Tuesday, August 24, 2010

Mind Games Pt 2: Visualization

I'm writing a series on mental preparation techniques to assist me in my build up for my A race next year.  This comes from a realization that this is an area I have not put enough effort into in the past, and also that it is an area where I feel I can gain a significant boost in race day performance.

My plan is to have a maximum of 5 simple yet effective techniques that I can focus on and practice over the next 8 months.  For me these techniques must be clear and easily practiced - if they are poorly defined or too insubstantial then I won't use them.  If there are too many, then I'll lose focus - I think it's too easy to get sucked into reading lots of articles with differing opinions on how to train and you end up with no clear direction.  I want to clearly set down exactly what I will use and how I will use them.

Today's post is all about visualization, and indeed this skill is the corner stone of solid mental preparation.  It is a skill that you need to nurture and develop, just like an efficient swim stroke, or a smooth pedal action.  The theory behind this is that repeated imaging of yourself succeeding in competition, or handling difficult incidents, coping with race day emotions or performing complex manoeuvers, will improve your ability to effectively execute come race day.  I don't think there's anything particularly controversial about that and any athlete at the top of their game will be using various visualization techniques regularly.

My feeling is that visualization is critical in skill and emotion intensive sports like tennis or golf, where at the top levels the difference between winning and losing is less about physical prowess and much more mental acumen and the ability to cope under short bursts of high level stress.  Endurance triathlon is not so demanding in either of those areas, but visualization still has a very important role to play.

In actuality, a lot of us who are focused on strong improved performances will already be visualizing on a regular basis but probably in a less structured manner.  I find I do this a lot on my runs - I'm constantly running through scenarios of me on race day in various guises.  Typically these are centred around the finish where I am powering through to the finish, probably burning up some competitor.  This is great but actually not that useful - the chances are there will not be someone beside me at the finish, and also this is just one small, mostly inconsequential, aspect of the race and my result will have been decided a lot earlier in the day.

So down to specifics - what constitutes an effective visualization training regime?  Well there are 2 main elements here: relaxation and visualization itself.

You need time, space, quiet and a relaxed body in order to practice imaging, and so the first skill to learn is how to put yourself into a state that is most conducive to this.  Imaging is about taking yourself out of the present and putting yourself into the competitive arena.  A number of books will talk about meditation, and if you have experience with that then you're one up on the game.  I have some very limited experience with it - I think I get put off by the term - it seems so serious and mystical, something which I'm unlikely to do regularly.  So I'm not going to use that term - instead I'm just going to call it simply relaxation.  Now that's something I believe I can do regularly and it doesn't sound too airy-fairy or 'out there'.

Relaxation is another skill that improves with practice.  The essential technique is to get some space and time to yourself - you can start with just 5 mins and you'll be looking at growing this process up to about 30 mins.  It helps if you have a calming room to do this in - one that is free from clutter, or any form of distraction.  Sit in a comfortable chair, or your yogic lotus position if you so wish. Close your eyes.  Breathe deeply and be very conscious of the breath coming into your body and being exhaled again.  On each breath feel a wave of relaxation flow through your body.  Count slowly from 10 down to 1 and with each number feel yourself reach a new level of relaxation.

At this stage, be very much in the present and don't worry about any thoughts in your mind.  You're not trying to clear them just yet - just accept whatever thoughts are there but let them pass too.  Now focus on your right foot and as you breath out feel your toes and foot relax, and then on the next breath feel it relax more.  Once again, after a third breath, feel it relax again.  Now do the same 3 breath technique for your right calf, and then your right quads.  Really think about the muscles, what they would feel like if they were tensed up and feel the tension flowing out of them.  Repeat for your left leg.

Now your glutes.  Your abs.  Your chest.  Your right hand, the lower arm, the upper arm.  Repeat on the left.  Your shoulders, really relax your shoulders.  Your neck.  Now your face, feel like the tension is slipping away from your forehead, your eyes, your mouth and then your ears.

Now your whole body is relaxed but there's one final stage.  Imagine your whole body is a balloon filled with water.  Let that water settle in all your body and sink into your chair.  As you exhale really let that water sink deep down.  And then over your next few exhalations, imagine that water flowing slowly out and your body slowly deflating.  You should now be pretty relaxed.  This may take a little time to start off with, but as you practice it, you will be able to get yourself to this state quicker.  You may find some soothing music helps with this process.

