The great Jack Nicklaus said: “I never hit a shot, not even in practice, without having a very sharp, in-focus picture of it in my head. First I see the ball where I want it to finish, nice and white and sitting up high on the bright green grass.
Then the scene quickly changes, and I see the ball going there; its path, trajectory, and shape, even its behavior on landing. Then there is a sort of fade-out, and the next scene shows me making the kind of swing that will turn the previous images into reality.”
According to TIME magazine on the night before the (1984) finals in women’s gymnastics Mary Lou Retton, then 16 years old, lay in bed at the Olympic Village mentally rehearsing. A believer in the process of mental conditioning and affirmation, she had done this hundreds of times.
Night after night, she visualized herself performing her routines perfectly. The result? A performance of perfection, charm and confidence – culminating in the 16 year old winning an Olympic gold medal. Athletes in all sports should use visualization of their perfect performances, in advance of the competition, to complement their practice and training.
Visualization allows you to get in reps without you actually having to do them. Why? Because the mind and nervous system can’t tell the difference between a real event and a vividly imagined event.
Proof of this is in your dreaming. How many times have you had a dream when it seemed just as real to you as if you were in your awake state? I am sure most of you have seen a dog kick and even bark, while totally asleep. We do the same thing – although we don’t kick or bark. Visualization was studied at the U.S. Olympic training center. Athletes were hooked up to monitors and told to visualize themselves playing their sport. Then went out and actually performed the same moves their visualized.
It turns out that the same neural networks get fired whether they were visualizing or playing. The biggest hindrance to being able to mentally rehearse for a lot of people is the word “visualize” itself. Some of us are not very visual and so we think we cannot visualize. Even the great Tiger Woods had trouble. When he was a junior golfer, he was told by his mental coach to visualize his golf shots before his swing just like his hero Jack Nicklaus did. Tiger said: “I could never do it. I couldn’t understand how to do it when someone said, “visualize” your shot. When I visualize I would see the ball going every which way.”
Everyone can visualize to some degree and you can improve with practice. For those of you that think you can’t visualize, try closing your eyes for a moment and see if you can visualize your car? Can you notice its color?
Where it might be parked right now? What about the room you are in right now…can you see the furniture? In order to improve your ability to “visualize,” you want to give yourself permission to say it in a way that makes sense to you. For instance, say something like, “Imagine, sense, think or feel your perfect shot…”
Being flexible with the wording allows you to come up with a creative way of mentally rehearsing that works best for you. For instance, a golfer could think about the feeling of the club in his hands, his sense of happiness when he plays, the fluidity of motion in his body, the sound of the ball dropping in the cup or the crack off the driver, etc.
The more you practice visualizing or mental rehearsal, the better you will get at it. Start with easy things and work your way up to a full golf swing or putting stroke.
The best time to “visualize” is right after you have had a perfect shot. Most golfers feel good for a second and then instantly go right to thinking about their next shot. What you want to do is emblazon that perfect shot on your mind’s eye as “the way you golf”. Replay your best shots over and over in your mind for the next few days.
Capt. George Hall was a U.S. Navy fighter pilot shot down in the Vietnam War. He imprisoned in a POW camp for 7 long years. Before the war he was as a 4-handicap golfer. During those 7 years, he daily played golf in his mind. When he got out, he had lost 80 lbs. Shortly after his release, he was invited to play in a Pro-Am tournament. He shot 4 over. This stuff works – try it!