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Old 02-01-2012, 02:32 PM   #26
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Max Brawn
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Visualization technique for beginners

Sports psychology has come a long way. It is now well accepted that peak performance states can be induced or trained or, to put it simpler, practiced. Getting into “the zone” is common talk these days. Every sport and every coach gives this aspect of competition it’s due. But still little of what we all accept as “important stuff” is really filtering down into everyday practice. This ,I feel, is a shame. I won’t belabor the reasons why I feel this gap exists but just to illustrate it let me ask you: when was your last visit to your sports psychologist? Or the last book you read on focusing your mental abilities for competition?` Or even the last intelligent discussion you had with your peer training group about psyching for sport? Well, if it wasn’t last week, I think its too long!

There is a vast arsenal of knowledge and power at our fingertips that is largely going un-used. Most powerlifters simply think that rage and adrenalin are what psyching up is all about. “What else do you need to know? Just git mad an’ pull ‘er up!” Too bad. There’s so much more.

In an effort to make some of the techniques more “real-world” for us powerlifters, I have chosen a very basic and widely acclaimed method of mental training to aid performance : visualization. It is well agreed that this method has rapid tangible effect so dramatic that it may spark your interest in other forms of “headwork”. My hope is that it does.


Basically this is closing your eyes and seeing yourself performing your sport.

Visualization can be thought of as mental dress- rehearsal. Jack Nickalaus used to say he would “go to the movies” before a shot and see the performance of the shot perfectly in his mind before he took his swing. That’s visualization ;creating an image of the correct outcome of the skill in the mind’s eye. Thus, not only is this a form of practice, it is perfect practice! I’ll bet Jack never hit one into a bunker in his mind!

This is quite a bit more than daydreaming although the principle is similar. In visualization, every detail is imagined not just the rough gist. The research shows that the more detailed the image, the more successful the technique is. All the senses are involved,not simply “seeing”. Sounds are imagined, bodily sensations of pressure and touch, even smells are called up to fortify the experience. Subjects who could visualize running clearly and extremely detailed were shown to have elevated heart rates, faster respiration and amazingly, EMG (electromyograph- measuring nerve signals to the muscle) activity mimicking running in their leg muscles! They were lying still yet their bodies were responding as if they were actually running! It seems the mind cannot totally distinguish between a vividly imagined event and an actual event. It responds to what is in the imagination as well as reality. If you imagine yourself running strongly enough, your body thinks it’s actually happening!

Knowing this , visualization is an excellent way to practice max lifts many, many times without all the wear and tear! Think of the implications! If you master this technique you can lift 500 lbs. perfectly over and over in your mind weeks prior to the competition. When the meet finally does roll around you lay under the bar and only have to bench it once. But you’ve done it already a hundred times in your mind. What’s one more time to you? You feel like this is old hat. You’re used to this. There are no surprises, you feel comfortable and like this is where you belong. You are familiar. Hell, you’ve done this ten times in your head already this morning! It’s nothing to you now! You’ve built experience up.

The benefits of visualization are well documented. But if you’re still not sold let me describe the results of a famous experiment with a basketball team.

The team was interested in improving free-throw performance. Four groups were established. One group did no specific free-throw practice at all. This was the control group. The next group did only mental free-throw practice. They were taught to visualize themselves shooting free-throws and did no actual real-life free-throw shooting during the experiment. This was the visualization group. The next group was the actual practice group. They shot real free-throws for the experiment. The last group was the 50/50 group which spent ½ of their practice time actually shooting free-throws and ½ their time mentally imaging shooting the free-throws. Which group do you suppose improved the most during the course of the experiment? Well, of course the group that did no practice at all did the poorest: they actually got worse. No surprise. The actual practice group was next and showed some marked improvement. The 50/50 group outperformed the practice only group indicating the benefit of adding mental drills to regular practice. But most shocking is that in this experiment, the visualization group improved the most and they never took a single shot! How do you take that? What does that say to you?

The researchers proposed that the virtue of perfect mental practice (this group never missed a single mental shot the whole training period ) was so reinforcing that it set up a condition of “expectation of success” and the kids in this group never got to “see” or feel anything but the ball hitting nothing but the net. Even the 50/50 group missed some shots that they actually took. But the visualization group was perfect all the time. Their bodies and minds became conditioned to the swish of success and they were able to make the most improvement of all the groups on the post-test.

Amazing? Not really. But it should jar you a little. What these kids were practicing was success. And before long it became natural to them. This “ expectation of success” proved to be more valuable than hours of real-life good old fashioned hard work and repetition. Why? Because it wasn’t just practice…it was perfect practice. That made all the difference. If you would have asked me which group I thought was going to improve the most before the experiment began I would have guessed the 50/50 group. They got the best of both worlds. They could use the images and they could use the real-life trial and error to correct their mistakes ( I’m a trial and error guy, myself). But the value of feeling success over and over without ever missing seemed to outweigh what I would have called practical learning. These kids learned to expect success more than they learned to shoot a basketball. But still they shot truer than their counterparts who did actual practice. If that doesn’t excite you about mental training then you can probably skip the rest of this article and read another one about sets and reps. You won’t get it. But if you find yourself thinking, ”Hey…hmmm.” Then read on!

Basic Visualization

You can simply picture the perfect lift over and over in your mind and on some level get some results. But not much. You see, the state of your mind when you perform the visualization is crucial to making it work. If you’re not in the right frame of mind, your results will be paltry. If you want this to work you’ve got to get the brain into what is known as Alpha-wave state. This is absolutely necessary to influence the sub-conscious.

