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Negative Visualisation

Updated: Oct 28, 2022

“Foresee the worst to perform the best”

- Ryan Holiday

Studies show that when we vividly visualise something in detail, we activate the same neural pathways in the brain as if you were performing the actual task. The brain cannot tell the difference! So, it goes to reason that if we positively visualise winning and being successful over and over in whatever task we are performing, we heighten our chances of this success in the actual event. This can and should give us a greater feeling of confidence, positivity and belief and this is wonderful. But…is that the real world of sport? Or life for that matter? Unlikely! If we feel that we are ever owed or deserve the win we are setting ourselves up to fail and are likely to welcome in feelings of agitation, anger, and disappointment. We need to prepare ourselves to be ready for and anticipate obstacles and hardships that get thrown up in front of us. If we go about believing the world will align itself perfectly for us because we have trained hard, done all the correct things and we have belief, this is foolish thinking.

It is easy to look good and play well when everything is going your way. But the true champions are the ones that are able to perform at or near their best even when all the odds may be stacked against them. A bad call, a cheating opponent, faulty equipment, nervousness, lack of confidence, terrible conditions, a game plan not working, etc. This list can be quite long when you start to think about it.

When it comes to turning adversity into advantage, the Stoic author and philosopher Ryan Holiday says it best:

“We can use and practice anticipation to mitigate when things go wrong. Because the only variable we control completely is ourselves”

Negative visualisation is a tool to use in order to help you perform consistently time and again during challenging situations. It should not be seen as a depressing “all that can go wrong” practice but a way to prepare you for what could go wrong. You want to be mentally ready for what you can’t control. Yet we’re too worried about “tempting fate” or “manifesting bad energy” to practice this kind of visualisation. We need to have the courage to actually look at what we’re afraid of.

The Stoics

The writer Tim Ferriss has spoken of the exercise of “fear setting” – of defining and articulating the nightmares, anxieties, and doubts that hold us back. Furthermore, the Stoic philosopher Seneca wrote about premeditatio malorum, the deliberate meditation on the evils that we might encounter. This was not an exercise in creating fear and anxiety about impending doom, but rather to bring a level of familiarity to unexpected and unwelcomed situations that may arise. For Seneca, the unexpected blows land more heavily and painfully. So, by expecting, by defining, by wrestling with what can happen, we are making it less scary and less dangerous at the same time.

We call the people that dwell in what might go wrong pessimists. Some even think that bad thoughts attract bad events. The Stoics found this all to be nonsense. In fact, they had a practise of premeditation of evils that specifically encouraged musing on the so-called worst-case scenario. Marcus Aurelius would begin his day thinking about all the ugliness he would see on display at courts, not for the purpose of working himself up, but precisely the opposite, to calm and focus himself to be prepared to act in the proper way rather than to react. Seneca, too, practised meditating in advance, not only about what normally happens, but what could happen. Epictetus went as far as to imagine losing a loved one every time he would kiss them. The Stoics believed all that we have is on loan from fortune, and that negative visualisation helps to increase our awareness of the unexpected, don't shy away from this in your thoughts.

“Being unexpected adds to the weight of a disaster, and being a surprise has never failed to increase a persons pain. For that reason, nothing should ever be unexpected by us. Our minds should be sent out in advance to all things and we shouldn't just consider the normal course of things, but what could actually happen. For is there anything in life that fortune won't knock off its high horse if it pleases her?” - Seneca

Similar to the Stoics, the Samurais used to meditate on their own death. How can you be afraid of your opponent’s sword if you have already died? The goal was to mentally prepare before battle, so they were able to obtain a clear mind that allowed them to react without fear or negative thoughts slowing down their swords. The Samurai highly valued the ‘spontaneity of reaction’ which means when they entered the fight, they adopted a state of relaxed awareness and were not battling with fear. The worst-case scenarios had been anticipated continually in their mind, so they were now free to perform at their best.

This form of mental training is also sacrosanct in martial arts. There is a belief that a fluid, uncluttered mind yields the best performances and reenforces the mind-body link of fluidity and flow. This should be the state we are trying to achieve on the squash court and bringing in the practice and tool of negative visualisation will help this.

We need to cultivate the courage to think about all the things that may happen to us in our sporting (and life) arenas, the things that are unpleasant to think about, the unusual, the unexpected, the unlikely. It’s not just a matter of reducing our anxiety about exaggerated uncertainties but becoming comfortable with the uncomfortable. Do not be afraid to trouble and test your comfortable mind. A bit depressing? Perhaps. But better to be pessimistic and prepared than the alternative.

It was Aristotle who said that the optimistic are the most vulnerable, because “when the result does not turn out as expected, they run away.” When fear is defined, it can be defeated. When downside is articulated, it can be weighed against the upside.

Take a moment to think about this sentiment...

Play like nothing is on the line, even though everything may be on the line

Let’s remember that failure is a huge part of sport. The best athletes shrug their shoulders, call it a fluke and turn the next page. Their mind goes on to focus on what is now within their control. They use failure as feedback and a way to grow and to strengthen areas of weakness that have been exposed.

As discussed, the Stoics practised negative visualisation. But how does negative visualisation relate to the law of attraction is a natural and common question? According to this law, our thoughts effect what subsequently happens to us, and in particular having negative thoughts, besides depressing us, can cause bad things to happen to us. The Stoics would reject this law. They would argue that by allowing ourselves to have negative thoughts we can decrease the number of bad things that happened. Because having these thoughts in a measured manner can strengthen our psychological immune system which in turn will have an impact on how we perceive our lives events.

The psychological immune system

You're doubtless aware of your body's biological immune system. If yours were impaired or even worse if you lacked such a system, you would soon be dead. This is because we live in a world full of germs. These germs can exploit your body and can thrive. Such exploitation can ruin your health and might even kill you.