If you're time pressured or feel this is a bit too happy hippy for you, then just settle yourself and do some deep breathing before jumping into the visualization.

In order to effectively develop imaging skills then you need to know what works best for you personally - this differs from person to person.  Do you experience images primarily by sight, sound, touch or emotion - what sensory modes allow you to fully experience an image?  The likely answer will be a mix of the above, but one element is usually stronger than the others.  For example with myself, visuals are very strong and emotions are very muted.  Auditory and touch cues are somewhere in the middle.

Once you know this information then you can focus on your primary sensory modes to develop strong images, and probably enhance your less powerful sensory modes too.  While imaging also note whether you view yourself from outside like a video camera, or from inside your body.  Consciously swap between these modes to ground your image.

The next question is what to visualize.  I think the key elements here are:
  • enhancing motor skills
  • handling adverse scenarios successfully
  • rehearsing complex sequences
  • building self confidence and the correct mindset for race day
  • experiencing what success feels like

Motor Skills
In terms of motor skills you can visualize the technicalities of a good swim stroke, and what it feels like to glide through the water with a solid catch, pushing through to the end of the stroke, rotating correctly, breathing easily, etc.  On the bike imagine a solid comfortable aero position and a smooth pedal stroke.  On the run a relaxed rhythm, and whatever running technique you're most attached to.  Watching videos of great athletes such as Michael Phelps, Lance Armstrong, Fabian Cancellara, Haile Gebrselassie or Kenenisa Bekele will help with knowing what good technique looks like.

Adverse Scenarios
Make a list of potential problems, such as a flat tyre, cold, heat, wind, losing your goggles in the swim, dropping a water bottle on the bike, feeling fatigue late in the race, feeling negativity and visualize these events clearly.  Then visualize yourself handling these events effectively - what will you do, how will you make your thoughts positive?  Maybe watch yourself failing, and then slow down the image, rewind it and watch yourself do things correctly and succeed.  Reinforce the correct actions and positive outcome.

Rehearsing Complex Sequences
I write a list of equipment I need at the start of the race, in my T1 bag, my T2 bag and if necessary special needs.  I then write a short script for exactly what I will do at each of these key events in the race and then finally I visualize going through these scripts several times over.  This really helped me turn around my transitions, which used to be pretty poor but this year in Utah were nice and fast.  With this practice, you shouldn't turn up in transition in a panic but calm and focused on what you need to do.

Building Self Confidence
This one is a little less concrete, but once you have rehearsed complex sequences and adverse conditions it will be easier.  Essentially see you yourself at different stages of the race and ask yourself what kind of emotions you want to be feeling.  These should be feelings of relaxation, flow, confidence, belief in your ability.  Be aware of any negative emotions or self defeating beliefs you may have had in the past - image these and yourself turning these around to a positive outcome.

Visualize the scenarios in my previous post Own The Mat - these are the kinds of emotions you want to be able to call on when it comes time to toe the line.

Another option is to take one of your sporting greats, say for example Muhammad Ali and ask yourself, how would they feel in this scenario?  How would they handle this and what thoughts would be going through their head?  Imagine for a moment you are that person and experience what it feels like to be the best of the best.

Experience Success
Visualize how you feel when you come out of the water and you've hit a dream time, or in T2 after a great bike split.  What does that feel like?  How does it feel during the race when you're going really strong and you just seem to have bags of energy?  And of course at the finish - what are your emotions as you cross the line, when you have achieved all that you have set out to do?  Work on getting a really clear image of that in your head and experiencing the emotions and sights and sounds of success.

This is all well and good, and I can write all this stuff until the cows come home, but what about putting it into practice?  Well a number of the recommendations I have read say that mental practice should be scheduled into your program just as you do with swim, bike, run and weights.  Not only that, but it is strongly recommended to set aside 15-30 mins every day.  I don't know about you, but even with my low commitment life style that sounds a little difficult.  I'm guessing that at least 3 sessions a week is better than no sessions a week, so I'll shoot for that to start.

Starting new habits is a topic all in itself and I won't go into that here, but my plan is to pretend like I'm a mental training guru for 30 days, some kind of zen buddhist triathlon monk.  Hopefully once those 30 days are up, then I will have established a habit which will be easier to continue with and build on.

My key reference for this article was Mental Training for Peak Performance by Steven Ungerleider. There's plenty more information there if you want to do more research.

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