By Dr. Haley Perlus
Visualization is one of the most popular and effective mental tools for peak performance. I contributed an article called “Three Ways You Can Use Visualization to Perform at Your Best” for the second issue of Brendan Brazier’s new magazine, Thrive: Peak Performance for the Modern World. Let’s continue the discussion on visualization but talk about a particular method that continues to help athletes achieve their goals.
Negative visualization is when you experience something bad while mentally rehearsing your performance. In my consulting practice, athletes will say they visualize getting passed by another athlete, falling off the balance beam, not being able to do what their coach asks of them, etc. When they come to me nervous to perform after having these negative images, I tell them the same thing I’m going to tell you: Don’t worry—it’s all good!
You see, perfect performances in sport and fitness are extremely rare. The sport of baseball itself is considered an error-based sport because you miss seven out of ten pitches. If the point of visualization is to mentally rehearse your performance, making it as real as possible, some negative visualization is part of the process.
Here’s how your athletes can make negative visualization a powerful tool in their mental toolbox: When they mentally rehearse something negative, immediately ask them to visualize themselves recovering and continuing on. A runner may visualize getting passed but then waiting for the right moment to pick up the pace and get back in front. A gymnast may mentally rehearse falling off the balance beam, but then shaking it off with a giggle and a second attempt—this time successful. An athlete may visualize not being able to do what coach asks, but then staying positive and patient and eventually getting the technique down.
When your athletes only visualize perfect performances, they miss out on the opportunity to practice effective recoveries from unfortunate but inevitable moments that occur in all sports and fitness.
I’m not saying that they shouldn’t visualize their personal best performances; of course those images will work to increase confidence, motivation, concentration, and overall skill level. But it’s also helpful to allow the negative experiences to play out in their mind. As long as they always finish their negative visualizations with a successful recovery, they’ll be in great shape for their upcoming training session or competition.
I think playing the “what if” game is good (provided they can get out of it when need be!) But IF you miss a pass what will you do to recover? If an offender gets past you how will you get back in front of them? You’re not actually planning to fail, you’re practicing how to rebound!