Success Lessons from the Winter Olympics: Visualization

Over the next few weeks, the Olympics will no doubt generate many headlines focusing on inspirational stories, unexpected successes, good/bad television ratings, and even scandals.

But here’s a fact you probably won’t hear much about: With each Olympics, countries throughout the world rely more heavily on sports psychology to help their athletes achieve success and win gold.

Canada, for example, is hoping to rebound from their disappointing 2002 effort by sending 12 psychologists with their team to the Olympics in Turin, instead of the seven they sent to Salt Lake. The U.S. took just two psychology experts to Lillehammer in 1994, and then attempted to achieve greater success by taking 11 to Salt Lake.

Why this increased reliance on sports psychology?

Simple. Sports psychology works.

Numerous studies have shown that the techniques of sports psychology significantly enhance success and performance. That’s particularly true in the Olympics, when the different between gold and silver is often hundredths of a second or fractions of a point. When physical performances are nearly equal, the mental edge determines winning and losing. Psychology becomes crucial to success.

Sports psychology features a number of proven techniques to enhance success and performance, but this article focuses on one in particular: Visualization.

Visualization goes by many names, including mental practice and covert rehearsal. It’s been a favorite tool of sports psychology experts for many years, but it has an even longer history as a technique for motivation, self-help, and self-improvement.

In the late 1800s, many popular self-help and self-improvement movements swept the country, including Christian Science and the “New Thought” movement. Some of these “schools” of self-improvement were overtly religious, while others took a more philosophical approach to the psychology of success. But they all shared a common belief in the importance of psychology as crucial to success. Specifically, they all taught that our beliefs literally shape our reality, and that visualizing the future *creates* the future. In a sense, they preached that psychology is destiny, and the path to self-help and self-improvement begins with visualizing what you truly want. Many of today’s motivational gurus borrow heavily from these century-old self-improvement movements.

In the 1920s, followers of Freudian psychology also preached the benefits of visualization, but for different reasons. They believed that visualizing the future influences the unconscious mind, and in turn, the psychological dynamics of the unconscious would push you toward what you visualized, without you even realizing it. Again, the fundamental philosophy of self-improvement at work is that psychology is destiny, and visualizing the future is crucial for motivation and success.

==> Why Visualization Really Works

Today, research in sports psychology has made it clear that visualization can enhance success and performance in sports. But parallel research in positive psychology has confirmed that visualization can enhance success in everyday life, making it a valuable tool for those interested in motivation, self-help, and self-improvement. But the reasons that visualization enhances the psychology of success are more practical and pragmatic than followers of Freudian psychology or popular self-help movements would have us believe. Here are the three main reasons that visualization enhances success and self-improvement:

1) Visualization enhances confidence

Research in the field of positive psychology shows that simply thinking about an event makes it seem more likely that it will actually happen. As you think about an event, you begin to construct mental scenarios of how it might occur, and even more importantly, how you might *make* it happen. The result is often greater confidence, and self-improvement occurs via a “self-fulfilling prophecy.” The psychological process is simple:

Visualization => Confidence ==> Action ==> Results ==> Success

2) Visualization boosts motivation

Visualization boosts motivation as well as confidence, making self-help and self-improvement more effective. As your dreams for the future seem more likely, you become more motivated to initiate and sustain action.

Setting goals is often a very rational, even “dry” element of one’s efforts for self-improvement. But visualizing your desired future is a very different psychological process, making abstract goals very tangible and concrete in your mind. This process engages your emotions as well as your thoughts, and generates an authentic excitement that motivates self-improvement.

Visualizing your future also makes you aware of the gap between where you are now, and where you want to be. The result is more motivation for self-improvement, as you strive to close the gap between your future ambitions and your current reality.

3) Visualizing is a form of practice

This is the most important reason that visualization enhances success, but the one most often overlooked in self-help and self-improvement books. Like any kind of practice, visualizing a behavior makes you more skilled and successful when it comes time to actually engage in that behavior. Moreover, visualized behaviors can be practiced more quickly, easily, and frequently than actual behavior – that’s part of why world-class athletes regularly complement their actual practice sessions with regimens of psychologically-focused visualized practice.

