[ Q ] Kelly, is visualization a useful addition to a training program?
A: Yes, I am a big believer in visualization, but I am not a big believer in over complication of the process. You don't need to do anything fancy to visualize. This means a hypnotherapist, fancy hats, music, headsets and all that other stuff isn't necessary.
Honestly, people visualize all the time if you let them. For example, take a typical teenage sport addict and take him away from his sport for 2 weeks and he'll sit around daydreaming of it. That's visualization!
Football players spend the majority of the year sitting around visualizing getting out there and hitting somebody. It's not like you can go find a tackle football game every day of the year like with basketball.
Is It Effective?
As for effectiveness, there was a good ol' boy who got shipped off to Vietnam and he was an avid golfer. He got captured, became a POW and stayed in captivity in a small cell for something like 10 years. When he was eventually saved and released, the first thing he did when he got home was go out and play a round of golf.
Despite not touching a club in 10 years he played his best round of golf ever! People asked him how he did it. He replied that one way he dealt with the negatives of his situation during those 10 years was by sitting in his cell and playing the game of golf in his mind every day. He'd go through every course he ever played and play out every detail.
The results became obvious when he was finally able to tee it up for real. All his body had to do was carry out what the mind already knew how to do.
Free Throw Experiment:
There was another experiment where 2 groups of basketball players shot free throws. At the beginning of the experiment both groups had equal free throw shooting ability.
One group shot free throws something like 3 days per week for an hour and the other group did no actual shooting but were required to get together and "think" about shooting free throws three times per week for an hour.
At the end of the study the group who sat around thinking about shooting free throws were able to shoot better than the ones who actually did the practice.
Bottom line: Visualization works.
How To Incorporate Visualization
All you need to do is sit back and relax and "daydream" while you imagine yourself, in first person perspective, playing your sport or executing your moves or doing whatever it is that you do or need to improve upon. The key thing is to do everything perfectly as you play the game in your mind.
Repeat this whenever you feel like it. Initially, there will be a tendency to view things from 3rd person perspective, like a movie. You want to eliminate the movie and visualize things through your own eyes.
If You Can See It, You Can Do It:
The benefit of visualization or mental imagery is the same learning processes that are activated when you actually play your sport are activated when you visualize yourself playing your sport so there really is no difference. If you can "see it," you can "do it." However, the more of your senses that you engage when you visualize, the deeper the process becomes implanted in your subconscious mind.
The main difference between actually engaging in an activity and visualizing the activity is in the intensity of the stimulation, which is why it's important to engage multiple senses when you visualize.
The key things to focus in on are:
How do things feel? What do you see? And what do you hear?
Improving Bad Habits
One thing that visualization can do well is alter ingrained behaviors. Let's say you have a bad habit in your game that you want to change and you're having trouble getting around certain roadblocks. As with any repetitive pattern neural pathways are created in your brain; changing these pathways can be difficult.
For example, whenever you get in your car and drive somewhere "one" time you have to pay attention. Drive the same path again and you're able to do it with greater ease until it becomes unconscious or becomes a well-worn path or new habit. That's why you can often drive from point A to point b and say "Oh my god, we're here!"
You've trained your subconscious how to drive to this destination without thought. Once this is permanently engaged in your subconscious, you no longer have to give your brain the instructions - your subconscious takes it over automatically.
When you try to change bad habits or improve skills you actually have to make a new neural pathway to erase the old one - a new habit or a new way of carrying out your skills. You have to establish the new pattern. The way you do that is by creating psychological intensity and/or freshness so you override the old action in your mind (not as easy as you might think).
Lots of practice would seem like a logical cure but the problem with that is 2-fold. First, the mind and body both tend to get lazy when the same movements are done again and again and again in the same fashion and in the same mental and physiological states.
Practicing all the time makes you automatic at your competent skills, however, physiologically it isn't the same when you're in a competitive situation, so you're really not duplicating the intensity of the neural pathways that you use when you compete.
