The Science of Visualization
Written by Calvin Sun
Here at Invictus, we have a variety of tools and resources to help everyone perform their best. This can range from simply being reminded to get a good night’s sleep before game day to detailed nutritional consulting leading up to the day of competition. One of the tools more recently publicized on the blog has been visualization. Heidi has posted visualizations for the first two weeks of the CrossFit Games Open, click to listen to Week One and Week Two. Our affiliate team has been using this type of mental preparation before competition for years with great success. Obviously, it’s been such an important part of Invictus coaching that CJ included Heidi on his panel of speakers at the Invictus Athletes’ Camp as well as given her a larger role here on the blog. There are really two main categories of visualization that are useful for athletes:
Meditation typically suggests that we try to clear the mind of all thoughts essentially making the mind a clean slate (this is common in yoga classes). Heidi’s visualization is really more like hypnosis, giving you positive affirmations and helping you visualize your desired outcome. It turns out that hypnosis has been proven to be effective in improving athletic performance. In a 2002 study published in The Sport Psychologist, researchers found that hypnosis improved three-point shooting performance in collegiate basketball players. Subjects noted that the hypnosis helped them stay confident, relaxed, and calm while performing (sound familiar?). Numerous other studies have found that hypnosis improves athletic performance in a variety of sports ranging from archery to golf.
Mental Practice/Motor Imagery
Mental practice is the cognitive rehearsal of a task prior to performance. In this process, we picture ourselves performing the desired motor pattern. This is very common in our training facility, an athlete will picture themselves successfully lifting a weight before their actual attempt. Whereas hypnosis is steeped in psychology, mental practice tends to find its foundations in cognitive science and neurophysiology. Functional MRI studies have found that the areas of the brain activated when you perform a movement are also activated when you mentally rehearse the movement. The supplementary motor areas as well as the primary motor cortex are activated equally during both actual and mental practice. This suggests that motor imagery plays a large role in all stages of motor control.
Anecdotally, we have seen both hypnosis and mental practice to be effective in improving performance in our athletes. A good coach will be able to guide an athlete through some form of visualization in order to enable them to be successful. In the video above of Casey and Natalie Burgener, both world-class Olympic weightlifters, they describe what they think about before a lift. Casey takes a meditative approach clearing his mind of all extraneous thought. Natalie on the other hand uses motor imagery, picturing a perfect lift before she steps on the platform. Obviously, everyone is different so it takes time and experience to figure out what works best for you as an athlete. Try listening to Heidi’s visualization and see if it helps you or maybe try picturing an idealized movement to help you improve your technique. Experiment and see what works best for you.
Driskell, James E., Carolyn Copper, and Aidan Moran. “Does Mental Practice Enhance Performance?” Journal of Applied Psychology 79.4 (1994): 481-92.
Pates, John, Andy Cummings, and Ian W. Maynard. “The Effects of Hypnosis on Flow States and Three-Point Shooting Performance in Basketball Players.” The Sport Psychologist 16.1 (2002).
Pates, John, Rachael Oliver, and Ian Maynard. “The Effects of Hypnosis on Flow States and Golf-Putting Performance.” Journal of Applied Sport Psychology 13.4 (2001): 341-54.
Porro, Carlo A. “Primary Motor and Sensory Cortex Activation during Motor Performance and Motor Imagery: A Functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging Study.” The Journal of Neuroscience 16.23 (1996): 7688-698.
Robazza, Claudio, and Laura Bortoli. “A Case Study of Improved Performance In Archery Using Hypnosis.” Perceptual and Motor Skills 81.3 (1995).
Roth, M., J. Decety, and M. Raybaudi. “Possible Involvement of Primary Motor Cortex in Mentally Simulated Movement: A Functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging Study.” NeuroReport 7.7 (1996): 1280-284.