"Top athletes use visualization to create a clear mental picture in their mind," says Dr. JoAnn Dahlkoetter, a sports psychology expert who has worked with numerous Olympic and professional athletes, and the author of Your Performing Edge. The visualization technique uses mental rehearsal, during which you envision what you want to happen. Not only can visualization help you prepare to play, it can promote positive thinking, which ultimately helps you combat nerves, reduce anxiety and alleviate pressure.
Dahlkoetter says, "Whereever you place your attention, your energy will follow." That applies even when you worry about worst case scenarios, like getting muscle cramps or being injured during a game. When you think negative thoughts, you're engaging in a form of visualization, but not the type that promotes positive performance.
Negative visualization detrimentally impacts physical performance. Dahlkoetter says blood pressure soars and muscles become tense, conditions that clearly reduce performance. But if you can flip your mental switch and visualize positively, you will be able to focus more sharply and ultimately perform better. Rather than worrying about getting hurt during a game, envision making a ridiculous lateral cut to blow by an opponent or scoring a game-winning goal.
Visualization is favored by a number of pro athletes, among them star softball pitcher Cat Osterman, who uses it as a way to focus during a game. "There have been times I started [a game] well. Then during innings three and four, my pitch isn't working for whatever reason. I come to the dugout, go into a corner really quick and collect myself," Osterman says. "I imagine throwing a pitch and seeing it break how I want it to and what my body does to make that happen." The ultimate benefits, she says, are reassurance and confidence.
Practice this technique to promote a positive mindset before you tackle real action:
- Close your eyes and keep a focused, relaxed attention
- Begin to build concentration by envisioning details about your technique—how you hold the ball, your stance and posture
- Imagine going through the motions that allow you to successfully execute the movement; see the ball travel to the desired spot
- Imagine the feeling of success; what you see in your mind subconsciously sticks
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