What is Visualization?
Visualization is a mental exercise where an athlete creates a mental movie in their mind regarding an intended consequence of a specific play, a team strategy, or even an entire game. This technique is used by sport psychologists so that athletes can prepare for the reality of performance. Playing these movie reels in their minds beforehand has been shown to reduce anxiety, lower heart rate response, and keep a player more calm and focused. All of these psychologic aspects improve overall performance on game day. Visualization is also called guided imagery, and even self-hypnosis.
All Five Senses
Visualization begins with a picture, but it also includes all the senses. For example, during a guided imagery session, the athlete not only sets up a visual scenario but also includes how her body feels, the sounds around her, the smells of the field, and even the taste in her mouth.
Practice makes Perfect
We ask our players to show up to practice early so that they can practice throwing and hitting and fielding over and over and over again. We also need to have our athletes practice these mental strategies. It is not something we naturally know how to do; it’s a skill that takes practice. There's strong research that shows that sports performance is drastically improved with visualization. It builds confidence in athletes' ability to perform, handle pressure, and act quickly and effectively in game situations. It gives athletes a mental edge and a competitive advantage!
How to Implement this with your Players
Practice what you will say before you guide your players through this. It is crucial to have the visualization guide’s voice sound comfortable, confident and relaxed. Players need to hear a calm and collected voice in order to successfully learn this skill. After you are comfortable with what you will say, try to lead your players through a group visualization. Here are steps to begin with:
1. Have your athletes lay down in a comfortable quiet place. I suggest laying on exercise mats or yoga mats for comfort. If you can find a dark room that's even better, so distractions are kept to a minimum.
2. Tell them all to close their eyes, relax their bodies, and take several long, slow breaths.
3. Begin to describe a vivid and realistic image of a situation they are all familiar with. For example, if you are working on perfecting double plays you can begin to describe that.
4. Remind them that if they do become distracted or find their mind wandering, simply acknowledge it and let it go.
5. Continue to remind them to focus on their breathing throughout the visualization.
6. As you walk them through the visualization, include any and all sights, sounds, tastes, feelings and smells of the experience.
7. Take note of as much detail of the scene as possible. For example, you may include specific people who are in the stands, note the specific opposing team’s uniforms, and even describe the weather and how it feels that day.
8. Always end an imagery session with a positive outcome. The purpose is to have them experience a positive outcome before the actual event.
9. When the visualization is complete give them a few minutes to lay in silence and allow them to continue their own version of what happens and how they feel. Then ask them to slowly open their eyes whenever they feel ready, slowly sit up and then you can turn on the lights once everyone is sitting upright.
After each visualization exercise, there is a fabulous opportunity for a group discussion to ask how that specific situation made them feel. Remember that there are no right or wrong answers to this question. A short recap will help them process their experience and allow it to sink in further. It is also important for each player to understand how their teammates feel.
Doing this as a team builds camaraderie and team cohesion. But I also suggest having them do it at home by themselves so that can each work on specific scenarios and/or skills that each individual needs to work on. Every player has strengths and weaknesses and therefore they each have different visualizations that will help them more. Coaches can certainly make suggestions to each player about what you think they should work on at home. Save team exercises for what you think the entire team needs to work on. Doing this ensures increased confidence and improved performance on both the individual level and the team as a whole.
Jennifer O'Donnell-Giles, MS RDN CSSD, is a former softball player, coach and parent.