Studies have time and again shown that our brains cannot tell the difference between an actual physical event and the vivid visualisation of that same event
When we experience something and when we visualise the same thing, we activate similar brain circuits. Being able to visualise effectively and to be taught how to do so in an easy and accessible way creates powerful habits that are transferred into performance.
Visualisation is like a form of meditation. Where it differs is that meditation is about being aware and paying attention to thoughts, feelings and sounds. Visualisation is a more directed practise bringing in images, scenarios and situations. Effective visualisation has been compared to watching a movie in high definition on a massive screen with a clear and precise sound system. Everything should be vivid with a lot of attention to detail including sounds, smells and emotional feelings. Even being as detailed as visualising the feel of what muscles are activating is recommended when performing a task or skill.
Brain scans of London taxi drivers have shown that the posterior hippocampus, a part of the brain related to learning and memory, is physically larger and has grown after they acquired ‘The Knowledge’. The gruelling memory test requires these taxi drivers to learn and remember 320 routes within a six-mile radius of Charing Cross and covers a mind-boggling 25,000 streets and 20,000 landmarks.
This shows that the human brain remains plastic even in adulthood and adapts to learn new tasks
Studies go on to show that there are consistently several key benefits across the board when you practice visualisation. They are; confidence, motivation, focus, movements, strength, reaction times, rewiring of the brain and epigenetic change (a change in your DNA).
Athletes talk a lot about visualisation and the impacts they have on their performance.
David Hemery, the Olympic world record holder in the 400m hurdles in Mexico 1968 was an early adopter of daily visualisations for how he would run his race. Hemery goes on to discuss the attention to detail he paid to the race itself;
“I saw myself winning the race in each and every lane of the track. Starting from lane 1 right thought to lane 8. I saw myself in various different positions of the race; leading, in the middle and fighting right from the back. But everything ended up with me crossing the line in front of my fellow athletes. You don’t want to be drawn in one of the outside lanes for a final but when I did get drawn in lane 7 it did not upset me or make me think any differently as I had been there many many times over in my head”
Furthermore, Hemery states that;
“I spent countless hours on this process in the lead up to the race, but I broke it down to small sessions each and every day to make it feel more manageable”
The heavyweight boxing champion Anthony Joshua replays his fight nights thousands of times over in his mind including everything from his walk on, to the smell of the arena, to the sound of the crowd, to all the colours in the ring, to his opponent’s movements as well as his execution. During training he even has crowd noises blasted into the speaker system in his gym to get himself completely immersed in the experience. So, by the time he is there, it is so familiar to him and he is so relaxed and confident in what he needs to do nothing feels that it will upset his focus and concentration.
Michael Phelps, the most decorated Olympian of all time, comments that he used to use visualisations all the time and used it, in particular, to prepare for competition and to motivate himself. His coach got him to follow a routine during the build-up to events. Every time Phelps went to bed and as soon as he woke up in the morning, he had to visualise a slow-motion video of what he imagined to be the perfect race. Sure enough, he did this for so long that when the Olympics came, his habits took over and he swam the perfect race again and again.
Alex Honnold, who became famous from the film Free Solo, would sit for hours and hours visualising every single move and everything that could possibly happen when scaling the face of El Capitan with no harnesses or safety equipment. He believes all the hard work was done in the months leading up to the event and once he was on the climb, he says “it was just a matter of executing”.
You will notice that all these visualisations focus on the process and not necessarily the outcome. The athletes were much more focussed on putting their thoughts and energies into what was fully within their own control and did not over emphasise the final result. As often this is out of our control. As Marcus Aurelius, the famous Roman emperor and Stoic says:
“We don’t control what happens. We control how we respond”
Dr. Charles Garfield has done extensive research on peak performers. One of the main things his research showed was that almost all of the world class athletes he studied are visualisers. "They see it, they feel it, they experience it before they actually do it".
More lab-based and scientific studies also show the power of visualisation. In a study of 200 martial artists, it was found that visualisations and self-talk increased reaction time by roughly 10%. This amount in a fast-paced sport is often the difference between winning and losing. This should really resonate in a sport like squash where we need to be able to keep up with the pace of the game, be able to make multiple decisions in a split-second of time and to take in and absorb a wide range of information and variabilities.
A Harvard study found that participants who only visualised five-finger piano sequences for two-hours a day for five-days made the exact same brain changes as those participants who physically practised the same activities.
Furthermore, Dr Biasatto at the University of Chicago conducted a basketball experiment with a group of players being tested on their shooting accuracy. After initial testing he then split the participants into 3 groups. Group 1 practised their shooting every day for one hour. Group 2 didn’t practise any basketball or shooting exercises but only visualised them. Group 3 conducted no basketball practise and no visualisation. After 30-days the groups were all tested again. Group 1 improved by 24%. Group 2 improved by 23% and Group 3 showed no improvements. It is fascinating to see that the group who only visualised the practice were able to improve almost to the same degree as those that practised throwing daily.
The neuroscientist, Dr. Joe Dispenza, after studying hundreds of brain scans of subjects who were given a visualisation intervention says:
“The act of rehearsing what you’re going to do begins to neurologically install the hardware in your brain to look like you already did it. Now the brain is no longer a record of the past but a map for the future. And if you keep installing that hardware (i.e. conscious effort), the hardware will be become a software program (i.e. unconscious execution)”
There are studies currently being conducted now whereby combining visualisation within and part of the physical practice itself is being tested. The early findings of these studies have been hugely positive and beneficial for the athletes and the “in the field” types of practices are becoming more commonplace in the sporting arenas and with coaches around the world.
This whole process can be neatly summarised in Hebb’s law which states that,
“neurons that fire together, wire together”
Meaning that if we continually have thought patterns or continually do something, time after time, then the neurons in our brain tend to strengthen that learning.
Practical tips for visualisation
- Set aside 5-mins either as the first thing in the morning or the last thing at night each day for the next 21-days to practise visualisation
- Make use of the Video Guided section in the Lessons tab in SquashMind app to give you a visual representation of what to focus on in your visualisation
- Make it a habit to practise at a similar time of the day each day (ideally first thing as you wake up or last thing before you go to sleep), this makes it a lot easier to remember
- Limit distractions, so turn your phone to Do Not Disturb and try and advise people you live with of your practises so they can respect your quiet space
- Posture; be sure to sit comfortably, be upright and not slouching, hands on your knees, feet flat on the floor or legs crossed. If it's later at night you can lie down and relax also
- Find a natural and controlled breathing rhythm for the session