Mental Practice

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Returning to action with no fear after an injury may seem far-fetched, but if you're able to visualize yourself coming back, you're already one step closer to recovery.

According to Dr. John Murray, a clinical psychologist in Palm Beach, Fla., who specializes in helping athletes deal with performance-related issues, visualization—or imagery—is the mental practice of creating scenarios in your mind that you may encounter in the future.

A common scenario associated with recovery is the fear of re-injury, but visualization can be used to re-wire your brain to help overcome that fear once you return to action.

"What's nice about visualization," Murray says, "is you can do almost anything. You can practice pushing the limits. Let's say you're a running back. Imagine making an extreme cut after an injury and dealing with it. You do that 100 times in your mind, and then you get out there on the field and you're not hesitant any more, because you've already been there mentally."

Half the battle is getting yourself to approach that movement without hesitation; and Murray believes that visualization will help get you to that point. "Expect the pain and push it beyond what you would normally do," he says, "so you can experience a little bit of the pain that might still be there. Do that in practice, and also do that in your imagery sessions."

Effective imagery sessions require more than simply closing your eyes and rehearsing situations in your mind. Murray offers four tips to help you visualize and overcome your fear of re-injury.

1. Practice visualization exercises in a quiet room, either lying down or sitting comfortably, with your eyes closed.
2. Keep a focused yet relaxed attention.
3. Think of pictures rather than words to make imagery seem as realistic as possible.
4. Believe the imagery works, because your attitudes and expectations enhance the effort.

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