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How to Use Simple Visualization to Better Achieve Your Goals

When you think about losing weight, achieving an athletic goal, or becoming healthier, you probably don’t immediately think of visualization. But the practice of visualization can help you in all these areas and more.

And while visualization might seem like something that belongs in the more metaphysical realms of health and happiness, there is a lot of biological and psychological science behind it, too—especially when it comes to physical performance, training, and sport.

Because the real power in visualization lies in its ability to build confidence, improve skills, and help you get yourself into the best possible mindset for the task at hand (whether that’s facing down a deadlift, a handspring, a marathon, or a cold tub full of ice).

The Simple Key to Why Visualization Works

The key to understanding the real-life powers of visualization resides in the simple fact that the human brain is connected to our endocrine system. The endocrine system controls the hormones and chemicals in our bodies.

We all know that these hormones and chemicals can impact both our emotions and our physical state. When we become frightened, nervous, or angry, we shake because of the increase of adrenalin and related substances coursing through our bodies. This mental and physical state certainly doesn’t help our performance, confidence, and ability to think clearly.

But what if it could work the other way?

What if we could use our mental and physical state to influence the chemicals in our body? This is exactly what Russian sport scientists spent a fair amount of time researching in the 1970s and 80s as they pursued better performances from their elite athletes. And visualization is a practice continued by Olympic athletes from all over the world today.

The Facts About Visualization as Shown in Research

Here are some interesting facts gleaned from the research on visualization:

  • According to a 2009 study, the patterns of brain activity that occur when we execute a movement are the same patterns of brain activity that occur when we simply visualize a movement.
  • A 2003 study compared a group doing mental visualizations of finger exercises versus a group who was actually doing the finger strength exercises. While the group doing the physical exercises increased their strength by 53%, the visualizers gained an amazing 35% without (wait for it) lifting a finger.
  • A 2014 study of two groups who all had a cast immobilizing one arm from elbow to fingers. One group performed visualization exercises for four weeks, while the other did not. At the end of four weeks, the visualizers had lost 50% less strength.
  • A case study published in Psychiatric Annals shared that a young gymnast was able to overcome her performance anxiety and better enjoy competition through the use of relaxation and visualization techniques,
  • Researchers at New Mexico State University demonstrated that female basketball players who imagined free throw success prior to a game experienced a significant increase in real success during their games.

Based on all this information, visualization may be especially key for building new skills, honing technique, and reducing anxiety around performance or learning. In addition, it can be a powerful tool for anyone who is working through an injury and may not be able to train.

How You Can Practice Visualization

Quick instructions for a simple visualization practice:

  1. Relax: Find a quiet place where you can sit or lie down comfortably. Breathe deeply and imagine your whole body relaxing, imagining one muscle at a time letting go of any tensions.
  2. Picture a specific goal: This could be becoming fluent in a physical skill, an achievement like finishing a marathon, or reaching a body composition goal.
  3. Create a picture of achieving that goal: What does it look like when you deadlift two-times your bodyweight? Or cross the marathon finish line? Or swim a mile?
  4. Go further with that picture: What are the details? What time of day is it? What temperature is it? What do you smell? Who else is there? What are you wearing? What does your face look like at the moment of achievement? What does your body feel like?
  5. Face your doubts: If doubts arise as you draw the picture and keep playing the scene in your mind, work through and eliminate them. What will you do if an obstacle arises? Okay, and what if a different obstacle arises? Keep solving any problems you imagine. In fact, work to imagine all possible obstacles and how you will solve them.
  6. Keep playing the movie of your success: See yourself achieving your goal. Keep your picture positive and successful.

You don’t have to have all the details at first. Just schedule the time to sit down in a quiet place and draw your picture of success once a day. Add more details each time.

And, of course, be sure to keep up your actual physical practice, as well, whether it’s making healthy food choices, remaining consistent with your exercise, or making the time to practice recovery techniques. Each time you make a positive choice, you are laying another stone in the road to your goal—so keep building that road both in your mind and in the physical world.

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