We hear the term ‘visualisation’ a lot when we are looking at high-performance sports of any nature, but what does it actually mean?
We’ve all heard that it’s a key performance booster, but, it’s much harder to do than we think. Why? Because it requires effort and practice and resilience to become good at it. As triathletes, it’s fair to say we know a thing or two about effort, but the brain is just like other muscles – it needs training too.
For the majority of us time-starved athletes, adding in even more training isn’t really a welcome prospect, but it can make the difference between finishing and winning.
Triathlon coach, Duncan Grainge (SISU Racing) recently said “you know what, take the top 15 women at Kona. There’s less than 1% difference in the physical performance potential among them. The differentiator is your mindset.”
If mindset is so important, with the ability to make or break a race (whatever your personal goal is), then we should definitely be addressing it like our physical training. And visualisation is a great way of creating and developing a winning mindset.
In Lanny Bassham’s book ‘With Winning in Mind’, Lanny talks about ‘the principle of reinforcement’: “the more we think about, talk about and write about something happening, we improve the probability of that thing happening.” He goes on to say that mindset can be the distinguishing factor between winning and losing: “Winners are convinced they will finish first. The others hope to finish first.”
There are two forms of visualisation categorised as physical and mental visualisation. Sure, it’s fundamentally all mental practice, but there are differences between the way you visualise your physical world and the way you visualise yourself internally.
- Physical visualisation
This is visualisation of your physical environment and the physical processes you go through, for example, on race day. This can be everything from closing your eyes and imagining yourself on the start line, muscles tense, adrenaline high, and stomach churning; right through to powering through the water, pushing through every pedal stroke, cornering each bend in the road, and pounding the tarmac until you reach that sweet ‘red carpet’ moment.
It’s a very physical environment that you’re visualising – you’re feeling your muscles engaged, imagining overcoming that fatigue, picturing your competitors just up ahead. You can savour that finish line, feel the flood of emotion, relief, the sense of fulfilment.
It can work in training too, sometimes if you are struggling during a set of very hard reps – be it in the pool, turbo, or on the run – just imagine someone is just ahead of you and if you push even harder you will be able to overtake them.
The benefits are multitudinous. For race simulation visualisation, you can prepare yourself for the course – visualising the bends and turns on a technical bike course can work wonders for your confidence on race day. All in all, you feel better prepared mentally come race day.
- Mental visualisation
This sounds odd as surely all visualisation is mental? It's distinguished as a type of visualisation which works on your belief and confidence in yourself. Believing, even knowing, that you are capable of achieving that goal and practising that mindset shift can make all the difference to your performance.
“Some people want it to happen. Some wish it would happen. Others make it happen”. - Michael Jordan
This type of mindset shift only comes with practice – by our very nature, humans are in-built with what’s called a negative bias. This is our brain’s clever little mechanism for self-preservation. We have doubt and hesitation instilled into our minds as one component of the ‘fight or flight’ response. Rerouting that and channelling it into something positive is tough to do, but certainly achievable.
The way mental visualisation works is to reinforce positive self-talk, remove negative self-talk, and cast a future version of the person you want to be. If, for example, you want to finish an Olympic distance triathlon in under 2.5 hours, then rather than thinking “I might” be able to do it, or “I think I can do it” – just tell yourself consistently that “I will do it.”
Again, this works well in training. If you are in the pool doing a particularly hard swim set with multiple reps at threshold pace, and you are close to the final few reps, your instinct is to think “I’m not going to be able to hold this pace for the last few, I’m dying.” The practice of mental visualisation will kick in and override your inner monologue with “I will do these last reps at the same, if not faster pace.”
Casting a future version of yourself – that athlete you want to become, the goals you want to achieve – imprinting that mindset of “I can, and I will”, is absolutely crucial to performance. Your body plays out what your mind tells it to. That’s science.
To quote Lanny Bassham’s book once again: “Changing a self-image that is keeping you from reaching your goals may be the most important skill you will ever learn.”
There are many different ways you can practice visualisation – find out what has the most impact for you by experimenting, whether it’s imagining your physical environment or competitors to give you that extra boost or developing a positive outcome-orientated mental focus to remove those limiting self-beliefs. But simply using visualisation to adopt a mindset that you CAN and WILL do something puts you immediately closer to your goal, because you have committed to the process and eliminated any doubt that you’ll get there.
Written by Triathlete & Zone3 Ambassador Amy Kilpin.