My sister in law rowed in the Olympics in Seoul in 1988. Juliet was considered too small, too young, and too inexperienced to be a contender for the team, yet she overcame these obstacles to win a seat on the priority boat that competed against the Eastern Bloc powerhouses of Romania, East Germany and the Soviet Union. She attributes much of her success to her nightly visualization exercises in the two years leading up to team selection, a process that she claims both calmed her nerves and kept her focused on the singular goal of representing the U.S. in Seoul.
Intentional, focused, repeated visualization
Juliet reports walking herself through the same exact process every night when she turned off the light. First, she concentrated on what she needed to do the next day to make the Olympic team. A workout or ergometer test; a session in the weight room or on the water. Juliet focused on those specific skills or efforts she needed to perform the next day to find the extra speed or strength to stay on the team and make it to Seoul. Maybe it was a technical issue in the boat, or hitting a PR on the ergometer, or reaching a new max in bench row. But Juliet saw herself achieving that specific task the night before she went out to try it.
Second, Juliet considered what milestone event was approaching several weeks out. With regular national team tests, races, and time trials, there were constant team-wide yardsticks against which to measure herself. Again, she would see herself performing these tests, always with a successful outcome.
Finally – and this was the part she looked forward to every night – Juliet visualized herself walking into the Opening Ceremonies at the Olympic Games. She could feel the warmth of the sun-blasted waiting arena packed with 11,000 excited athletes, hear the reverberation of hushed voices in the tunnel beneath the stands, and was stunned nightly by the noise of 100,000 cheering fans as she entered the stadium. Juliet laughs that she walked into that stadium 584 times before she did it for real. It was the way she fell asleep every night for nearly two years. It kept her excited and motivated, even when the goal of competing in Seoul seemed impossible to achieve.
But here’s the kicker. When Juliet finally did walk into the Opening Ceremonies in Seoul on September 25, 1988, it was exactly as she had foreseen for so long. With one exception. Three quarters of the way around the stadium, in a field of waving American flags, she spotted her parents. In a crowd of 100,000 they shone like a beacon, holding hands and raising them above their heads in a salute to the strength that coursed like a laser beam between them. Juliet never expected that. And to this day she can’t tell the story without choking up.
A Visualization Tradition in Athletes
Athletes across diverse disciplines have been harnessing the power of visualization for a long time. The New York Times reports Al Oerter and Billie Jean King using it in the 1960s. The Soviets institutionalized a psychological aspect to their sports machine in the early 1970s. Canadian bobsledder, Lyndon Rush, raced the Olympic course hundreds of times in his head before he arrived in Sochi in 2014. Champion golfer, Jack Nicklaus, said: “I never hit a shot, not even in practice, without having a very sharp in-focus picture of it in my head.” A 1984 survey of 235 Canadian athletes preparing for the Olympics revealed that 99% of them used visualization as part of their preparation for the Games.
Brain studies now reveal that imagery can produce the same mental instructions as actions. A study looking at brain patterns in weightlifters found that the patterns activated when a weightlifter lifted hundreds of pounds were similarly activated when they only imagined lifting. In a North American Journal of Psychology study, athletes who were asked to mentally practice a hip flexor exercise had nearly the same gains as those athletes who actually performed that exercise on a weight machine. So the brain is getting trained for actual performance during visualization. More recent studies suggest that imagery can be successfully used for injury rehabilitation in athletes as they visualize their own recovery.
Imagining Success Beyond Sports
It’s not necessary to be a world-class athlete to harness the power of visualization. Musicians, actors, doctors, lawyers, entrepreneurs and anyone else intent on achieving a lofty goal or overcoming a difficult challenge can utilize imagery in their preparation. Businessmen delivering an impactful speech, litigators presenting a complicated case, women navigating through the labor and delivery of a child; visualization can be an enormous asset in all these cases. Although we have no way to prove it, the Wright brothers likely saw themselves in flight and Lewis and Clark imagined themselves standing on the beach well before they flew a plane or reached the Pacific ocean. The critical elements to using imagery in preparation for an event are to be intentional, specific, consistent and positive, repeatedly imagining yourself successfully achieving your goal, over and over again. Here are three more guardrails to keep in mind when practicing visualization:
- Use all your senses. What does it feel like? Are you hot or cold? Wet or dry? What can you smell? What noise surrounds you? Try to reach for not only seeing yourself achieving your goal, but feeling it as well.
- Don’t be the audience. Visualize achievement from your own perspective, don’t watch yourself doing it, be in your body doing it in your mind’s eye.
- Practice. Visualization becomes like a image-laced chant that your repeat to yourself daily. Be consistent and resilient in your practice of a seeing yourself there.
Visualization is proven, effective and exciting. And if it works for Juliet and other Olympians, it can work for all of us.