from achieving that successful outcome? I challenge you to think about it, find it, and then visualize it.