Visualization: Tips For Getting More Out of Your Mental Practice
Visualization is the widely-used technique of seeing your performance in your mind. It can be done simply in passing by closing your eyes and imagining a play or can be used as a central training tool to take the place of physical activity when an athlete is injured or worn down.
We use visualization constantly during the day without realizing we’re using it. If someone asked you to describe the difference between a McDonald’s hamburger and a Wendy’s hamburger, you would have to picture them both in your mind in order to answer. You’d talk about how McDonald’s hamburgers are perfectly round and most of them have smooth buns instead of Wendy’s square burgers with the cornmeal buns that have lots of texture. And the more adjectives we use to describe our images, the more vivid they become.
Why Visualization Works
Visualization is effective for two reasons:
1. It strengthens neural pathways, the roads that our brain uses to send out messages to our bodies. A strong neural pathway is like an exact route you know to get from your house to the airport, the mall, etc. The more you picture yourself executing your skills, the stronger your neural pathways become until eventually you feel so comfortable playing your game that the movements feel automatic.
2. Our brains see real performance and imagined performance the same. We experience this phenomenon often in our dreams. For example, you might dream that you are falling and wake up bracing yourself or dream that you are in a panic and wake up sweating. When you’re awake you might experience a real feeling if someone describes that light, tingling you get that resonates from the bat all the way down your arms when you connect with the ball on the barrel or the stinging in your hands when you get jammed on a ball.
Batman and Visualization
When practicing visualization, you should describe the sounds and feelings that go along with swinging the bat, fielding the ball, and throwing pitches. In comic books, Batman and Superman would beat up the villains by punching them, but to get added effect, the artist would draw in a big POW and BAM. When a bomb went off, you’d read KABOOM! These words strengthen our pictures and make our visualization exercises more effective.
Pitching words: fastball ZIP, curveball DIP, slider WHOOSH, POP into the glove
Hitting words: CRACK, SLAM, WHAM, CONNECT, LIGHTNING, POW
Fielding words: GLIDE, REACH, STRETCH, SCURRY, LEAP
Using Visualization to Build Physical Skills
The biggest obstacle many athletes have with using visualization is NOT that they can’t imagine the details of their performance, but that they can’t see themselves succeeding. For this, we have to reference the difference between process and outcome and separate from using visualization to build confidence and positive attitude. Visualization to build physical skills should regularly reinforce the execution of the process. In this way, mechanical processes can become automatic. Hitters should practice feeling their weight shift, knowing where their hands are, pausing their image with the ball halfway to the plate to make sure that they have gotten to their best position to hit on time. Pitchers should be grooving their balance, their rhythm, their leverage and lines so they will feel more comfortable and be able to repeat their deliveries when it’s time to throw sidelines and pitch in games. Images that are outcome-oriented do have a purpose, but they should be used to help build skills for performing under pressure.
Using Visualization to Perform Under Pressure
Visualization is most commonly used to build confidence and positive attitude. The stereotypical sport psychology reference involves “seeing yourself” hit the game winning home run or strike out the side with the game on the line. It’s true that picturing what you want to accomplish will help you accomplish more. But if you really want to become better in pressure situations, then you have to practice seeing yourself get into a jam and then deal with it successfully.
Mental toughness is built through overcoming adversity, not through dominating your competition without being challenged. Don’t make the mistake of picturing yourself executing your plan successfully without any hiccups along the way. If you want to get better at controlling your emotions then see yourself at the plate with an 0-1 count and imagine that the umpire calls a low pitch a strike instead of a ball. How do you react to that? How do you get yourself back under control so you can focus on the next pitch? If you need to throw more consistent strikes, see yourself walking the lead-off hitter on four pitches, then stepping off the mound, regrouping, and getting into your rhythm. Seeing yourself strike out the side on nine pitches might make you feel good when you’re practicing your visualization, but it isn’t very realistic.
“See You” Later
Remember that the goal we are trying to reach in using the mental game is to know what to do without thinking about it. Using visualization helps us practice our skills so we are more familiar with them and we feel like we’ve already “seen” our performance happen when it does.
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