If you always make the same mistakes or do the same things in a competitive situation regardless of how much you practice, you've just identified your default status for that particular set of skills. To change them requires something else.
What I just described is why someone like Shaq [Shaquille O'Neil] can consistently hit 19-of-20 free throws in practice but can't hit the broad side of a barn during the game.
Try To Duplicate Competitive Situations:
One thing you can do to improve skills or change bad habits would be practicing the skills under the same physiological and mental conditions as in a game. I used to know a basketball coach who utilized what he called "pressure" basketball.
He'd stand behind his players with a big thick wooden paddle and one by one he'd have his players go up to the line and shoot 3 free throws. They'd have to make 2 out of 3 or they'd get a hard swat on the rear. If they only made 1 out of 3 that was 2 hard swats on the rear.
The swats were hard enough to leave bruises and hurt enough to bring people to tears. I'm sure there are better alternatives than that, but I guarantee you it was more effective than running laps or whatever flavor of the month drill is popular nowadays.
This is because the pressure of the situation creates the same physiological conditions (sweaty palms, rapid heart rate etc.) as game type conditions. The threat of running laps or doing pushups does piss people off but it's more boring than anything and doesn't invoke the same stress response.
Same Old Boring Drag:
Before I talk about another alternative, the second reason why simply "practicing" isn't enough is because when most people do the same old thing day in and day out, not only is the "intensity" too low to override the ingrained neural patterns, but they inherently feed themselves too much negative self talk.
Some examples of negative self talk include,
"Oh, I messed up."
"Oh, I missed again."
"Don't do this, don't do that."
etc. etc. etc ...
When you get away from traditional sporting practice for a while and focus more on visualization you're able to remove many of the negative messages sent to your brain and you don't have these negative affirmations competing in your mind.
After a period of "refreshment" you come back and say "Oh, this is fun again!" Chocolate cake probably wouldn't taste too good if you ate it every single day but every once in a while it tastes excellent. Same principles here.
The more excited you are to acquire skills the better your results will be when you do. The more excited you are mentally when you get out to practice, the more likely you will pick up skills you can take with you.
If it's just the same old boring drag you're wasting your time. Remember, the body picks up skills better whenever the mind is stimulated.
Taper The Physical And Up The Mental
So in short, if you're bored with your primary activity and not making the skill improvements you'd like, lower the volume of your actual practice and replace some of it with visualization for a period of time. Back when I was a teen I used to practice basketball an average of 4-6 hours per day most of the year.
Despite all those hours on the court, there were plenty of times where I'd regress over the months instead of improve over the months.
The interesting thing is that every summer I'd have to take a 2-week vacation during which I had no access to basketball. Being unable to play; I'd sit around and daydream about playing basketball all the time.
Lo and behold at the end of those 2 weeks I'd get home and immediately get on the court. It would take a couple of hours to shake off the rust, but every single time I'd find that my skills had actually improved and I'd always pick up several new skills that I didn't have before. Hopefully I've explained why.
Real World Examples
Let me give a real world example on how I'd incorporate visualization into a skill building routine. Let's take 2 groups of people. One group practices their sport every day for 2 hours 7 days per week for 7 weeks straight.
The other group practices every day for 2 hours for 3 weeks straight, then takes an entire week off in which visualization is focused on, followed by another 3 weeks of 2 hours practice.
- 2 hours practice per day, 7 weeks straight.
- 2 hours practice per day, 3 weeks straight.
- 1 week: 2x per week, very brief actual practice; 3x per week, one hour visualization.
- 2 hours per day, 3 weeks straight.
Group II will blow away group I when it comes to performance and skill acquisition because not only will their bodies and minds be "fresh" and receptive, they'll have given their brain new instructions during the tapering period which they can then implement when they go back to practicing hard-core.
Just remember to kick back and play your sport in your mind, using the actual feelings, sights and sounds. There is no right or wrong way to do it but the more you do it the better you get.