According to Michael Phelps’ coach, Bob Bowman, Phelps spends over two hours per day envisioning success prior to major meets. Bowman explained, “For months before a race Michael gets into a relaxed state. [...] He sees himself winning. He smells the air, tastes the water, hears the sounds, sees the clock.” Michael Phelps is not the only champion who has used this type of mental training. LeBron James, four time NBA most valuable player, had the Cavalier’s staff make a 10 minute highlight reel of him sinking three point shots that he watched every night before falling asleep.
These superstars are practicing a preparation technique called visualization. Visualization is the practice of envisioning a desired outcome by actively preparing your mind, the subconscious specifically, for what is to come.
The subconscious is the “auto-pilot” side of your brain. It is the bulk of the iceberg beneath the water that takes care of your basic life functions, your fight or flight responses, and your learned behaviors and habits. In fact, 95% of brain activity occurs at the subconscious level. While your conscious mind feels like it’s in the driver’s seat, your subconscious mind has a much larger influence over your behavior and thoughts.
Fortunately, you have the ability to use your conscious brain to reprogram your subconscious and change your thoughts, perspectives, and habits. By actively feeding your subconscious with positive thoughts and emotions, you can rewire your subconscious brain to better achieve your goals. This is where visualization practice comes in.
Whether you realize it or not, your brain is constantly visualizing. What most people do not realize is that we have control over these visualizations and can use them to our benefit.
If you have never practiced visualization before, it can seem a bit daunting. In the remainder of this post, I will explain how to perform a simple visualization process for weightlifting. For this example, we will visualize a max snatch attempt. This can, however, be applied to other sports and major life events.
As with any new skill, it’s best to start with the basics. Find a quiet time and space where you can be alone and feel relaxed. A few easy options include in bed upon waking, before falling asleep, or in the shower or bath. Start by comfortably positioning your body, and closing your eyes. Take 5 to 10 deep breaths, and let go of any emotions or thoughts fighting for your attention.
Next, set the scene of where you will be executing your lift. What do you see? Smell? Feel? Hear? Imagine the gym—the way the platform looks, how the barbell is loaded, the people around you, the music playing on the speakers, even the smells of the gym (we’re going for realistic, not idealistic).
Once you’ve awakened all your senses, turn inwards. It’s game day— you’re nervous. Maybe you feel your blood pumping, hands shaking, adrenaline pulsing. Or perhaps you feel excited, happy that the day has finally come to show off all your hard work. The feelings you create during your visualization practice will become the ones you feel when you execute your lifts.
Next, go through the motions of your max out session, continuing to tune into the senses and your body. Feel your hands in the chalk bucket, the way your body moves through your setup routine, and how your breathing changes as you approach the bar. Hear the cues you tell yourself as you bend down to grab the barbell and the words of encouragement from your coach or teammates. Feel the knurling of the bar between your hands, your core bracing, your legs pushing the ground away from you, and the weight of the bar as it disconnects from the floor. Slow the movement down in your mind. Feel the bar pass your knees and your lats tighten to keep it close. Feel your ankles, knees and hips extend. Hear the bar making contact with your hips. Feel yourself pulling under the bar, bracing to catch, and your feet landing perfectly under your hips. Feel the emotions of hitting a new PR. And smile as you stand up feeling accomplished and confident.
Repeat this again, each time getting slightly more detailed, adding to the senses and emotions as you progress. If you get side tracked or your thoughts become negative (this will happen), rewind and start over. This is your film, and you are the director.
Practice this every day. Figure out what works best for you, and make your own version. Maybe you like to meditate first. Maybe you prefer seeing yourself from the outside. Maybe you find it helpful to be active during your practice--mimicking your breathing patterns, reciting the words you tell yourself before a lift, going through your body’s movements, even getting your heart rate up. The most important part is to make your practice feel as realistic as possible, so that when the day comes to perform, it’s like you have already been there.
With repeated practice, you are feeding your subconscious with images and feelings of achievement. It may seem excessive to go into this level of detail, but it’s what’s required to rewire your subconscious. You’re creating optimistic thought patterns and shaping the way your body responds to stressful situations.
Visualization practice allows you to replace negative thoughts about your capabilities and prospects with visions of success. It allows you to write your own script, choose your outlook, and create the outcome. Visualization is anticipating the unknown and preparing your response. It’s actively seeing yourself succeed. Again and again. So when game day comes, you’re simply pressing play on the movie you’ve already directed.