Visualization- what is it and how does it help you be a better athlete?
Visualization is one of those elusive tools often used by coaches to try and get their players to imagine on the field successes. When executed properly, visualization can help catapult your players to the next level while helping them overcome challenges on the field. Many coaches explain visualization as closing your eyes and seeing yourself execute the task at hand perfectly. For example, seeing yourself take the perfect swing at the plate and driving in the game-winning run. While this explanation is correct, it is very difficult for athletes to do. Below I will expand on the idea of visualization and teach you how to effectively put it to use.
I was first introduced to the idea of visualization around the age of 12 by my pitching instructor. He would often try and get me to slow down and visualize myself throwing the perfect pitch. I, like any other 12 year old, listened to my instructor and closed my eyes and tried to see myself throwing the pitch. (When I say tried, I mean I closed my eyes just long enough for him to think I had seen myself throw the perfect pitch.) There were times I put effort into it, but most of the time I brushed it off as being unimportant in the grand scheme of things. Now as a pitching coach I realize just how mistaken I was.
Visualization should not be limited by just your eyes; it should use all 5 senses. In order for it to work its best you must be able to see it, feel it, smell it, taste it and hear it. Since I was a pitcher I am going to focus on that aspect of the game, however, the items below can be easily converted to any other aspect of the game or in other areas of life.
So let's start with the basics- visualization is a tool that is used to help pitchers/players overcome challenges and/or speed up the learning process by involving not only their body- but also their mind. True visualization takes time and should be handled over multiple sessions with your player. You cannot expect to throw your players into the details of visualization head first if you want them to succeed. You should not emphasize their speed of learning as much as you should emphasize and encourage them to have a mastery mindset when approaching visualization.
The first session should take place during a one on one (or group at the college age) session. Explain to them exactly what you want them to do. Example: “I want you to physically stand on the pitching rubber, close your eyes and visualize yourself (watch yourself) going through your pitching motion and throwing the most perfect pitch you have ever thrown.” Give them some time and then ask, “Were you actually able to see yourself do this?” Most girls will tell you yes, but don't take their word for it at first. (Chances are they are having a hard time but do not want to disappoint you.) Ask them to describe in detail what they saw. What color shirt was her catcher wearing? Was there a chalk circle around the mound? What did the pitch do? What pitch did you throw? You will be able to tell pretty quickly how clearly they were able to see things during their initial attempt at visualization. During the first session you want to expand on the details of what you are expecting as much as possible- this is their first impression of the skill after all.
In the next phase of this session you want to introduce the concept of “feeling” the pitch. You can do this by saying the following: “I want you to physically stand on the pitching rubber, close your eyes and visualize going through your pitching motion as we did last time. But this time I want you to imagine, that you can actually feel yourself going through the motion of the pitch. Feel your hands come together, feel your muscles tighten as you explode off the mound, feel the resistance you create as you land and feel your arm whip through to your target.” Have them try this a few times but if the whole motion seems too daunting for them, have them work on one or two things at a time- like feeling themselves take their place on the mound and having their hands come together. If you check in with them and they say they still cannot do it, have them physically complete the two steps focusing on how it feels and then have them step behind the mound and ask them to repeat that step in their mind with their eyes closed. Now that they have something to refer to, feeling their visualization should be a little bit easier. Continue going through this until they are able to feel the whole pitching motion with their mind. For ease and time, you can break this down into multiple sessions if the student is having a big problem feeling the visualization. You do NOT want to frustrate them; you want to allow them to take baby steps to complete the task if that is what is needed by them. Remember everyone works at their own pace and what might be simple for some is often difficult for many.
The goal of the second session is to introduce the idea of feeling other aspects of the pitching scenario. For example, add the game element into it because it will force so many more uncontrollable things into their mind. Perhaps they now feel their heart pounding, the sweat on their forehead, or the heat from the sun on their skin. You want them to incorporate as many touch items as possible here. You can guide them if necessary but they should try and pick things that they feel on a regular basis while on the mound. That way the things they are trying to recall are familiar items. Basically you want them to become hypersensitive to what their experience on the mound is really like.
