VISUALIZATION: IMPROVE YOUR GAME WITH 3 CRUCIAL VISUALIZATION TECHNIQUES YOU MAY HAVE MISSED
Visualization is a powerful tool that most beginner and intermediate athletes can miss. I'm not talking about imagining yourself holding up the winner's trophy. It's about learning to systematically re-engineer your weaknesses and turn them into strengths through a guided process. It's about how you can dramatically speed up your learning curve in any sport. Here's what is involved:
- HIGHER vs. LOWER
- THE THIRD EYE
- EYES WIDE OPEN
- FRINGE BENEFITS
From a coach's perspective, let me start by saying that I don't know any mentally tough athlete who hasn't leveraged visualization. And I don't know any athlete using visualization, which is not mentally tough. Mental toughness and visualization are not mutually exclusive. You need both for the magic to happen. When these two cornerstone elements get anchored together, they set up a path for accelerated learning.
HIGHER vs. LOWER
When learning a sport, we know that playing higher-skilled players forces improvement. It pushes us to try harder, and we get to see good techniques in action. But that's only part of the story. There are reasons to play higher-skilled players, and there are reasons to play equally skilled players and even lesser-skilled players.
Playing with someone who equals you in skill level will help you concentrate. Not knowing the outcome during practice or competition holds value. When playing against a player of similar ability, either can win. This brings excellent focus – because the first to lose focus will probably lose the match.
There is also value in playing players of lower ability. It allows you to build your confidence, hone techniques, and practice new shots without being consumed about winning or losing. This practice partner may also enhance your ability to concentrate. I say this because playing a weaker opponent can result in over-confidence, making it harder to stay dialed in.
There are great benefits when playing players of higher ability levels. As you might guess, boosting your self-confidence is not one of them. However, you get to test yourself when you play a higher-level player. You test how well you can compete while they are tearing your game and mind apart.
This is a golden opportunity to examine your weaknesses and, as importantly, the chance to ascertain your mental toughness, starting with your self-awareness. That self-awareness will prove extremely valuable in visualization proficiency. Let's dive into expanding our visualization abilities and why they're essential.
THE THIRD EYE
Visualization is powerful in a competitive setting. The most successful athletes in the world visualize their success before a competition. They also hone in on visualizing specific excellent technique.
They create mental pictures of the outcome they want to achieve. These images are created using the five senses to mentally rehearse the sport in their mind.
If you've had any meditation training, you've probably heard of "the third eye ."This ancient chakra represents intuition and insight—an inner vision beyond what the physical eyes can see. The third eye governs self-awareness, visualization, clarity, discernment, imagination, and creative dreaming.
Third-eye visualization can help teach you how to respond to a situation before it happens. It also enables you to achieve your goals by conditioning your brain to see, hear, and feel the success in your mind.
Visualization is not mystical or hocus pocus; instead, it's a technique you can master. Research supports that visualizing an event in advance can improve your mental performance and your physical performance.
Additionally, visualization is an excellent technique for weight loss and wellness. It is proven through visualization a person can learn to crave nutritious foods, desire proper hydration, and innately aspire to a more active lifestyle. Through visualization, you can achieve more energy and resist unhealthy choices.
Coach's sidebar: If we know that top athletes use visualization and we hear them talk about it, why is this precious tool elusive for many of us? In my years of coaching and trying to encourage this technique, I've heard all kinds of excuses from students:
"But coach, when I close my eyes, it's dark."
"Oh no. I can't. When I close my eyes, I see toxic waste floating down a stream."
"Wait, coach, when I close my eyes, I can't hear anything."
Oh, the clever recalcitrance of youth! Nevertheless, we can take these same vivid imaginings and turn them to our advantage. It takes practice, just like your forehand.
EYES WIDE OPEN
When you visualize what you want to achieve, you are consciously deciding to look for information about a situation that will improve your performance outcomes. Visualization is training for your mind, like practicing game mechanics is training for your body.
