Times are unsettling. People in all walks of life are faced with strange mixes of uncertainty, boredom, and alterations to normal routines. In the sports world, athletes from youth to the pro levels are dealing with necessary distancing from teammates and shared workout facilities.
While some aspects of the COVID-19 pandemic are certainly unprecedented in our lifetimes, this is probably not the first time you have felt thrown off your game. And I can pretty much guarantee it won't be the last. That’s not fortune telling, that’s just the nature of life.
But in adversity there is opportunity. This situation can be a chance for athletes to rest and recover, to develop creative strength and conditioning strategies, to grow in terms of spirituality, and to foster safe social connection. Along with these positive coping approaches, I want to suggest another skill that is often overlooked among the demands of a busy sports season: mental imagery. Now can be a great time to build your mental imagery muscle.
I've talked with many athletes at all levels of sport. Almost all of them have heard of mental imagery, but amazingly few have learned how to do it effectively. Imagery is a skill, and as with any sports skill, improvement takes practice. If you do make time to build this skill, you’ll gain a powerful tool to remain steady under pressure, get extra practice without aggravating injuries, hone your game without overtraining, and build the feelings of confidence and joy that come with peak performance.
When you learn to do full sensory, real-time, first person mental imagery, you stimulate the parts of your brain and neuromuscular system involved in actual movement and performance. In a very real sense, you can give yourself the experience of being on the court, in the pool, on the field, and in the mix of dynamic team interaction even when you are socially distanced from teammates and workout venues. Call it your own built-in virtual reality feature!
Would you agree that’s a skill well worth developing?
Effective imagery doesn't actually start with visualization. It starts with bringing yourself into a calm, centered state. To do that, first focus on your breathing. Find a quiet place to sit, in a relaxed but upright posture. Closing your eyes usually works best for this, but you could also choose to hold your gaze on a particular spot in front of you. Next, allow a deep breath in through your nose, filling your whole abdomen and ribcage. Then, slowly release the breath through your mouth. Keep it natural and steady.
Focus on the repeated rising and falling of your breath for a couple of minutes. If your mind wanders, no problem, that’s what minds do! Just patiently bring your focus back around to your breath each time it happens. After at least ten breath cycles, you'll be feeling more calm and focused. If this isn't obvious at first, be patient. Remember, it's a skill that takes practice!
Engage your senses
To get the full benefit of mental imagery, it’s important to involve multiple senses. Also, take
a first person perspective, from within your own body. The more senses that you engage, the more the sensory and motor areas of your brain will be activated, like they are when doing actual activity. It’s best to close your eyes when you start the imagery, but for now keep them open and read on.
Start with visual imagery. Begin to picture a familiar sports venue, one where you’ve played or practiced many times. Really take in all the visual detail, from the way the light shines from the rafters or the sky, to the colors of the logo on the court, the lettering on the scoreboard, the stitching on the ball. See your teammates and coaches; their facial expressions and body posture. Notice the way the scene shifts as you visually scan from place to place.
Next, bring your sense of hearing into the scene. Hear the squeak of court shoes, the splash of pool water, the voices of your teammates as you warm up together. Whatever familiar sounds exist as part of a typical warmup, bring them into your imagery.
From there, while keeping your first person perspective, engage your sense of touch. Feel the air temperature, and how humid or dry it is in this setting. Sense the surface underneath your feet, the feel of a ball or racquet in your hand, and the familiar feeling of whatever clothing and gear you play in.
Don’t forget to include the kinesthetic sense of your body in space: how your arms and legs move, how tense or relaxed you are in your jaw, your shoulders, your back. If you notice excess tension somewhere, breathe in deeply and feel that tension released as you exhale. Notice the sense of confidence and the positive body language that comes with that release, and remember what that feels like!
You can even include your sense of smell in your imagery, whether that includes chlorinated pool water, the smell of cut grass on a ball field, or maybe just the fragrance of sweaty old knee pads!
Ready for primetime
With all your senses engaged, you can now transition from a mental warmup into a full competition situation. See the opposing players in uniform, hear the sound of spectators, smell the popcorn being sold at the concession stand. Don’t be surprised if you notice an increase in muscle tension or other signs of performance intensity as you do this. If so, it just means you’re doing well at creating a full sensory experience. Breathe into that tension and recenter yourself as you release the air from your lungs.
Keeping your first person perspective, take yourself through sequences of competition in real time. If you’re a runner, you could rehearse the experience of surging with a competitor who passes you, and out-kicking them at the end of a race. If you’re a volleyball player, put yourself in the mix of a perfectly executed sequence of pass, set, and kill.
While imagery is most often used to rehearse ideal execution of sports skills, you can also use it to practice overcoming situations that don’t go well. Doing so allows you to have a better mental blueprint for how you can let go of mistakes and move on from them, following up with confident, solid performance. Errors are part of any sports competition. True champions are not perfect performers, they’re just the ones who respond best to mistakes.
The only limit is your capacity to imagine
This is just the beginning. Once you are comfortable with doing basic imagery, you can apply it to increasingly complex movements and longer periods of time. Set a timer to see if your imagery of a competitive situation is equal to the actual time it takes (such as for a personal best race time or the normal length of a game period).
With time and repeated practice, imagery will help you not only to perform better, but to bring more confidence and enjoyment to the experience. It will also keep you emotionally connected to your sport during this odd but necessary break, and mentally sharp for the time when social distancing has passed and competition resumes. Meanwhile, keep the faith... that time is coming!