Visualization is probably the most popular ‘go-to’ move for sports
consultants. In fact, I even wrote an article for GoHorseShow.com about it two years ago.
However, with the latest research in Neuroscience, I thought it might be
interesting to take a look at the basic principles of visualization and
give them a bit of a makeover.
Before: See it exactly the way you want it
If you have invested time to learn the nuances of visualization, you are aware that the gold standard is to visualize your performance exactly the way you want it to be in vivid detail all the way down to your victory lap and the smell of the hot dogs at the snack bar. So what could possibly be wrong with that?
After: See it exactly how you want to BE
Based on how your brain works, imagining the perfect ride may not be the best way to mentally practice, and here’s why. Let’s say you are an above average visualizer and you have rehearsed your vividly detailed perfect ride starting with you jogging into the arena hundreds of times. What you have created is a neural super highway to success. Fast forward to the horse show. You are instructed to enter the arena at a walk, and you are going the opposite direction from the one you visualized in your mind. Your actual performance and your imagined performance are not in sync, so not only will you miss the onramp on the highway to Successville, you will find yourself in unfamiliar territory without GPS or even an old fashioned map.
Instead, you might want to visualize how you will BE in specific situations, not how you will DO. For example, If you tend to get a bit nervous before riding and showing, instead of visualizing yourself being calm, visualize HOW you got to BE calm. Imagine yourself having a case of the butterflies with a side order of sweaty palms, and see yourself taking some deep breaths and shifting your attention until you feel yourself relaxing right into the performance zone.
Before: Perfect practice makes perfect
I realize some people believe that if you see or say anything negative, you must quickly withdraw that thought from your memory bank, or you will create the very thing that you don’t want. However, if something negative comes up, it just means that a little gremlin is in your thought process, and the best way to deal with those pesky thoughts is to acknowledge them and kill them with kindness.After
Practice Making Perfect
Instead of shooing negative thoughts away like flies: accept, acknowledge and transform them. Make a list of the things that trip you up, design a perfect solution for how you want to be in that situation, and play those through. That way, if any of your gremlins pop up, you will have an automatic response that will put them back where they belong, which is far, far away from you.
Before: Practice your visualization in your quiet Happy Place
As they say in Georgia, this might could work if you are showing at Fantasy Land Fairgrounds. Visualizing accomplishes two things; your brain does not know the difference between imagined and actual performance and visualizing requires concentration. How many times have you tried to sit quietly and play a winning run through your mind, and after about 30 seconds you are wondering if you locked the door, which reminds you that your mom always said, “Lock the door honey, there are Kooks out there,” which reminds you that you were supposed to call you mom yesterday and now she will be upset that you forgot her, but after all, you were always that kind of child? Peak performance is created by your ability to stay in the current moment with the proper focus, and when you can do that regardless of what is going on around you, you are ensuring you will have the right mindset when you step into the show arena.
After: Bring It
You can practice this by putting yourself in situations that may cause you to lose your ability to focus on the task at hand. During the day, if you find yourself paying attention to something that is not mission critical to whatever you are doing, use that situation to bring your focus back to your breathing, and just pay attention to that. Let’s say that you are on an airplane and the baby in the seat behind you is screaming, crying and kicking your seat. Shift your attention away from that, and focus on your breathing and thinking of something that makes you feel happy and calm, and notice where the baby is now? Are you getting irritated sitting in traffic? Turn your car into your own personal day spa, and you can discover how relaxed and patient you can become going nowhere.
Before: Practice your visualization in a comfortable body position
If you have ever listened to any type of guided visualization or relaxation recording, you know the drill. They typically start with some nice ocean sounds, and a person with a calm, whispery voice saying, “ And now... (they take a huge deep breath) get in the most comfortable position ...(Yawn) ... either sitting or lying down... where you can be tot - a - leeee and com - pleteeee- leee ...full -leeeee relaxed. If you are a card carrying member of the Sleep Deprivation Club, it is likely that the next thing you are going to hear is a very perky cheerleader telling you how alert, awake and alive you are, and while you are feeling this burst of energy go knock ‘em dead and take no prisoners But research has shown there could be a better way.
After: Get Moving
What they should be saying is, “And now, get your Nike’s on and go out and do some type of aerobic exercise at about 60% capacity for the next 30 minutes. When you exercise, you are optimizing your mindset, increasing alertness, attention and motivation. Not only that, but exercise prepares and encourages nerve cells to bind together, and neurons that wire together, fire together. While your brain is fresh it can easily integrate new concepts, ideas and behavior, so why not take advantage of this receptive environment and focus on your success strategies?”
As you are cooling down, take a few minutes to mentally rehearse how you want to be in order to have the ride of your life. By doing visualization exercises with and after exercise, you are helping to pave you way to success where it matters most, in your brain.