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Practicing Mindful Visualization

BY TAYLOR BROWN
PHOTO BY ED MORAN

Visualization is widely employed by elite athletes and high performers. Michael Phelps, Novak Djokovic, and Lindsay Vonn are among those who praise this tool for preparing mentally. There’s no doubt that visualization can help you attain your goals, but little attention is paid to the potential risks and how to minimize them. 

For visualization to be effective, you must be deliberate about your intention. Most athletes visualize to build confidence in a future situation, but it’s essential to be specific.

You can visualize when you’re learning a new skill to strengthen neural connections. This applies to game play and strategy as well. The brain doesn’t know the difference between reality and something visualized, so the more you rehearse the skill or strategy in your mind, the more automatic your new learning becomes. You can also visualize how to respond in stressful, emotionally charged situations, which builds confidence when you experience those situations in the future. 

If you’re unclear about the purpose of your visualization, the consequences can be counterproductive. For example, when anxious before a race, you may use visualization to reduce nervousness and increase confidence. But that can backfire if it winds up drawing more attention to the very thing you’re trying to avoid. How to prevent this? Engage first in a mindfulness practice, accepting and releasing the thoughts and emotions that are generating your anxiety. Then, when you’re in a more emotionally stable state, undertake visualization with a specific aim. 

Visualization helps by creating more certainty about the future. When you can picture what’s likely to happen, as well as how to respond, it puts you at ease. One drawback: Visualization may create rigid expectations about what the future should be. If you visualize something happening a certain way, you may lack the mental flexibility to accept and adapt if reality fails to cooperate. To minimize this, hold on to your expectations loosely, keep visualizations realistic, and try to imagine how you’ll respond when real life throws a curveball.

There’s a thin line between visualization and anxiety. Like visualization, anxiety is about the future—a feared future dominated by unpleasant emotion. A handy way to distinguish between anxiety and visualization: When you visualize, you look at your thoughts; when you’re anxious, you look from your thoughts. In other words, your thoughts and emotions take over completely, warping your outlook and stoking apprehension. If anxiety begins to surface during visualization, it’s time to take a break or switch to a mindfulness practice to pacify your nervous system. If visualization creates anxiety continually, then it’s not enhancing your performance and you’re better off adopting a mindfulness practice that focuses on staying grounded.

Visualization can certainly facilitate peak performance, but when used mindlessly, it also can incite undue stress and pressure. To get the most out of visualization, use it mindfully and pay attention to whether it improves your rowing. 


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