Olympians have used visualization techniques for decades. Elite athletes are using visualization with their eyes wide open! Let's learn how this happens.
Step One: A Clear Picture
Choose a part of your game you want to improve. Choose your favorite high-level player – the one you want to emulate. Study and absorb how they play until you grasp their stroke technique. Get a very clear picture of how the stroke should look.
Close your eyes and imagine it. Practice doing this. Eventually, once you 'own' the image, you can see it anywhere. This image becomes your North Star, bright and clear.
Try to copy your favorite player every time you hit this shot. After some time, you will unconsciously emulate this shot during play. At first, you won't be as good as your hero, but this kind of visualization will put you on a fast track toward improving.
Like in any physical activity, repetition leads to improvement. Repetition leads to mental clarity. If you repeat images of success in your mind, you will be more likely to experience success when the real scenario happens.
Step Two: A segmented analysis
I recommend you take the time to compile several short videos of your favorite player making the specific shot you're working on. Find at least six different video clips of your hero doing that stroke.
Watching these clips will help you dial in and isolate that stroke. Watch it over and over. This is very different than watching a whole match with all its distractions.
Watch the specific video clips in slow motion and stop-action. Move forward and back to break the components of the stroke apart.
This kind of 'segment analysis' will amplify your mental imaging of the stroke. Do a deep dive to see the details and nuances of the stroke that cannot be examined at full speed. Remember power of visualization examples
Step Three: Eyes Wide Open
Repetitively watching your favorite player make this shot will allow a chemical pathway in your brain to become well-established. Because the brain cannot distinguish whether you are imagining something or doing it, the brain goes about creating the necessary new neural connections.
These brain connections act like blueprints to be followed during the actual performance. The strength of the connections is directly proportional to the intensity of your imagination. Your brain is built to envision virtually every thought it has.
Once you achieve adequate visualization repetition combined with segment analysis, the stroke will become crystal clear. The stroke will become so familiar that you can bring it to your third eye without effort.
Now it's time to emulate the stroke in real-time with your eyes wide open. You will feel the familiarity of the stroke. It can seem like magic, but it's just the result of using more of the brain's potential in a structured, practical system.
Coach's sidebar: I move to the ball in tennis or pickleball. I watch the ball at impact and aim for a target. I track the ball, not the target. Like golfers, I don't look toward the target as I'm striking the ball. The target is an image in my mind where I want the ball to go. The stroke and the target are both essential components of high-level performance. The clearer the images are ingrained in my mind, the easier it becomes to hit a great shot with proper technique – eyes wide open.
To make a change, you must first understand what is happening internally. This is part of self-awareness. When you practice visualization through self-awareness, you place yourself in a position to advance.
There are other benefits of practicing visualization beyond increasing your sports skills. Visualization can improve reaction time. It has also been proven to overcome the 'choke.'
Research has consistently shown that visualization helps you reduce stress, relax your muscles, and promote better sleep. And it can have a positive impact on your immune system.
Visualization can harness the power of the mind to reduce pain. It's always accessible and has no significant side effects. Studies show that people who pictured participating in sports increased their strength, even if an injury immobilized them. Visualization deserves a place in your pain management tool kit.
As with all things in life, nobody is perfect. You'll miss shots, be in the wrong position, and lose matches. Visualization will help desensitize these kinds of situations. It helps calm nerves and improves resiliency.
Coach's sidebar: Part of expanding our mental awareness involves seeking out coaches or tools that can help us examine our techniques and guide us along a path toward our model stroke. Many coaches use video replay to enable us to watch ourselves. There is software on the market today that allows us to compare our strokes with our favorite stars. Use these tools to strengthen your mental imaging abilities.
Good players train their skills. Great players also train their minds. The more you visualize with clear intent, the more focused you become and the higher the probability of achieving your goal. The more you visualize your favorite stars and the more details you can absorb, the more you will become like them.
Be well, my friends.
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