Introduction:

In the 1980s, sport scientists in the Soviet Union made good use of visualisation techniques in order to get athletes to perform to the best of their ability [1]. Since then it has been incorporated in the sports psychology training of many sports teams and individual athletes including Michael Phelps. However, there is quite widespread misunderstanding concerning what visualisation meditation is and what it is not.

Visualisation meditation, the umbrella term I use for visualisation techniques, is not a practical form of wishful thinking. In the remainder of this article I expand on what it is, and the neurophysiology of visualisation meditation.

Practical aspects of visualisation meditation:

Visualisation meditation, when practiced properly, is a highly-focused meditative state. To see what it looks like in action, I can recommend a short interview of Erben Wennemars who set several world records during his career as a speed skater [2]. It’s worth noting that he’s an expert in this meditation technique and he’s capable of transitioning to it fluidly during the interview. However, for most people it is useful to first use a relaxation method before transitioning to visualisation meditation. The reason is that the most effective focused states are flow states and it is easier to reach the flow state when you are relaxed [1].

A few key points form [2] and [3]:

  1. Relaxation methods are useful prior to entering the visualisation state.
  2. It is useful to understand this as a meditative process that is unsupervised. This will allow you to explore a diversity of realistic outcomes. Outcomes that you want, outcomes you don’t want, and other outcomes that are possible.
  3. The visualisation process must be as realistic as possible in order for it to be effective. This includes goal-setting and using vivid imagery as in this setting the brain won’t be able to distinguish the visualisation process from the real thing. This may include setting a timer while practicing visualisation, if you are preparing for a sports event with a finite duration.
  4. It is worth emphasising that the visualisation process is effective when it is used to simulate reality rather than a process of wishful thinking.
  5. If done properly, visualisation is an effective meditative approach for adjusting both an athlete’s psychology and training parameters in order to achieve the best possible outcome.

I personally practice visualisation meditation as part of my mental training for fencing matches. The metric I generally use is the difference between reality(win/loss) and expectations(win/loss) where I calculate the average difference between reality and expectations over more than 30 fencing matches. I generally train twice a week and fence 4-5 different épée fencers per training session. In a training journal, I also write down what I expect to happen during training based on strategies I have visualised versus what actually happened. I pay attention to what worked, and what didn’t.

This allows me to make adjustments to my approach to visualisation and my training in general.

Neurophysiology of visualisation meditation:

There are two reasons why visualisation meditation works. One reason is that the outcomes of visualisation meditation often say something tangible about which parts of your training program are effective and which ones are less effective. In this sense it is part of an analytical tradition in psychology.

However, another important reason why it is very effective is that it actually prepares you mentally for the real thing. An increasing amount of evidence indicates that vivid images of imagined movements implicates the sensorimotor cortex [4]. This means that an athlete that practices visualisation meditation regularly will be able to perform better during training and competitive events because they have explored difficult edge cases in simulation, and these simulated events are stored in their brain as memories.

Discussion:

I don’t think it will ever be possible to transform visualisation meditation or meditation in general into a hard science. However, it is possible and important that visualisation meditation be part of an empirical feedback loop. That’s where a training journal comes in, and the journal is only useful if you are brutally honest with yourself.

Right now I am also exploring the potential usefulness of lucid dreaming as a method in sports psychology. Sport psychologists have started doing research on the subject which has demonstrated promising outcomes [5]. I don’t have any experience with guided lucid dreams at present, but I may write more on the subject in the future once I get a practical grip on the subject.

References:

  1. Mindful Sport Performance Enhancement. Carol R. Glass, Keith A. Kaufman, and Timothy R. Pineau. American Psychological Association. 2017.
  2. Interview with Erben Wennemars. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=2ouUTmUjgCg
  3. How Michael Phelps Used Visualization to Stay Calm Under Pressure. Olivier Poirier-Leroy. yourswimlog. https://www.yourswimlog.com/michael-phelps-visualization/
  4. Dreamed Movement Elicits Activation in the Sensorimotor Cortex. Martin Dresler et al. Current Biology. 2011.
  5. Effectiveness of motor practice in lucid dreams: a comparison with physical and mental practice. Tadas Stumbrys, Daniel Erlacher & Michael Schredl. Journal of Sports Sciences. 2016.