Tuesday, May 10, 2011

TRAINING 101: Visualization / Mental Imagery

Visualization / Mental Imagery
Essential for the Athlete

First, let me say that I am not a psychologist. But, I am a powerlifter that is interested in lifting more weight. About two years ago I experienced a bad tear in my pectoral muscle. I am currently recovering from that injury. My physical recovery has been slow and I have had a hard time with scar tissue. That is not uncommon with this type of injury. Mentally I am recovering as well. Re-programming my mental outlook on the bench press has proven to be difficult. One of the things that has helped me is a technique called visualization or guided mental imagery.
Most of us as children experienced active imaginations and some of us still have them. However, most of us do not use them systematically or with a purpose in mind, so we only experience random daydreams. The Romans had a saying, "Mens sano incorporo sano," a healthy mind in a healthy body. You would not expect to be physically ready to compete without regularly training your body and practicing techniques. Likewise, mental skills, such as imagery, need to be trained, developed and practiced if you want to use them to your full advantage.

You may ask what is Guided Mental Imagery?

Visualization, also known as mental imagery is defined as:

  • The act of creating a vivid positive mental picture of something in the mind.

  • Experience that resembles perceptual experience but which occurs in the absence of the appropriate stimuli for the relevant perception. In other words, imagining ourselves performing an action in the absence of physical practice.

I have used this technique many times throughout my athletic experiences mainly to enhance performance. Now I am using it to recovery from injury. Either way it can be very beneficial to athletes.

Visualization can be the key to increased athletic performance. Now, this is not magic. It is science. The subconscious mind does not know what is real and what is fiction. It simply creates your reality based on the image that you visualize. Have you seen powerlifters approach a lift thinking that they wouldn’t make the lift? What usually happens? They don’t! They visualized themselves failing and that’s exactly what they did. The converse is true as well. I have never seen a person lift a weight unless (on some level) they believed they could lift it. You must visualize yourself lifting the weight before you can physically do it.

When you imagine yourself performing to perfection and doing precisely what you want, you are in turn physiologically creating neural patterns in your brain, just as if you had physically performed the lift. These patterns are similar to small tracks engraved in the brain cells which can ultimately enable the lifter to physically perform the lift by mentally practicing. Mental imagery is intended to train our minds and create the neural patterns in our brain to teach our muscles to do exactly what we want them to do. 

Both physical and psychological reactions can be improved with such visualization. Repeated imagery can build both experience and confidence in the lifters ability to perform a lift. Using the technique of visualization a lifter can call up positive mental images over and over, enhancing their skill through repetition, similar to physical practice. With mental rehearsal, minds and bodies become trained to actually perform the lift imagined.

Numerous theories exist explaining how mental imagery really works.

  • Psycho-neuromuscular theory maintains that imagery rehearsal duplicates the actual motor pattern that is being rehearsed therefore motor patterns which are generated during imagery practice are the same as those used for physical practice.

  • Symbolic Learning theory maintains that instead of imagery working due to muscle activation, mental imagery works from the opportunity to practice the symbolic elements of a motor task therefore it is assumed that the learning obtained from imagery relates to cognitive learning.

  • Arousal/Activation theory says that by practicing imagery, one will obtain a level of arousal that is optimal for the specific performance. The arousal functions as a way of “priming” the muscles which result in a lowering of the sensory threshold of the performer to facilitate performance.

  • Visual Motor Behavior Rehearsal theory maintains that imagery should be a holistic process that includes a complete reintegration of experience. This includes visual, auditory, tactile, emotional, and kinesthetic cues. It has been demonstrated that physiological responses can result from an athlete’s usage of mental imagery.

A lifter should create a “mental script” of what he wants to happen as he comes to the platform that will allow his brain to react to the situation just as has been rehearsed over and over again. By the way, this is not new science. This theory goes all the way back to 1894.

Here are a few ways to develop this mental script through imagery:

·         See success. See and feel yourself achieving your goals and performing to your capabilities. This may raise your confidence in your abilities and prepare your body to perform as needed.
·         Motivate. Recall thoughts and images of past and future successes to help you train longer and harder. In addition, taking inventory of your goals is a powerful motivator. Manage Your Energy Level. You can use imagery to achieve your optimal energy level or to recharge yourself when you are tired.
·         Learn and perfect skills. See and feel yourself performing perfect techniques and patterns. This is often as effective as actual practice.
·         Refocus. Visualization may help you refocus when needed. If you are feeling weak, sluggish, or awkward, reliving your previous best performance may help lift your spirits. You can also use imagery as a way of refocusing during an event by replaying the script that you made for yourself.
·         Prepare for competition. Just as you need to physically prepare for competition, you need to mentally prepare. Through visualization you may prepare yourself for different types of opponents and circumstances, such as a sudden injury.
How do we apply this to our training?

Try this mental exercise:
 For the purpose of this exercise we will apply this to the Bench Press.
By using guided mental imagery think about being at a meet and you are about to walk onto the platform. Can you hear the sound of the announcer’s voice? Can you hear the crowd? Can you hear the clanging of the plates as the bar is loaded? Do you smell the pain relieving gel that you have applied to your shoulders? Imagine your emotional state. Are you pumped up? Are you relaxed? Are you excited? Are you breathing hard? Are you tense? Can you hear the head judge call out “the bar is loaded”? Imagine how you feel as you lie down on the bench. Can you feel the traction beneath your feet? Can you feel the muscles in your upper back as you squeeze your shoulder blades together? What does the knurling on the bar feel like? Can you feel the weight as you take the bar out of the rack? Can you feel the bar as it descends to your chest? Can you hear the press command? Can you feel the weight as it comes off your chest?
After creating this detailed image of your surroundings, visualize every aspect of your bench press technique. See yourself performing this technique to perfection. Imagine the positive precise outcome that you will achieve. Imagine yourself as being very confident in your preparation and your ability to successfully complete the lift. Visualize the weight exploding off of your chest. Visualize your performance as being flawless. Feel the sense of satisfaction. 

You must rehearse this moment in your brain over and over again. The mental image of your performance will become so developed that you will be able to hear, see, feel and even smell the moment. This will build experience and confidence in your ability to perform under pressure.

Mental Imagery doesn’t take the place of physical training but many studies have concluded that it does improve our athletic ability. I encourage everyone to develop this skill and add it to your training regimen.

Keith Payne CPT, CSN, YFS

“Everything you can imagine is real”. Pablo Picasso

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