“If you can dream of something, you can do it too,” Walt Disney used to say. And although we usually associate it with fairy tales, this sentence very well reflects the idea of mental training. It is based on imagination, although it is much more than a daydream or daydreaming. It is in our imagination that we can create all possible images, including those in which we win, we are faster, healthy, calm or motivated. What if we could take control of our imagination, systematize our activities and use them to improve sports performance, running technique or mental skills?
Imagination training, also known as visualization, is the conscious creation of images in the mind. During its performance, the athlete, using all sensory experiences (sight, hearing, taste, smell, touch), “creates an internal image, sound and internally stimulates movement without its external manifestations” *. During training, the right hemisphere of the brain, responsible for images, intuition and creativity, is activated. Many studies confirm the high effectiveness of this technique, which is why it is so often used both in sports and in everyday life. For example, research on a group of volleyball players showed that after a few or several weeks of training with the use of imaginations, the effectiveness of their service improved, similar results were observed in the group of basketball players who improved the effectiveness of free throws, and among swimmers who improved the times obtained thanks to visualization. per 1000 yards *.
If you have been somewhere in your mind, you will also be there in your body. – Walt Disney
From space to stadiums
In the 1960s, the American scientist Denis Waitley noticed that the phenomenon of visualization is very effective in the context of working with astronauts working for NASA. In the 1980s, he was hired by the American Olympic Committee to prepare athletes for the best performance. Based on his knowledge and previous experience, he created a training program in which research on Olympic athletes was carried out. They were connected to specialized apparatus, and their task was “only” to imagine that they were running. Importantly, this image was to be as real and rich in sensory experiences as possible – based on all available senses: hearing, smell, sight, touch, taste. The imagination was to include the sound of the cheering crowd, the taste of sweat, the view of the gathered audience, the weather conditions prevailing on that day, the sensations flowing from the body and, of course, the image of the finish. To the surprise of the researchers, it turned out that in the bodies of athletes who only imagined the situation of running, the muscles contracted exactly in the same way as during a real run.
Real or imagined?
It turned out that the nerve impulses transmitted from the brain to the muscles can be stored in memory as if the imaginary movement had actually been performed. The above observation shows that the brain does not distinguish between things that are imagined and real. When you imagine something, your brain perceives it as real, as if it just happened. This is well illustrated by the situation of watching a movie. Despite the fact that it is a fictional world and we do not really take part in these events, we experience the same emotions of fear, sadness and joy together with the characters. This is how our imagination works, we can display any movie we want in it. Research shows that the very image of a given activity triggers electromyographic activity (EMG) in a specific part or area of the body. It is similar to the one that arises during real movement. If you imagine that you are running, electrical activity in your legs can be detected even though you are not moving at all. Imagined and performed movements both have the same neural background and create similar memory traces in the brain *. Mental training strengthens the neural pathways in our brain, which means that, over time, the image may begin to code, leading to the automation of a given behavior.
In imagination training, we distinguish several perspectives that we can use to create images or experiences.
- Internal – is looking at what is happening from the perspective of the person who performs the movement, i.e. ours, e.g. we feel that we are running, we see where, we are participants in the run. Usually it comes easiest to us, it reflects how we see the world. It is the best solution when we want to prepare ourselves mentally for a task.
- External – we see the activities we perform through the camera’s eye, we look at ourselves from the side, this way we can observe how we run, what our silhouette looks like, step.
- Kinesthetic – in this perspective, we recreate specific physical sensations accompanying the activities performed. We feel how we hold our elbows close to our body, how our muscles tense and our hands work, what sensations emanate from our body.
- Kinesthetic inner – is a combination of inner and kinesthetic perspectives. It is the observation of activities from our inner perspective of participating in the activity combined with the sensations flowing from the body.
- Kinesthetic external – it is a combination of external and kinesthetic perspectives. We observe our activities from the outside while recreating our physical sensations. Perfect for working on new technical skills and perfecting specific movements.
The internal kinesthetic and external kinesthetic perspectives are considered to be the most effective. They fully use the potential of all senses that will arise during the performance of a given activity. And so, a runner competing in a competition should imagine the feeling of stretching the body, tensing muscles, the sound of the starter, the smell of air, hear the voice of the fans, feel the taste of his sweat. Then the training will be the most effective, and the situation will be the most similar to the real, starting one.
What do we use for?
Mental training is a tool that has a wide range of applications. We can use it both in sports and in everyday life.
With its help, we can work on:
- focus of attention
- coping with stress and anxiety
- raising results
- learning new skills
- learning movement patterns as well as improving those we already have
- work on pre-race strategy and tactics
- is an excellent tool for work during illness, as well as during rehabilitation or recovery from injuries. It turns out that people suffering from various types of injuries, imagining their organ as functional, and moving it in their imagination, recover faster. In athletes who used training during forearm immobilization, smaller drops in grip strength were found than in the group that did not use it.
