“Victorious warriors win first and then go to war, while defeated warriors go to war first and then seek to win” – Sun Tzu, The Art of War
The Art of War, by Sun Tzu, was written in the 5th Century B.C. and the quote above is referring to being prepared for battle mentally by visualizing your enemies’ moves before they execute them. Knowing the lay of the land before you step foot on the battlefield. As your enemy draws his sword, visualize your defense and counterattack. Visualize every movement you make before engaging in battle with your mind until your body responds without thought.
Fast-forward over 2,000 years to the most recent winter Olympics. I watched athletes before the start of the Super-G downhill ski race visualizing and moving their bodies as if they were on-course for their run, or the snowboarders visualizing and mimicking the twists, spins, and flips prior to dropping in on the super pipe. Every great athlete, just as every great warrior uses visualization to prepare both body and mind. I use it before every race, and coach my athletes to do the same. Particularly in long events like Ironman triathlon. An Ironman is such a long day with months of preparation and the likelihood of everything going right on race day is slim. I coach my athletes to visualize how they want the race to unfold, but also visualize obstacles. Someone knocks your goggles off in the swim, now mentally rehearse how your will resolve this. You get a flat tire. Visualize how you will shift your gears, come to a stop, take off the wheel and change the tire. Or your body begins to cramp/hurt/shutdown. Visualize how you will calm down and overcome these hurdles. When my body and lungs begin to hurt in a race or while training, I visualize a one-eyed scarred up lion. He will stop at nothing to complete his mission. I swear to you that each time I envision this lion running after his prey, with mouth open, relaxed but focused breathing, blank but focused stare, I emulate this. And I start to run faster…. Every time…
One pretty well known experiment is the one done with basketball players shooting free throws. Thirty athletes were separated into 3 groups. Group one shot free throws everyday for an hour. Group two mentally rehearsed shooting free throws for an hour. Group 3 did nothing. The test was conducted over a 30-day period. At the end of the experiment group 1 improved by 24%. Group 3 showed zero improvement, and group two, who again only practiced by visualization improved by 24%. This test has been replicated several times with very similar results. The intense visualization created a neuromuscular firing pattern that creates motor unit recruitment and therefore response and proper performance. Read more about the basketball study here. Former Navy SEAL Commander Mark Divine tells a similar story about visualizing a college swim time in his book Unbeatable Mind.
Taking visualization out of sport, you can visualize conflict resolution in business, preparing yourself mentally to respond to objections or criticisms. People have even healed themselves from devastating, life-altering injuries using visualization. Dr. Joe Dispenza is known for healing his broken back with fracture & compressed vertebrae by visualizing intensely without waiver for 12 months. You can read about his healing in his book You Are the Placebo. He mentally built his spine visualizing every vertebrae and every disk in exact detail and focus. Told by medical professionals that he would never walk again, he began walking 9.5 weeks post injury and healed himself. You can read more about his accident and healing here. I have personally seen quadriplegics begin to get movement and muscle firing back in once paralyzed limbs by intense visualization.
Regardless if you are using visualization for personal or professional reasons, for sport or for healing, the evidence has been abundantly clear that it works. The catch is you REALLY have to focus. You can’t simply “think” about yourself being good at a sport, or responding better at the office. You have to see it, feel it, and make it as real as possible in your mind. It will take practice and you must be patient. Begin with something simple like writing a letter of the alphabet. In your mind see and feel the pen in your hand. How does it feel when you pick it up? Which fingers are holding the pen? Which finger has more pressure than the others on the pen? What does it feel like when the ballpoint of the pen touches the paper? Get my drift here. You must be VERY descriptive in your mind in order for visualization to truly work. It may seem like a lot of work, and it is, but trust me, it will be worth it.