Success, Pt.1: The Olympic Mind Games

Or…
‘What do Olympians think about in the shower?’

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We all want to successfully accomplish our goals. If you disagree, feel free to challenge me to a duel (although commenting below would be less effort for us both…), but I think it’s fair to assume that whether you’ve set out to start a business, learn trombone, stick to a fitness routine or make an incredible toasted sandwich, you want to be successful. With this in mind, I’ve decided to learn about some of the ways that we can all improve our chances of success on a daily basis.

In this article (the first of two) we’re going to look at a group of people often regarded as role models for success: athletes. They love being successful, right? And we love watching them being successful. Well, it turns out that they love watching themselves being successful, too.

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Though it reads like the synopsis of an Inception rip-off, it’s true: Not only do the world’s top physical performers spend countless hours practising on the track/pitch/BMX ramp, they also dedicate massive amounts of time to imagining that they’re there, and that they’re smashing it.

This technique is called visualisation (also ‘imaging’ and ‘mental rehearsal’) and is widely recognised as a key weapon in the athlete’s arsenal, to the extent that many teams hire full-time sports psychologists to coach imaging techniques. As demonstrated in multiple studies, mentally rehearsing the successful completion of an event in vivid detail is an effective way to prime your muscles to conduct the correct movements when it matters most. In fact, it’s so potent that just thinking about doing bicep curls can lead to actual strength gains (note: World’s Strongest Man is yet to be won by the power of imaginative thought alone).

The trick is to incorporate lots of sensory information. Apparently when Wayne Rooney visualises, he can feel his foot connecting with the ball, smell the grass and hear the crowd – for the elite sportsperson, visualisation isn’t just about the visual. According to the Association for Applied Sports Psychology, it’s also important that imaging is done in real-time and includes specific, realistic details, such as the colour of the opposition’s clothing, or any identifying features of the competition venue.

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Finally, according to sports psychologist Nicole Detling, it’s vitally important that athletes do not visualise failure. Because it’s such an effective tool for training muscles to perform tasks, repeatedly imaging errors would be like programming the body with the blueprint to failure. However, the most effective visualisation routines do incorporate a range of possible scenarios, including those that are less-than-perfect. These allow the athlete to form strong mental images of succeeding under adverse conditions, such as poor weather or the pressure of a noisy crowd.

The best thing about visualisation is that it can be done anywhere – effective practice isn’t confined to the track/pitch/velodrome – and if Canadian bobsledder Lyndon Rush’s habit of visualising the trickier turns while he’s showering is anything to go by, we may have finally answered the perennial question, ‘What do Olympians think about in the shower?’

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It’s not too hard to see how visualisation could be applied outside of athletics, either. I once interviewed a professional musician who uses an extremely thorough mental rehearsal routine to prepare for gigs; just as in an athletic setting, this not only programs his muscles to perform correctly, but also builds his confidence. Both of these factors then contribute to a ‘successful’ gig. Likewise, visualisation could be applied in a business context, for example to rehearse your presentation and reduce the feelings of anxiety associated with public speaking.

As a guitarist myself, the prospect of using visualisation to learn new material without actually playing is really exciting (no doubt my neighbours think so too), as is using it to prepare my muscles for a new personal best, or to role-play the perfect job interview.

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However, visualisation is yet to be Lifeshelf-tested-and-approved (unlike coffee napping). Therefore I figured we could all do with a few more pointers before trying it out, and I watched this video, this video and this video so that you don’t have to. Here’s what I learned:

1.You should be feeling relaxed and positive before you begin. This might mean meditating, taking a shower or listening to music beforehand.

2. You can visualise sat down, or lying on your back, with your eyes closed.

3. You can visualise from your own point of view, but try the third-person too (looking through the eyes of someone who’s watching you win the race/make that toastie).

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4. Real-time visualisation is best for reinforcing behaviour, but visualising a goal as if you’ve already accomplished it can be motivational. If you’re trying to save for a holiday to X location, visualise yourself already there. What do you see/hear/smell/taste/feel? Top athletes do this too, imagining how they will celebrate after winning.

5. Like anything really worth doing, visualisation takes practice, ideally daily.

So, the science and the real-world results both suggest that visualisation is a habit worth adopting, whether we’re athletes or not. Do you think you’ll give it a go? If so, let me know how you get on, as I’ll be trying it for the first time too! And don’t forget, if you hit ‘follow’ then you definitely won’t miss this article’s less fortunate sibling, ‘Success, Pt.2: Plan to Fail’, when it blunders its way onto The Lifeshelf.

Thanks for reading! Words by Alexander MJ S, images from Pexels and Pixabay.