By Marv Zauderer
Visualization is about more than what you see. It’s about all of your senses, and everything else – thoughts, emotions, personal qualities – that make up your experience of each moment. It’s mental simulation, and often mental rehearsal as well.
Why learn it? As you may have heard, many amateur and professional athletes use it and are convinced it helps. And there’s research that supports the contention that it improves performance. But perhaps most importantly, there’s this: It may work for you and it may not, but you won’t know unless you really give it a shot. It might make the difference in your riding. But how?
First, visualization can help you reduce anxiety and stress. If you’re worried about crashing, failing, letting others down, letting yourself down…or if you’d just like to handle the natural tension of competition better, this may be a good tool for you.
Second, it can build self-confidence. If you repeatedly visualize what you want to have happen, your brain may believe that it can happen and will happen.
Third, it can increase your motivation. If you have positive experiences with your cycling (even if they’re “just” in your mind), you may develop more desire to ride or race.
Visualization can also help you develop necessary physical skills, such as cornering or descending. By mentally simulating the correct/desired physical movements and sensations, based on some actual experience of knowing what they are, you can accelerate the motor learning that’s required. Your body learns how to perform the skill more easily, naturally, intuitively – with automaticity. That’s right: you corner not only well but automatically. You’re trusting your body to do the right thing rather than thinking about it.
And, visualization can improve your focus and concentration. If a particular skill or section of a race is ingrained in your mind, you may be less vulnerable to distractions when you live that experience.
Lastly, visualization can help you regain perspective. You might feel ambivalent about a race, have a troubling relationship (eg. with your coach), conflicted about the distance to choose for your next endurance event, or be wrestling with leaving the sport itself. If you’re caught up in something within yourself that’s going to hurt your performance on the bike, going to a reliably clear place in your mind can help you extract yourself.
Any of those sound good to you? Let’s get down to business.
Your task, should you choose to accept it, is to create at least three basic visualizations for your toolkit:
• A core visualization. Simply put, this is using your imagination to put yourself into a desired internal state. The focus is the state, not the cycling content, and it may have no cycling content at all. For example, I recommend you create a deeply relaxed visualization– an all-purpose tool that’s useful in a variety of situations. That might involve imagining a favorite place or experience that reliably relaxes you. I also recommend a pre-race visualization which might or might not be different from deeply relaxed. This gives you a way to put yourself in the state you know – from experience – that you need to be in for optimal performance. If you do this, you are less vulnerable to having anxiety triggered by what people around you say and do before the race. You’re solid, and a lot less likely to be moved off your center.
• A success visualization. In contrast to the core visualization, this has some cycling content in it. It might be performing a skill, cresting a climb, finishing an event, winning a race – a successful outcome.
• A coping visualization. This is about handling something that’s stressful for you – a fear of descending, being attacked at the foot of a climb, getting dropped – that kind of thing.
In the framework of the Hoffman model, the internal experience that your visualization will create can have any or all of the following components:
• Emotions: What you want to feel, and the intensity of those feelings.
• Intellect: Any thoughts, beliefs, and attitudes that you want to have.
• Body: The physical techniques of cycling, the experience of any or all of your five senses, and the “feel” (kinesthetic or “muscle sense”) you want to have.
• Spirit: Depending on what this means to you, if anything, it could mean: you feel good about yourself, worthy of performing your best, self-supportive, grounded, courageous, intentional, and in touch with your deepest source of energy.
So: you have some visualizations to create and a four-sided palette to draw from (The Who’s classic album Quadrophenia is suddenly coming to mind.) Grab some paper and something to write with. For each visualization that you’re creating, follow these steps:
1. Make sure the visualization has a goal. As noted above, that might be something like “feeling deeply relaxed,” “getting to the start line feeling ready and focused,” “taking a left-hander perfectly at speed,” or “beating my buddy up the climb.”
2. Choose a point of view: as if you’re actually experiencing what you’re visualizing (the “internal POV”), or as if you’re watching yourself do it (the “external POV”).
3. Follow the U.S. Olympic Committee’s guidelines for visualizations and make yours:
• Vivid. Draw on as much of the four aspects of yourself as you can. In using your five senses and your kinesthetic “feel,” don’t forget to consider your senses of taste (eg. salty sweat) and smell (eg. the damp air at the start of the race). Write sentences that start with “I see,” “I feel,” and so on. Make the experience come to life in your mind.
• Clear. Some scenes/experiences are going to be easier to imagine than others. If yours isn’t clear, try more vivid!
• Controllable. Make sure you give yourself the experience of achieving the goal of the visualization – really seeing and feeling yourself achieving it.
4. Get to a quiet place where you won’t be interrupted. Take as much time as you need to get relaxed. Remind yourself of what you’ve written, and close your eyes (you may have to peek a bit at first until you’ve memorized it). Imagine the experience all the way through, taking care to use all of the parts that you’ve written. Stay with it until you’ve achieved the goal. Note how you feel when you achieve it. Stay with that feeling for at least 15 seconds. Edit if you like and repeat until it feels complete.
Once you’ve created your visualizations, practice regularly: say, 10-15 minutes per day. At first, practice every day, if possible, as you’re learning the skill and getting to the point where you know it’s helping you. After that, maintain the skill by practicing at least a few times per week. Before an event or race, you may want to go back to a daily practice schedule during the preceding week.
For athletes, a big part of mental fitness is about developing a “toolkit” of skills and the knowledge of when any one of those skills is the right tool for the job. If it works for you, visualization is a highly flexible, multidimensional skill that you can use for many purposes. As you practice, you’ll get to the point where you know whether or not it’s working, and in doing that you’ll be living a line from one of Quadrophenia’s songs: “Is it in my head/or in my heart?”
Marv Zauderer, in his sport performance coaching practice, works with amateur and professional athletes from all sports on the mental/emotional skills needed for peak performance. He works in person, by phone, and by Skype, and speaks to groups about the mental side of sport. Marv co-leads the Mental Skills Training program at Whole Athlete, a performance center in Marin County, California that provides a comprehensive set of coaching, testing, fitting, and consulting services to athletes. Having had a 20-year career in high technology previously, he also coaches business professionals on improving their performance at work. He is a licensed psychotherapist in the San Francisco Bay Area, USA Cycling Level 2 coach, and Masters road racer for Taleo Racing. Marv would love to hear your thoughts on this article – you can email him at firstname.lastname@example.org. His website is www.marvinz.com.