A. Acquisition and improvement of skills
Mental training can be very helpful in learning new skills or training and improving those that we already have, e.g. proper hand work while running, correct exit from the block. It is important that we learn the correct pattern of performing a given activity in advance, because it is crucial that we recreate correctly performed movements in our minds. When working with the trainer, we can ask to show the correct technique, then repeat it many times, we can also record it and initially play it back so that the correct pattern of performing a given activity is coded in our head. Then we transfer this image to our imagination.
B. “What if?”
Imagination training is a great tool for planning take-off logistics. By taking part in competitions where the key role is played by factors independent of us, such as the weather, equipment, conditions on the route, we can prepare ourselves in our head for any eventuality. When preparing for take-off, ask yourself “what if” questions: it will rain, it will be hot, I will run out of drink, will I be caught in a crisis? If you go through these situations in your head in advance and plan an action in case of their occurrence, they will not come as a surprise to you during take-off. You will be able to implement planned activities with greater peace of mind and continue the competition. It is similar with getting to know the route, the place of the competition, if you think about such elements in advance, you will feel at home, as if you know this place.
C. During the competition
The use of ideas during the competition is very wide. If we have a specific task or movement to perform, we can repeat this activity in our mind each time before the test, e.g. long jump, 100 meter run. It will bring us closer to doing the right thing in real life. In endurance sports, imagination helps us in a situation where discomfort arises, when the body tells us: “I can’t do it anymore”. Then the mind enters the game, whose task is to convince people to continue the effort despite fatigue and pain. Imagining yourself at the finish line, cheered by the crowd etc. If we activate our imagination, our attention will shift from body to mind. “The body only stops making efforts when the mind allows it” **.
The great advantage of training is that you can do it anytime, anywhere. You do not need specialized equipment or a suitable place for this. All you need to do is close your eyes and move to your imagination for a moment, there you will repeat a given movement many times, run the route of the run, feel the pre-start emotions, as well as those at the finish line.
How to train?
- Each of us is different. Thus, he has different possibilities to imagine different things. Some people can immediately recall the image, sound, smell and emotions accompanying a given situation, full of colors and sensations. Others will have a hard time bringing up a simple picture at first. Regardless of where you started, by training systematically you are able to use this technique to achieve your goals.
- Above all: Act. In sport, mental training is combined with physical training, and only in this way are we able to achieve the highest efficiency. The mere visualization of success, better technique, weight loss will not make us speed up, lose weight or achieve another goal. The key is our action to direct us to achieve what we dream about, if we add mental training to it, we will achieve the greatest efficiency.
- Think positive. Your dominant thoughts and images affect your entire body. In the mind, we can create both positive and negative images, and the reality around us is the mirror of our beliefs. If you think for a long time: “I will fail”, “I will never heal this injury”, “I can’t run faster”, “I am weak”, then after a while you will start to observe exactly what you are thinking about. Our tendency to create more negative scenarios deepens when we are tired, stressed or sick. However, if you can observe what is going on in your head, what images and thoughts arise there, you will be able to consciously change the course and redirect your attention to the positive aspects.
- Slowly and steadily. Mental training, as the name suggests, is training and to see the effects and take full advantage of its possibilities, you need to devote an appropriate amount of time and energy to it. Train slowly and systematically. Start with simple representations of static images and develop your skills. Over time, add more images, feelings, colors. From static images, go to steps. Transfer your ideas to the sports situations you want to work on.
- Work with a specialist. If you want to incorporate mental training into your training, use the help of a specialist. It will help you plan activities and prepare exercises that will most effectively transfer to them. It will also show you what to look for in relation to your discipline, goals, and assumptions.
If you are interested in the topic of visualization, I also invite you to read the conversation I had on this topic with Katarzyna Selwant, who is an Olympic psychologist, academic lecturer, motivational speaker and sports commentator.
Sit back, close your eyes, relax by taking a few gentle breaths. Stay like this for a few minutes to feel relaxed. Then start imagining different pictures, sounds, and tastes. Observe each of the images and sensations that appear. Notice if any of the sensations are easier for you or if one is more challenging. If only simple images appear at the beginning – notice this and make this your starting point for further work. Repeat the exercise every day, or even several times a day.
For the visualization, you can use the following sample experiences, you can also use your ideas:
- sound: the rain falling, the crowd cheering you on the route, the stomping sound of a person running down the stairs;
- flavor: chocolate, salt, sour grapefruit touch: delicate woolen blanket, cold floor
- smell: freshly mown grass, air after rain, freshly ground coffee
- eyesight: the sun is setting on the beach, the view from the top of the stretching mountain ranges, the finish line of the competition, your home, your bike
* M. Behnke, K. Chlebosz, M. Kaczmarek „Trening mentalny, psychologia sportu w praktyce”.
** C. Karageorghis, P. Terry „Psychologia dla sportowców”.