By Kristin Keim
As the road and mountain bike seasons move into full swing, I am busily working on my sport psychology internship with the coaches of Carmichael Training Systems (CTS) where I have the wonderful opportunity to assist in their holistic approach of integrating mental and physical training into their athletes’ training programs. This week, I’ll be presenting on the mental training skills of imagery and how it can be used to enhance their athletes’ performance. If you follow me on Twitter or if we’re Facebook pals then you already know how I share an inspiring quote each day about different ways to practice mindfulness and to be present and aware of all the gifts and amazing journeys life has to offer. Today, I offer you this quote by George Bernard Shaw,
“Some people see things as they are and ask why; I dream things that never were and ask why not?”
These words touch on the idea of imagery or what we also refer to as visualization in sport psychology. Everyone dreams and has an imagination, so tapping into this source should be easy, but for some this proves to be a difficult task. In these cases, imagery can be a powerful tool to help you perform at your optimal level of performance on the bike and in all your endeavors.
I was inspired today by watching [Fabian] Cancellara not only win the Tour of Flanders but to ride away with such power, grace, and mental strength. If you did not catch the race on TV, I’m sure you heard about his attack on “The Muur” climb where he picked up the pace and dropped [Tom] Boonen like he had planned this attack from the start line. Actually, that might be what Cancellara did, he probably imaged at some point being on that climb and where he would make his final attack in order to race to finish alone for the sweet victory!
As athletes, there are many times when you might imagine yourself winning the local Roubaix-style race, or see yourself in the finishing circuits of Paris-Roubaix… if that’s your goal then you’re on the right track! Imagery is a way for you to improve your mind and body connection by allowing yourself the creativity and control of using all of your natural senses in order to create or re-create personal images that are positive, powerful, and productive. What you see in your mind can strongly influence your beliefs, achievements and help you reach your goals. In the words of Robert Collier,
“See things as you would have them be instead of as they are.”
By allowing yourself to dive into your own senses you can change the way you feel, think, act, and perform. Think about how you feel at the start of a race… Do you see yourself winning? Are you off the front or in a winning break? Tapping into these thought patterns can aid in improving your ability to perform well.
So how does imagery work? First off, our central nervous system to some degree does not distinguish between real and imagined events; it relates all images as if they are real. Here’s a quick test:
Relax and close your eyes… now imagine you’re holding a bright yellow lemon in the palm of your hand, you can feel the coolness of the lemon as you place it on the table. In your mind, cut a wedge from the sour lemon and place it in your mouth. Bite down gently, and let the cool, sour juices permeate inside your mouth. Alright, don’t lie… did you find yourself puckering or salivating? This is a simple yet effective way to show how visualization can create a physical response by just using your senses.
When you think about a past race or visualize yourself there are two ways in which we can use imagery. One perspective is Internal, which is when you image being inside your body. An example would be if you were behind the handle bars charging towards the finish line as you sprinted for the win! You might also take an External approach by imaging yourself as an external observer (much like in home movies) where you would see yourself win the race or make the perfect attack from outside your body from a third-person viewpoint. Through practice you can learn which approach is more effective for you personally and yes using imagery can be like training your muscles…just like you believe in your physical training you have to believe and practice your mental skills.
Let’s now focus on how to improve the amazing imagery abilities you already have… thinking back to the lemon example, what senses stood out to you?
It’s important to make your images as realistic and vibrant as possible. You need to focus on using all your senses such as: Visual, Kinesthetic, Auditory, and Olfactory, to name a few. Visual is important to set up the scenes or race situations you want to picture in your mind. Kinesthetic refers to the sensory experience of feeling and the movement of the experience. Additionally, Auditory can enhance your image but allowing you to mentally hear the sounds or Olfactory that will tap into the images that come to mind in relation to a smell that reminds you of that situation. Once you chose the situation and image, make sure to incorporate each of these senses in order to make it as vivid, controllable and realistic as possible.
Imagery is a legitimate skill and research indicates that it can aid in performance and is often used by many elite, professional, and Olympic athletes.
When might you use imagery? Some examples:
- To reduce your anxiety
- Increase your confidence
- Increase your motivation
- Enhance your endurance
- Pre-performance routines
- Race simulations
- Travel periods or recovery days
- Speed recovery from injury
When physical training is not possible, such as travel or recovery days, imagery can provide you with a way to train or focus on an area to improve. It can also help you through a tough injury by shifting attention away from the injury onto mental rehearsal of performance or healing internal imagery scripts to aid in recovery and re-entry. These are just a few ways that imagery can help you and I hope this has allowed you the opportunity to see how many resources you can use by allowing the mind and body to work together.
It’s best to begin to try and use imagery on a daily basis. Set aside 10-15 minutes a day, either in the morning before your ride/race or at the end of the day while you’re stretching, recovering, and preparing for bed. Make sure to find a quiet place, try closing your eyes, take some deep breaths and get into a relaxed position as you let your imagination take over. Lastly, focus on positive images because negative images can create anxiety and tension that could hinder your performance. Positive images will relax your mind and body, which will lead to enhancing your performance and reaching your goals. Cancellara probably imaged positive images such as the victory salute he would give as he crossed the finish line, while Boonen also was able to show mental strength by not allowing the other racers to catch him and at some point he probably imaged himself catching up and winning the race. To race at that level, athletes have to be physically strong, but also how to suffer and to never give up and that’s why so many professionals understand the power of being equipped with mental skills as well. Now start imaging your next race and the victory salute you will give as you cross the finish line…
Enjoy the journey… see, believe, become.
Photos: © Leonard Basobas (first and third); Reuters (second)