“If you want to reach a goal, you must see the reaching in your own mind before you actually arrive at your goal.” – Zig Ziglar
“I saw the angel in the marble and carved until I set him free.” – Michelangelo
I want to start off with visualization because it is the one I think most of us do anyways, even if we don’t realize it. Thus, it is hopefully the easiest to relate to and the easiest to begin with… because it’s daydreaming! But now we are daydreaming with intent and purpose. We are daydreaming with the intent of making that daydream a reality. That is the premise behind visualization.
Visualization is really what was behind Napoleon Hill’s Think and Grow Rich, and the most recent book, The Secret. You can apply this to just about anything or everything in your life! There is no real magic behind it, except that it can feel pretty magical as your success grows. The results are rarely instantaneous. But if applied regularly, you might be impressed with what you can truly accomplish. Mainly because if you cannot see it in your own mind’s eye, then how on earth is anyone else going to be able to see it? If you can’t see yourself being successful, how is anyone else supposed to see you being successful?
I could give many examples greats in history who have been quoted in some shape or form, the one that best fits a health and fitness blog would be Arnold Schwarzenegger, “The mind is more important than the body!” He is also featured in a Tim Ferris pod cast where he talks a little about this and if I recall correctly he dives into it a bit in the movie “Pumping Iron” about visualizing the muscles growing and becoming massive in response to training. Many Olympic champions and other greats have described rehearsing over and over again the perfect shot, or perfect serve, or simply having a perfect performance. Michelangelo, as it pertained to his sculptures, said “I saw the angel in the marble and carved until I set him free.”
So, I want to share my journey as it relates to visualization, because, although it hasn’t been my only ‘mental tool,’ it has been a big one in helping me achieve more, from both my sports and training, and life. Plus my examples and experiences will hopefully be more “down to earth” and relatable rather as opposed to one of the ‘barons of industry, or artists of the Renaissance, or Einstein for that matter, who is famously known for his “thought experiments” and daydreaming about light and gravity.
To begin, I should clarify that I have, at times, been very good at utilizing visualization and then, for whatever reason, have gotten away from it. In sports, when I used it with real purpose, I generally have been more successful. When I got away from it, well… I just haven’t been as successful. My first success came as a 13-year old playing rep hockey for my hometown. Now, as you can probably guess, I did not make it into the NHL, but I loved playing, and like all competitive kids, was always looking to try and get better. I don’t think I was ever a bad hockey player, but I certainly wasn’t the best on the team; compared to some of my teammates, I will say I was athletic, but some of my teammates just had soft hands and they had great hockey IQ. Then, when I was 13, we had a coach who helped out part-time and worked the door for us defensemen. He was my teammate’s uncle, and he gave me some of the best damn advice I have ever been given in my life. He told me to “think slow; move fast!” What he meant by this was that I should always know what to do with the puck before I ever get it. I should know where my opponent is going to be before he gets there. I should know… well, you get the picture. I should know what to do before I have to do it, then simply commit and execute.
It seems so obvious now, but back then this was a novel idea. Maybe most other kids were already doing this, but it was new to me. So, where before I had really never given or paid much attention to the mental side of hockey, I just played. Now I started following my coaches advice. At this time, I didn’t really know I was doing “visualization” as a researched technique. All I did was, on our way to the games, close my eyes in the car, and then imagine and mentally rehearse all the scenarios I would, or could, face in the game. Here is what started happening. I made fewer mistakes, I was much more consistent, and I was even making better passes and plays that were setting up my other teammates. As a result, I became a player my coaches could depend on and count on at key moments. At this point, nothing else had changed; I didn’t get faster or stronger, and my slap shot didn’t turn into a rocket. I just got better at anticipating where the puck or my opponent was going to be, making better decisions, and then executing those decisions. It was my best year of hockey and one I really enjoyed. But for whatever reason, I got away from the mental visualization in that way, and although I did well in most of my sporting endeavors, it was going to be a while before I put two and two together.
Putting two and two together:
My rediscovery of visualization would come as an adult, playing division-two rugby for a local men’s club where I was living in Maryland. I have always loved my rugby, but as you can guess, I am certainly not world class by any stretch. But even the first two or three seasons I was running with this club, I wasn’t happy with how I was playing. Athletically, I felt I had all the tools, but I wasn’t consistently starting and I would make some boneheaded plays that would have left you wondering “What is that guy doing?!” Now, football had always been easy. Especially as an offensive player, you know the play. So it was easy for me to know the play and know where I had to go. Rugby is much more free-flowing and much more like hockey than football. I wasn’t thinking slow and moving fast. I was just moving fast in the wrong direction, getting really tired and then moving slower.
The other thing was Dan Carter. Around this time, he was the best rugby player in the world. But he wasn’t bigger than me, and I doubt he would have been much faster than me. How was he the greatest rugby player in the world, and I was just a guy who could barely start for a D2 club in the U.S.? That was when I was able to make the shift from being obsessed with how fast I could be and how fit I could be (which—don’t get me wrong—is still hyper important) to focusing on playing the game of rugby. So before practices and games, I finally got back to what had helped me be successful all those years ago in hockey. I started visualizing better running angles and supporting the ball carriers. I would visualize catching every pass, making every pass, making every tackle, performing perfect technique in rucks and mauls…. All of it. If it is a skill in rugby, I would mentally visualize doing it perfectly. I also shifted my attitude to a belief that when I stepped on that field, I was the best player on that field. I would be a threat every time I touched the ball. I would also know what to do with that ball before it ever got passed to me, whether it be run, short pass, long pass, or kicking it for position. Again, we can keep it in perspective, but where before I’d had a really hard time finding my stride and place on this club, I went on to earn the team’s and coach’s respect, and won our club’s MVP for the back’s position two years in a row. I started almost every game as the club’s inside center for 5 years, and despite shifting my focus away from ‘how much I could bench,’ I was actually in the best shape I had ever been in up to that time.
What is cool about visualization, especially from a sport’s performance perspective, is that they have done studies and have confirmed that even just by imagining doing a task, the same motor-neural programs/synapses fire. This firing reinforces those patterns, helping to make them more automatic. So, even if you actually are not moving, simply by rehearsing that skill, the mind-body connection is strengthened, thus improving the skill the next time you are doing it. It is important to understand that consistency is a necessity for this to be truly successful, but if you are an athlete and not doing this, you are limiting yourself and making it very difficult to reach your true potential.
Visualization is also not limited to sports. You really can apply it to virtually all facets of your life. All it requires is taking a few minutes a day, or once a week (weekly habits), going through a short relaxation ritual, and then dreaming big. The more vivid you can make it—the more senses you can involve in the visualization—the more benefit you will be able to gain from it.
In the case of weight loss, visualize how you want to look! Imagine that is how you look today, and see yourself having fun, eating all the right foods, and feeling great! As you keep at this, your subconscious will make the appropriate changes to help you realize your dreams and goals.