By the third session they should seem pretty comfortable recalling the feel of their pitching motion and how the external items feel when they step on the mound. It's at this time you want to introduce the concept of seeing what is going on around them. We often teach pitchers to have tunnel vision when on the mound, but for visualization purposes we want them to recognize the background scene. (Side note- once they are able to recognize things around them they can take steps to ensure it affects them less during games by practicing blocking certain things out through visualization.) As they visualize the background they see while they are in the pitching circle, have them explain it to you in as much detail as possible. So instead of accepting “I see the umpire”, have them focus on what the umpire is doing, is he setting up behind the catcher or is he getting a drink of water. If they see fans (parents) ask what color shirts they are wearing and if they have sunglasses on. Make them work to recall as many details as possible; there are no wrong answers you just want to exercise their mind the way you do their bodies in practice. This process may be difficult for them at first and will probably make them uncomfortable, but this is normal. If they are really struggling, they can open their eyes while you talk to them and probe them for information. The answers don't have to reflect actual instances that occurred recently, but you want them to find something they can recall with ease to insert into their visualization practices. Seeing their catcher give them a sign should be an easy one to recall because the mind has seen it so many times it becomes ingrained.
The fourth session will start with you walking them through the visualization steps you have already introduced and then talking to them about the sounds they hear from the fans around the field. You want them to tell you the cheer that is coming out of the opposing dugout as well as their own.
They need to be able to focus on each sound individually. The ultimate goal will be to use visualization to teach them only to focus on the sounds they WANT or NEED to hear thereby creating their ideal on the field scenario for success.
During the fifth session, you want to begin to talk to them about the smells they smell and the tastes they taste while on the mound. Perhaps it's the smell of ballpark hot dogs, rain in the air, or the dirt getting kicked up. They may also recall the taste of the sunflower seeds they eat during the game or the flavor of the bubble gum they chew. Since they are used to the amount of detail you want from each sense this should be easier than the last session, and they should begin to elaborate the smells and tastes to you with little prompting. I know it may seem weird to ask the pitcher to visualize the smells and tastes they experience when on the pitching mound, but I want to stress its importance, visualization works because the student should be able to imagine game situations as close to a real live game as possible so they can teach themselves to visualize the desired outcome of any given game situation before it happens.
Now, it's time to help the student to put it all together. The first time you review everything together you want them to stand on the pitching rubber and verbally tell you what they see, smell, taste, feel and hear during the visualization process and then have them open their eyes and pitch. Next, you want them to close their eyes and only visualize what they see, smell, taste, feel and hear. After they visualize you want them to pitch the ball trying to recreate exactly what they just created in their mind. You always want to reiterate to them that they want to visualize the best pitch they have ever thrown or the ideal scenario they would like to create. An example of this would be to have them visualize a pressure situation with a perfect outcome: bases loaded, bottom of 7th, tying run at 3rd, full count on the batter, and they have to throw the best rise ball they have ever thrown to strike the batter out at the plate. The goal is to get them to be able to visualize and perform the desired outcome every single time they are faced with it during a game. It teaches them to anticipate success especially in those critical high stress, high performance situations.
The more your players practice visualizing, and the more seriously it is taken, the bigger the impact visualization will have on their level of play. It is also important to mention that visualization is an important life skill for everyone to have. It's like having your own personal life coach because you can and will change the outcomes in every aspect of a player's life. Perhaps the student you are working with is a poor test taker. If they can apply visualization to enhance their athletic abilities they can surely use it to increase the probability of becoming a better test taker because they will have the skills to imagine taking the test and succeeding before they actually sit down to take it. Visualization requires a lot of hard work in the beginning but once it is learned it becomes second nature.