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Getting sidelined for any reason—be it a pandemic or an injury—can feel discouraging, but the downtime can actually help athletes return to play even stronger. One of the easiest ways to do it? Visualization: It’s not only a tried-and-true Olympians’ secret, it’s backed by science. Research has shown that seeing ideal performance or even strength-building exercises in the mind’s eye can not only improve skills, but also boost physical strength. In fact, one study out of the University of Chicago found that visualization can improve sports performance nearly as much as practice! Researchers had one group of athletes come to the gym for 30 days to practice free throws, and another group come to the gym, close their eyes and visualize themselves sinking baskets. The group who practiced improved their performance by 24%—and the group who just imagined themselves making baskets improved by 23%!
Of course, it’s still wise to continue exercising as often as possible, but it definitely can’t hurt to add visualization to the downtime training mix. Here’s how to do it:
- Sit in a quiet space with your eyes closed, and focus on your breath. It may help to place the tip of your tongue on the roof of your mouth, to create a centering point.
- Breathe slowly, focusing on your inhalations and exhalations.
- Think of a goal you have in mind, or a skill you’d like to improve. It can be winning a race or any sort of event, or something particular, like nailing a certain shot (scoring a goal).
- For outcome exercises: Let’s use the example of winning a swim race. You’ll want to see your race from start to finish. (You can use this method for any competitive outcome. Simply swap the pool for a track, playing field, etc.)
- Envision yourself diving into the pool. Feel the water as it hits your skin. Pretend you’re really there.
- See yourself making every stroke; every kick. Try to feel all the sensations you’d feel.
- See your swim technique in the best possible way you could imagine. See yourself swimming perfectly, and strong.
- See yourself edging ahead of the competition. No one is around you. They’re all behind you.
- See yourself touch the wall first. Feel the exhilaration of that moment.
- See yourself leave the pool and step onto the winner’s podium, during the awards ceremony. Feel how that would be.
- Visualizing skills is much the same. See yourself scoring that perfect shot. Visualize the perfect technique. Feel exactly how it would feel… Viscerally imagine how all the sensations would be, including the swing of your kick, your toe touching the ball, etc.
- See the ball flying into the net, and feel the exhilaration of the moment.
This may sound woo-woo, but it actually works! Try visualizing your goal before you sleep at night for at least a few weeks. You may catch your Z’s more easily, and as an added bonus, likely experience a boost in confidence.
Lara Rosenbaum is an award-winning journalist and wellness expert whose work has appeared in Women’s Health, Shape, Men’s Health, Runner’s World, Men’s Journal, Prevention, Yoga Journal and other publications. Lara is also a former elite athlete, having traveled the world as a member of the U.S. Freestyle Ski Team.