Listen to any evening of tape-delayed Olympic coverage and you will hear the term “visualization." Good stuff. Mental imagery can be impactful for positive emotions, motivation, learning, and confidence. This being said, be slow to imagine yourself in a USA gymnastics leotard, wearing a team USA Speedo, or donning a wrestling singlet emblazoned with the stars and stripes.
Rich and emotional mental images can go a long way towards shaping your athletic life… yet there is devil in the details. Content matters. Visualizations have been shown to help shape one’s beliefs about the ability to complete challenging tasks (a.k.a. self-efficacy). Exercise certainly provides challenging tasks to embrace. Albert Bandura, the Godfather of self-efficacy, has firmly stated that using “superstars exhibiting their matchless performances” as mental models does little to build one’s own beliefs. Envisioning people striving that are most similar to ourselves provides greater benefit to one’s confidence. So imagining yourself as Ryan Lochte powering through the 200-meter freestyle may be nice, but imagining you yourself exploding off the walls during a 200 freestyle will yield greater mental and emotional benefits.
Furthermore, dreaming of Olympic gold is not all it is cracked up to be. Sure it may be entertaining and a fun flight of fancy for the ego, but such images hold minimal performance benefit. Researchers from the University of Windsor, Ontario recently examined imagery use and its relationship to mental toughness. They added further scientific fuel to the argument that focusing on results does little to help one succeed on the playing field. It was found that many types of mental imagery helped build confidence and commitment. Yet visualizations of winning the gold medal could not be included on this list of beneficial images. Images of actions during competition and successfully battling through adversity make mental toughness… visualizations of standing on the podium is little more than daydreaming.
Filling one’s head with positive images, certainly trumps negativity. To maximize performance however be purposeful in the nutritional content of your mental imagery. A good rule of thumb: See you, see do. A diet laden with rich images of you striving will encourage and enable you to thrive in exercise and sport.
Dr. Adam Naylor leads Telos Sport Psychology Consulting and is a Clinical Assistant Professor in Boston University’s School of Education. He has a decade and a half of experiences working with professional through amateur athletes – of note: US Open competitors, NCAA champions, Olympians, Stanley Cup winners, and UFC martial artists. Beyond sports, over the past five years he has served as a corporate performance and wellness consultant. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @ahnaylor.