“Mental” Practice Makes Perfect

Most, if not all, elite athletes use visualization and imagery techniques regularly. Olympic swimmer Michael Phelps visualizes his events before and after each race. He has won twenty-five gold medals. The Navy SEALs visualize their missions before they jump into the dark night to execute them, and they have a 95 percent success rate. This skill is even more powerful when done with a whole team. At my company we are teaching corporate teams to visualize their future and mission outcomes together, and they are finding that they are navigating this VUCA world with more success and confidence.

Mental practice will get you as close to perfect as you’ll ever come—but don’t mistake perfect visualizations for perfection in the pool or on the field or at the conference (or in the jungle.) You and your teams are not likely to be perfect at anything, ever. When you practice anything in the real world, be it sports, musical instruments, surgery, or what have you, your skills improve but rarely reach perfection. When you practice those same skills in your mind, however, you get to control all the variables, especially the outcome. That means it is perfect practice that leads to optimal results for that day and time of the performance. Decades of studies have shown that mental repetition, with perfect form, yields better results than physical practicing alone. 

In an interesting experiment at the University of Chicago back in the 1950s, Dr. Biassiotto wanted to test the power of visualization to improve athletic skills. He took ninety college students and had them practice free throws for an afternoon, recording their individual stats. Then, he split them into three groups. The first group practiced shooting for an hour every day. The second group merely visualized shooting free throws every day. The third group was a control group that did nothing. After thirty days, Dr. Biasiotto brought everyone back in and had them shoot, recording their stats. The group that practiced one hour daily improved by 20 percent collectively. The visualization group improved 19 percent—without ever touching a basketball! The control group showed no improvement at all. Here’s the biggest catch: none of these students had ever shot a basketball prior to his study. Imagine getting better at a skill you never physically practiced? 

How is that possible? 

Success starts with winning in the mind. If you’re trying to develop top athletic skills, it starts in the mind. You see yourself doing it, which creates self-belief. Then, you begin the task of practicing the activity to develop the basic skills, and you grow from there. This happens naturally. We don’t try out for a team or pick up an instrument or any new hobby without imagining ourselves doing it. Most of the time we’re not conscious, however, that we’re doing this. We’re not focused on the mental part of the exercise, so it goes by the wayside as soon as we start to work to master the physical skill. 

But remember: the body-mind doesn’t discriminate between visualizing and performing…because our body lives in the state our mind tells it to. The same neural pathways that arise from learning something new or having a new experience, develop when we visualize performing a new skill, having a new experience, or achieving a new goal. The body might not be chasing a ball around a court and breaking out in a sweat, but the brain, as Dr. Biassiotto’s study proved, is being trained to perform the tedious skill of shooting, nonetheless. This is the body-mind connection.

When I was at Colgate University, my swim coach had me visualize my two-hundred-meter breaststroke race with a stopwatch. It was a real challenge to hold my concentration for that long. It took me several months before I could finish the entire eight lengths and press stop on the watch. When I was finally able to do it, the time that I swam mentally was about three seconds faster than my fastest actual swim time. It doesn’t sound like much, but for competitive swimming, that is a very long time! That school year, I failed to reach that time in practice or competition, and the following fall semester I went to London for an economics semester abroad. When I returned to school the following spring, I ran into my coach, who invited me to jump in the water for the team’s final meet. I hadn’t been in a pool for close to a year. I jumped off the blocks into the water, and I had this feeling that I had swum this race before. I was relaxed (which is another key to peak performance which is enhanced with mental training) and finished the event three seconds faster than my fastest time! That was a powerful anchor telling me that effective, sustained visualization practice is an extraordinarily powerful tool.

Bottom line: If you want to be uncommon and serve in a unique way, you must see what you desire, and then practice it in your mind. Your desired future depends on this. 

You are today the person you saw five years ago doing the things you’re now doing. You’re the countless small choices you have made because of that vision. Do you want that same person to show up for the next five years? If not, you’ve got to imagine something different. Change your story to change your choices, change your imagery to change your life. 

You won’t likely see massive results at first. Most of my students have trouble holding their concentration when they start. Others can’t see anything in their mind’s eye. These skills are cultivated through daily practice. 

Most of us are strong in rational and linear thinking skills. The world is 90 percent left-brained, which is our logical side. So, if you have a predisposition for imaginative thought, then consider yourself lucky. That type of thinking will be crucial in the future. 

Regardless of your current skill base, practice is the only way to hone your visual mind.

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