Visualization also used routinely in psychology and self-improvement because it is excellent for practicing behaviors that are too frightening, intimidating, or even dangerous to perform in person. For example…

Salespeople who fear rejection perform better and are more motivated if the visualize themselves facing, and bouncing back from, rejection

Psychotherapists routinely ask patients to visualize themselves facing their fears and anxieties as a way of easing them into actually confronting those fears

Recovering alcoholics can begin practicing their skills at resisting temptation by visualizing themselves facing, and resisting, tempting situations such as parties or restaurants

In each case, it is clear how visualization allows you to practice your success skills, making self-help and self-improvement more effective.

==> Visualization Tips for Maximum Performance

Of course, visualization needs to be a complement to actual practice, not a replacement. But done properly, it can make actual practice even more effective, and start fostering a psychological mindset of success. Done improperly, it can even hurt performance. To incorporate visualization into your self-improvement and motivational efforts most effectively, just keep these three principles in mind…

1. Correct visualization

Visualization only enhances success if you visualize the appropriate behavior. On the other hand, visualizing incorrect or ineffective behavior creates the wrong psychological mindset, hurting performance and minimizing success.

Sounds obvious, but this principle of the psychology of visualization is often violated, particularly by novice athletes. For example, someone who has just started playing basketball can certainly visualize themselves shooting f’ree throws, but because they haven’t had much coaching or training, they are likely to visualize the wrong things (e.g., not bending their knees, not following through). As a result, visualization has been shown to actually hamper the success of novice athletes. But many studies have shown that experienced athletes, who use proper form and technique, will benefit from visualization, because they are likely to visualize the right things.

The bottom line: If you are new to a sport or other endeavor, maximize your success by skipping visualization for now. Instead, your best path toward success and self-improvement is to focus on real practice, learning from skilled performers, taking lessons, getting training, etc.

2. Distributed visualization

Visualization increases success and self-improvement most effectively when visualization sessions are distributed over time, as opposed to being “bunched” into fewer, longer sessions. This is true for any kind of practice or preparation. For example, in preparing for a test, short bursts of studying distributed over time (e.g., one hour per night for four nights) leads to better results and more success than cramming (e.g., four hours in one night). The advice of “a little practice over many days” – commonly offered by self-help books – is definitely not self-help snake oil.

3. Precise visualization focused on the means, not the ends

Visualization must be precise, vivid and detailed to be an effective tool for enhanced motivation and success. Self-help and self-improvement books often encourage people to visualize broad ends, like “being richer” or “having less fear.” Although this can temporarily boost confidence and motivation, this is one case in which many popular self-help and self-improvement books often steer people in the wrong direction. Visualizing the “ends” – how your life would be if you accomplished your goals – is not the most effective approach because it doesn’t provide the many benefits of practice.

Instead, research in positive psychology shows that visualizing the “means” rather than the “ends” leads to more personal growth; documented benefits include reduced anxiety, more effective planning, and enhanced success. For example, don’t envision “having a great sales year.” Instead, a better strategy for success and self-improvement is envisioning yourself going to specific sales meetings, your actions in those meetings, the reactions of others, and how you will specifically overcome obstacles and persist in the face of rejection. Use all your senses – as you imagine the actions of others, consider how they might they might dress and the sounds of their voices. In short, self-improvement requires visualizing how you achieve self-improvement, rather than how it will feel to have accomplished your self-improvement goals.

When visualization was successfully used as a psychological tool with the 1976 U. S. Olympic ski team, for example, precision, detail and focusing on the “means” were crucial to the process. Skiers focused less on their eventual success of winning the gold medal, and instead visualized themselves careening through the entire course, experiencing each bump and turn in their minds. That team went on to have unexpectedly strong success, and precise visualization has been a standard psychological tool in the training of Olympic athletes ever since. You can use these same principles to enhance your own motivation, self-improvement, and success.

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