You may associate visualization techniques with feel-good self-help, but some of the world’s greatest athletes take the practice very seriously.
Dr. Michael Gervais is a sports psychologist who prefers the term “imagery” to “visualization,” to keep the focus on all five senses rather than just sight, and he explained his approach to Tim Ferriss for an episode of Ferriss’ show “Fearless,” which he also sampled on his podcast.
Gervais worked on staff with the NFL’s Seattle Seahawks during their Super Bowl XLVIII and XLIX runs (winning the former), and has also worked with Olympic gold medalists, UFC fighters, and Austrian skydiver Felix Baumgarten, who completed a record-breaking dive to Earth from the stratosphere in 2012.
Gervais told Ferriss that his psychological coaching approach with all of his athletes is essentially the same, noting that the approach is universal and can also be applied to something like giving a presentation to an audience.
Before looking at Gervais’ imagery technique, it’s helpful to understand the context he puts it in.
He has all athletes ask themselves “What is your ideal competitive mindset?” and “What are the strategies you employ to turn that on?”
It’s about creating an awareness of what works, attaching words to specific feelings so that they can be replicated and adjusted.
When these parameters are set, the athlete can then practice the imagery technique, which is similar to how they would approach mindfulness meditation, Gervais pointed out, the difference being that, “Mindfulness is about insight and wisdom. The aim of imagery is enhanced performance.”
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Some athletes choose to accompany visualization with music, but Gervais finds it distracting. The athletes find a place where no one will bother them, and then sit and close their eyes.
“The objective is to create such a lifelike experience that your body believes that it could be real,” he said. It’s a full sensory experience. “So there’s a switching on or an animation that happens within you when you create an image that is crisp and has color, and sound, and smell, and taste.”
In this state, the athletes then imagine how the match will begin, unfold, and what victory will feel like.
In the same way that practicing meditation leads to enhanced focus, practicing imagery leads to more realistic experiences, which in turn allow your mind to train for the real thing.
Gervais said that it is necessary to practice imagery on a regular basis well in advance of game day (or the day you give your presentation), because otherwise it’s a “hack” and won’t be as effective.
The idea is not, of course, to try to predict the future, but rather to prepare your mind to react to anything that can be thrown at it. For a fighter, for example, this means even visualizing the first step into the ring, a move that Gervais said can throw even physically prepared fighters off their game if they did not mentally prepare.
Gervais told Ferriss that he liked the way the retired MMA legend and Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu master Rickson Gracie explained imagery: “It’s the most beautiful movie, and every time I relive it I create images and nuances that I want to experience.”
You can listen to the full podcast episode below.