Most people are born with an immune system but for it to be maximally effective it has to be developed and the best way to develop it is by exposing it to germs. Suppose then that you are a parent who wants her child to grow up strong and healthy. You know germs cause illness. The obvious thing for you to do under these circumstances would be to keep your child’s exposure to germs to a minimum. If you acted on this reasoning though and tried to raise your child in a germ-free environment, you had better be prepared to keep him there for the rest of his life. Otherwise as soon as he stepped into the real world his underdeveloped immune system would likely be overwhelmed by germs. So, what's a caring parent to do? As paradoxical as it may seem she should expose her child to germs but in a controlled fashion. William Irving has discussed this paradox with a paediatrician and the answer was that the current medical consensus stated succinctly is that a child should eat a pound of dirt. Not in one sitting but over the course of his childhood. And by dirt the paediatrician had in mind not the kind you might dig up in the garden, but the kind found all around us in the environment. There are lots of child friendly sources of this medicinal dirt children can consume. It may be by playing with other children or being exposed to pets at a certain stage of life. They will consume germs by sucking on whatever they find in their environment. This might include the cell phone or car keys on a nearby table or it might include sucking on the table itself. Another thing a parent will do if she accepts the findings of modern medicine, is have her child inoculated with inactivated germs. By doing this, this will teach her child’s immune system to fight those germs.

The Stoics didn't know about the biological immune system. Indeed, they didn't even know about germs, but they did intuit the existence of what can be called a psychological immune system. Whereas your biological immune system protects you from sickness caused by germs, your psychological immune system protects you from experiencing the negative emotions triggered by life’s setbacks. To better understand the functioning of your psychological immune system, consider the following scenario: suppose that parents in order to reduce the number of negative emotions that their child experienced, worked hard to prevent bad things from happening to him. They never shared bad news with him, they never criticised or insulted him, and they did their best to prevent other people from doing so. And whenever a problem arose in the child’s life, they would deal with it on his behalf. Although these parents might have the best intentions in the world, those intentions would likely backfire. Their child’s psychological immune system would end up underdeveloped and ultimately dysfunctional. He would be hypersensitive to comments other people made, he would be angered and frustrated by the smallest setbacks, and he might burst into tears on hearing bad news. A case can be made then the caring parents, besides taking steps to develop their child's biological immune system, will take steps to develop his psychological immune system as well. Their goal is for the child to be emotionally ready to face the imperfect world into which he will emerge in a few years’ time.

In practicing negative visualisation, you don't dwell on the bad things that can happen to you. You instead allow yourself to have flickering thoughts regarding them. Having such thoughts is the psychological equivalent of getting a flu shot. Doing this exposes you to inactivated flu virus which makes it easier for your biological immune system to deal with that virus in the future should you encounter it. When you practice negative thoughts, you make it easier for your psychological immune system to deal with the negative events that you subsequently experience. Considering the above, the use of negative visualisation as a tool for growing the psychological immune system seems a positive and necessary tool, we should all, with a level of urgency, bring into our lives.

In recent times, there has been a significant upturn in athletes employing negative visualisation as part of their toolkit and the positive effects it is having in their ability to perform at their best consistently.

How to link this to squash

Now with a greater understanding of the benefit of practicing negative visualisation, it should be obvious that you need to build in this tool to your psychological training to prepare for scenarios that will cause you to play worse or thrown you off. Alongside this, you want to envisage some appropriate responses also in how to combat what you think may arise.

There are some great examples from James Willstrop and Ali Farag using what they call “scenarios” for their negative visualisation practice. They will both use different scenarios such as the score at different times of the match, anticipating an opponent who blocks or cheats, reliving the nervous emotions of a big match, playing from match ball down, losing to a lower seeded player, plus many more. These insights can be heard in full in the SquashMind app by searching for their names.

Here is an extract from James himself talking about these such scenarios:

“I’m trying to think about some key points in matches. So often the beginning is quite crucial, so I'll try and think about that situation of I’ve warmed up I’m feeling probably the most nervous, I’ve been thinking about the match all day, and those first few rallies different things can happen. Points might runaway, you haven't started quite right or you’re on the backfoot right away. And I’ll practice that in my mind and have the scenario whereby I am now 0-5 down in the first game and not got into my stride yet. And then how to get myself back into it”.

In summary, negative visualisation should not be seen as a doom and gloom type of practice, but rather as a psychological toolkit to prepare and to inoculate the mind from when we confront unwanted difficult situations. If you can embrace negative visualisation and get in the habit of constant practice, you will find that the mind becomes mentally more resilient to setbacks and will heighten the chance of your performances being steady and consistent. You may find that less and less will disrupt your focus and concentration and you develop the feeling of “I have already been here” when the unwanted arrives. If you have anticipated the comings of hardships, and have strategies in place, you will feel mentally tougher and stronger.

Practical tips

- Embrace and understand the power of negative visualisation

- Use the SquashMind app for the journal called Problems/Solutions to write down problematic scenarios and then to write down your appropriate response or solution

- By doing this you can build a large database of potential problems and practice your appropriate responses to them. You can also refer to this database in future to check on solutions that have worked for you in the past

- Be sure to also bring into play your emotions that will arise in these scenarios. Do not be void of these emotions as they will be real and appear when you must confront the difficulties

- Build in dedicated negative visualisation time to your life; this can both be formal and informal. You may let the mind wander to some potential negative events and feel the emotions that arise or you may carve out dedicated time each day to sit and visualise

- Be open minded and to continually add to your repertoire more and more scenarios to give yourself an overall robustness to your mental state

- Listen to the lessons in the SquashMind app from the professionals talking about their visualisation processes to get more ideas for yourself

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