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Raise Your Game with Sports Visualization
Improving athletic performance starts with your mind. This sports psychologist for five world champion gold medalists is ready to show you how it’s done.
1982. Hawaii. A grueling, long-distance triathlon. It was over 100°F outside, and JoAnn Dahlkoetter was exhausted. Defeated. She had just finished the bike leg of the triathlon and now faced a marathon-distance run. She couldn’t do it. She was forced to walk. She was ready to quit.
Then she thought to herself: Visualize a time when you were strong. Dahlkoetter had practiced sports visualization for years. So she invoked a memory of her strength—the San Francisco marathon in 1980, when she won the race with a blistering time of 2:43. Take that image of the race and feel that now, she told herself. She summoned the specific sensations of that marathon win, picturing the fog rising from Golden Gate Park. She imagined herself passing the other runners. She imagined her body getting stronger.
Then something funny happened. When Dahlkoetter’s mind returned to the present—to the searing heat and unforgiving hills in Hawaii—she found that she was no longer walking. She was running. And she was passing others. Now the TV helicopter above began focusing on her. She passed more runners. And with a back-from-the-dead surge through the field, Dahlkoetter snagged a second-place finish.
Fast forward to 2020. Dahlkoetter—now JoAnn Dahlkoetter, Ph.D., or Dr. JoAnn if you want to get personal—is one of the world’s foremost sports psychologists and an expert in sports visualization. The author of Sports Psychology Coaching for Your Performing Edge, she has trained over 100 world-ranked athletes, including five gold medalists.
Dahlkoetter knows that the secret to improving athletic performance, even—or especially—when races and competitions are on hold, is through the practice of visualization. If you can harness the power of your mind, you can train better, improve faster and win more. What once might have been considered a fringe approach has gone mainstream in a mega way. At the recent winter games, for instance, the Canadians brought along a team of eight sports psychologists. (Not to be outdone, the U.S. brought nine.)
How to practice visualization? It’s less complicated than you might think. This is the six-step plan Dahlkoetter teaches to her clients.
1. Start with Deep Breaths
Close your eyes. Put one hand on your stomach, a few inches below your belly button. Breathe deep. Feel your hand rise and fall with your breathing. “Imagine yourself at an ocean and as the waves roll in, you take in some quality that you want—like confidence, or calmness,” says Dahlkoetter. And as the waves roll out to sea, “imagine they are cleansing you, taking away anything you want to let go of,” such as distractions, anxiety and fear. (The principles are similar to meditation as well as other forms of breathwork.)
2. Picture Your Perfect Result
Get hyper-specific. In your mind, create an outcome that you want to achieve. Maybe it’s swishing a free throw. Maybe it’s nailing the perfect return off your opponent’s serve. Maybe it’s hitting your pace on the final mile of your run. Zero in on the moment, but don’t be surprised or frustrated if random distracting thoughts creep in—it happens and that’s normal. “Let them float away with your next deep breath,” says Dahlkoetter.
3. Incorporate Your Senses
Visualizations work best when they’re as vivid as possible. So don’t just see yourself diving into the swimming pool—feel the cool water against your skin, hear the sound of the splash, smell the chlorine. If you’re visualizing yourself running up a hill, imagine the sounds of your heavy breathing; feel your shoes pushing off the pavement.
4. Think Positive
“You don’t want to replay mistakes,” says Dahlkoetter. Visualizing your errors—flubbing a buzzer-beating layup, or blowing a defensive assignment—can reinforce bad habits. Instead, flip the script. This time, your buzzer-beating layup sinks cleanly through the net and your teammates slap you high-fives. In this movie, your defense is perfect and you smother your opponent while your coach flashes you a thumbs-up and a nod of respect.
5. Find Your Anchor
Once you’ve created a mini-movie of your success, you need an “anchor”—a shortcut to triggering that positive scenario in your mind anytime you need it. Your anchor should be a physical gesture, says Dahlkoetter. In your visualization of winning the race, for instance, maybe you pump your fist when you cross the finish line. That’s your anchor. The fist-pump becomes a kind of “keyboard shortcut” for conjuring up this positive visual during a hard workout or race. “Next time you’re in a tough spot and you need a confidence boost, use your anchor,” says Dr. JoAnn.
6. Turn It Into Reality
To translate your visualization exercise into actual performance, you’ll want to summon that scenario just before, or even during, an important event. For example, when Dahlkoetter prepared for an ice-cold swim in the San Francisco Bay, first she visualized the action at home; then, just before she entered the water, she once again replayed it in her mind. (She aced the swim.) Positive results reinforce positive visualization, leading to more positive results… it’s a powerful feedback loop.
Still a little fuzzy on how this works? Here are some additional tips for getting started:
- Start with something simple. “Imagine cutting up a lemon, and bringing the lemon towards your mouth,” says Dahlkoetter. In your mind, smell the lemon and pucker at the taste on your tongue. The best visualizations are ones that engage all your senses.
- Do it just before bed. “What you think about before you go to sleep is what you tend to dream about,” says Dahlkoetter. This helps cement the visualization in your mind.
- Play with different scenarios. Sporting events are full of unexpected plot twists, so visualize how you will successfully adapt. What if your opponent throws a surprise left hook? Picture yourself getting hit—then striking back. What if the race is blazing hot? Imagine slipping on your shades and staring down the sun.
- Use visualization to manage pain. You should never ignore serious injuries, but if you’re struggling with discomfort or fatigue in a race, you can do an “external visualization”—watching yourself struggle, then watching yourself run on. “This makes it easier to distance yourself from the situation,” says Dahlkoetter.
- Think of your mind like a muscle. Visualization is a way of “taking your brain to the gym,” says Dahlkoetter. With practice, you can train your mind to be more flexible and to smoothly shift from negative to positive gears.