Imagery is a deeply focussed rehearsal that uses all the senses to create a 3-D experience in the athlete’s mind. The athlete imagines an event as though he is seeing himself going through the motions to a successful conclusion while also hearing the sounds, smelling the grass, feeling the touch of his instrument, perhaps even tasting the salt of his own sweat and even feeling the arousal he would experience at the height of the pressure. Sometimes it also includes an athlete’s memories from a successful event.
Imagery is very helpful in preparing for peak performance and it is actually the emotions in the imaged scene that seems to make the process most effective, said Bob Phillips, PhD, director of the Golf Psychology Training Center in Norcross, Georgia. He said that research shows that athletes who focused on the strong emotions involved with the actual performance were much more successful than those who only focused on the images of successful performance. The best way to accomplish this higher level of emotion is to be sure that you step into the image, he said. If you simply see yourself doing the action you are not really practicing the swing or putt (in golf) and consequently you are not involved with the feeling as deeply as you could be. Make sure you are aware of what you see, hear, and smell in the scene.
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Elite athletes use their own forms of visualization and imagery, according to Julie Anthony, PhD, a former tennis pro and now a clinical psychologist at the Aspen Tennis Center in Colorado. They have their own techniques and they choose not to put titles or clinical labels on them, she said. For example, speed skater Dan Jansen, a gold medal winner in the 1994 Winter Olympics, only visualized his 1,000-meter race when he retreated into a place in his mind he called a war room complete with an imaginary big-screen television, sofa, and stereo.
Martha Farah, PhD, professor at the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia, said that mental capacities such as memory, perception, imagery, language and thought processes are rooted in complex structures in the brain. Her research suggests that imagery is not part of language symbols but is the chemistry of the visual system. Using the technology of computerized axial tomography (CAT) and positron-emission tomography (PET), Farah and other neuro-psychologists who examine brain-damaged patients have found that the brain uses the same pathways for seeing as it does for imaging.
Focus is largely disciplining yourself to keep attention on what’s important. The great ones practice it. Martial arts guru Bruce Lee had a nifty little trick. Each day, while going through his normal routines, perhaps on his way to a studio or mailing a letter, he’d suddenly stop what he was doing and concentrate very intensely on something completely unrelated to what he was doing: perhaps a butterfly which had just landed on a leaf or a postman delivering a letter to a home. For a few seconds he would completely lose himself in this, absorbing everything about the butterfly or the postman. Then, presto, he’d snap out of it and resume his daily chores. This helped to hone my focusing abilities for the time when I would need them in competition, he said.
A good drill for teams, coaches say, is having a coach suddenly stop a ballhandling drill to have all the players focus on an airplane flying overhead. When the plane goes out of sight, the coach can ask the players everything they noticed about it, and its habits in the air. And then, presto, back to the ball drill. Then, 15 minutes later, the players should attach themselves to something else completely unrelated, holding their attention for a longer period as they increase their attention span.