Keep Your Head In the Game: Visualizing Success

You’re standing in a jersey at the free-throw line. The crowd is crazy, and resounding from the stadium you hear your name and from one side, cheers. From the other, the cheers are not so nice. It’s the championship game and it all comes down to this moment. Down to your toes on the line. This is your only chance to sink the ball in the net.

Luckily, you’ve made this shot before, albeit in your mind.

Up until about middle school, most people agree that natural athleticism can get you so far. Remember those kids whose voices were still pretty high, but boy, could they run fast? Those athletes are successful until other people start to catch up. And as athletes develop and meet stiffer competition in collegiate and professional athletic environments, they have to work harder to stand out. Getting that edge to take them from being just a “good athlete” to a real competitor requires more effort than they ever had to invest before. As some athletes fall by the wayside, others look for ways to fine tune their technique, train a little harder, live a little healthier, and take their sport a bit more seriously. Sometimes they have to change their lifestyle just to shave a second off their 400-meter sprint time. Focusing is worthwhile when it takes your game to the next level.

There are a number of ways athletes modify their routines, but popular at Pomona-Pitzer athletics is visualization. Visualization is a technique that uses imagery and meditation to allow athletes to mentally rehearse their sporting events. A hurdler counts the number of steps or seconds between each barrier, and then performs it perfectly in his or her mind. A basketball player imagines the weight of the ball in his or her hands before a perfect free throw. A pole vaulter thinks about his or her hand placement on that particular pole, how it feels to run on the soft squish of a rubber track before launching into the air. Winning a race suddenly becomes possible because you’ve already done it. Across the board, studies have shown that visualization can drastically improve performance, sometimes to the same extent as physical practice.

Coaches at the 5Cs acknowledge the value of visualization. Jean-Paul Gowdy, head coach of the P-P swim team, has been using visualization techniques for the last eight years.

“The day before the meet, I talk to my athletes, walk them through their entire routine: their warm up, their race, and their cool down,” he explained. “While I’m trying to remind them what they have to do, I’m also trying to get them into the moment. You need to pretend like it’s the day of your meet, to start thinking ahead of time in order to take it more seriously.”

Once his swimmers have reached a certain level of fitness, Gowdy noted that visualizing success is often more effective than pure technique. The confidence that comes with visualizing the best outcome gets an athlete into a focused, competitive mindset that allows them to enter the competition as prepared as possible.

Visualization is key to track and field athletes as well as swimmers. Jack Lewis PO ’12 explained that visualization is an important pre-meet ritual for him. Running the 100-meter hurdles is a daunting task that requires both speed and technique. A hurdler needs to plan to run a consistent number of steps between each barrier in order to jump off the same foot and clear the hurdle. If you jump off the wrong foot, or take shorter steps, you could end up being in closer or farther away from the hurdle than usual, and could trip. In a sense, you should run the same race every time. Making a mistake could result in a slower time, or worse: an injury.

“I myself have looked up studies of visualization,” Lewis said. “I read about piano players who practice playing in their mind. They sit in front of the piano and imagine their fingers playing on the right keys, without lifting a finger. I basically do that when I’m doing my laundry.”

Videos or any other type of visual aid can make visualizing an event or technique easier. Some collegiate athletes highly recommend watching film, including footage of professional athletes and sometimes of themselves. When she was starting her career as a swimmer on the Pomona-Pitzer swim team, Tina Zhang PO ’12 watched a video of professional swimmers in a competitive 100-meter race.

“I watched it over and over again to see how she made that smooth transition off the wall,” Tina said. “I would say [watching] videos and going through mental reps is helpful for building up muscle memory.”

Similarly, Lewis recommended film both for hurdlers preparing for their first race and for those at a higher level.

“Videos are definitely helpful for improving your hurdler form, but it depends on the level of the hurdler,” Lewis mused. “For beginning hurdlers, it is good to show them the videos of the professionals. Give them something they can aspire to.”

“If you’ve been hurdling for a while, like me, watching videos of yourself is useful. Watching footage of my races helps me catch mistakes that I didn’t know I was making.”

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