Visualization and Sports: Accounting for Errors in Performance

There was a great article in Pacific Standard magazine last month that I really enjoyed called: “The Game Slowed Down.” It talks a great deal about visualization and sports. In reading through it, I was somewhat amazed at just how mainstream the idea of visualization has become.

“Mental rehearsal” isn’t a new idea by any stretch of the imagination, but as I think back to my brief time as an elite athlete, visualization was hardly spoken of and certainly not openly encouraged by coaches or teammates. Lucky for me that it was something my parents taught me, so I had that early exposure to it, but I certainly think I would have benefited (and my teammates would have benefited) from group sessions where we all sat down as a team and went to “practice” by closing our eyes and visualizing our successful outcomes.

On that note, there was one passage in the article that pleasantly surprised me:

During the 2014 Winter Games in Sochi, 18-year-old Shiffrin was asked if she was nervous about participating in her first Olympics. Her response was, well, these aren’t my first Olympics:

I’ve envisioned this moment for quite a while. I’ve visualized myself on the top step of the podium, and on the third step of the podium. I’ve envisioned myself crashing, because I know what mistake I (would have) made to crash, and I know I’m not going to do that in the race.

Running reps through her head—every sliver of ice on every turn, every scenario in which something didn’t go exactly right—prepared her for the biggest event of her life. When she made a mistake halfway through her second run, causing both of her skis to leave the ground—a big no-no in downhill slalom—she didn’t panic, over-correct the error, and tumble into the snow. Instead, she stretched out those vital milliseconds through practiced over-cranking, shifted her body back into the correct position, and quickly got back on track for the rest of the run.

That’s brilliant. When I used to visualize my performances, I don’t remember accounting for “errors” in my performance, but it certainly makes sense that one would want to be prepared for all scenarios and to do that, one would want to prepare for “errors” in one’s performance.

This reminds me of the study (that I can’t seem to find at the moment) about positive self-talk. Most people think that before a performance (be that sports, musical, or even a job interview), it’s best to tell one’s self that one is awesome or that one is great and that undoubtedly, they’re going to perform well. However, this study found that, instead of pumping one’s self up in this manner, it’s actually better if one asks one’s self how one is going to perform well. That is, if you’re applying for a job, instead of saying to yourself that you’re awesome and that you’re a perfect fit for the job, it’s better if you ask yourself how you’re going to get this job or how you’re going to do well in the interview to get the job. The research showed that by asking yourself these questions, it prompts your brain to come up with strategies or ways to do perform well.

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