The sub-conscious accepts ideas very readily when the mind is in Alpha state. To seed the sub-conscious we must get the conscious mind out of the way. Don’t let me lose you here! Yes, this is like setting up a meditation state or undergoing self-hypnosis. Both of these methods rely on Alpha state for success also. But don’t flake out on me here! This is much simpler and much easier and much more “normal” than going into a Zen trance! It’s more like when you are going to sleep and you are in between. You’re not asleep yet and you’re still aware of what’s going on around you, but you’re not fully alert either. You are relaxed, calm, peaceful, and guess what? If you looked at your brainwaves you would see that you are in Alpha wave state.

This is the most creative time for the mind. The conscious mind is still and quiet but not turned off yet as in sleep (Delta wave). You can still think clearly yet you are not encumbered by all the normal noise of the fully alert mind (Beta wave). The time is ripe for suggesting to your sub-conscious that you expect success and that you always perform your skill flawlessly and consistently. It is in this state that you have the best chance to influence your sub-conscious to believe that you are actually practicing. It will never know the difference. It is very accepting when you are in Alpha. And you are a better artist painting the picture of success in Alpha, too, as this is the most creative wave state. You can try to shove these ides down your sub-conscious’ throat when you are awake, but it can be resistive. “You’re not really practicing are you?” It seems to be on to you. But in Alpha, it will take whatever you tell it as gospel and BOOM you’ve got it. It just goes along for the ride.

Getting Into Alpha

So to make this whole thing work, you need to be able to induce an Alpha brain wave state. Otherwise it’s like repeating a lie over and over louder and louder thinking that if you keep it up long enough you’ll begin to believe it yourself. But you really never do because you know the truth. But the sub-conscious doesn’t have the restrictions of judgment like the conscious mind does. And when in Alpha you tell it something it never asks for proof. It just acts on it. This is the door. This can condition your mind to expect success on a sub-conscious level!

Now, if you think that getting to Alpha must require hours of meditation and strict discipline and yadda,yadda, yadda…you’re wrong! I think that this is where people fall away. They get turned off by the “trance-like state” or think that this thing requires some special skills only Tibetan monks and Yogis know. Well, that’s bull! Anyone, and I mean everyone can do this. Yes, some people have a knack for creating visual images and for some it’s a bit slower, but we all can do it . The first step is to relax the body. The mind will follow.

Visualization Made Easy : The Technique

The rest of this article will guide you through the actual technique of Alpha state generation and visualization. This is the simplest distillation of the method I know that still packs the punch.

The first step is to relax the body. The mind will follow.

Body relaxation

To begin to access Alpha you need to relax the body. Find a quiet room or calm space outdoors free of noise and distraction or interruption (this is probably the toughest part!). Sit comfortably or lay down. I find it best to lay down. Close your eyes. Some authors suggest soft music but I much prefer silence. In fact I recommend that you wear ear plugs to further shut off the outside distractions. This has a very strong centering effect for me. I feel like I’m inside myself just by cutting off the outside chatter. I feel I can hear myself better this way. Try it both ways. The goal is to feel calm.

Begin by telling yourself that it’s time to relax. Set up the expectation. Now, the simplest method is known as the Benson technique and was devised for stress –reduction. What you do is to contrast tension with relaxation to better feel what relaxation is. Start with your feet. Clench the muscles of the toes isometrically for several seconds. Sense the tension that develops. Then abruptly let go of the contraction. Sense the relaxation of the feet. Really feel the difference between tension and relaxation. Some experts advise up to three contraction/relaxation bouts before moving to another body part but I find that once is sufficient. Do as many as you need to feel the release.

Next do the same with your calf muscles. Clench them tightly for a few seconds and then let them go limp. Feel what limp is . Do this with your quads. Also with your butt and hamstrings. Then your lower back, then your stomach (this can cause a problem because it changes the breathing . If it makes you feel tense , skip the stomach and move on). Then clench your fists and release them, then your arms, chest , lats and your neck.

Finally, squeeze the muscles of your face tightly and then let them soften. It is amazing how much tension wants to remain in your face! At this point about 15 or so minutes will have passed and you should assess your whole body looking for any left over tension. If you feel any, give that area a squeeze and let go of the muscles giving in to gravity and relaxation. You should be calm, and fairly tension free.

Now concentrate on your breathing. Take deep slow breaths and follow the air into and out of your body. Say to yourself “ relax” each time you exhale. After about ten or so breaths you are ready to begin visualization and most people will be in or near Alpha state: calm, relaxed, and quiet but not drowsy or lethargic.

The Images

Now it is time to feed the sub-conscious the images of success. It is at this point that the conscious and sub-conscious are closest together. It is at this point that you have the most influence over your deep mind. It is absolutely imperative that you feed it the correct images. Remember !: it will not judge what you give it. It will accept the wrong information as easily as the right information!! Some authors advise playing a pre-recorded tape of yourself or someone in authority talking you through the steps of a perfect performance. This way, the message that is given is exactly the same and is free of error because it was recorded in a fully conscious state. I personally prefer to talk myself through each time as this tends to keep me “in control” and prevents me from drifting off to sleep as can happen with pre-recorded tapes. Some say that even in sleep the message gets through, but brain wave patterns change and the subliminal tape methods have never shown the degree of success that the visualization methods can offer. Besides can you really be sure what’s on those tapes anyway? Even with my own voice and my own guided imagery I find I get so relaxed that I fall asleep too often. But try it both ways yourself.

Begin to imagine yourself doing your skill. Remember the more detailed your picture and the more tiny items you can include the more real this will seem to your sub-conscious. Imagine the room. Imagine the people. Imagine the smell of the linament! Hear the weights clanging. Hear yourself exhaling upon exertion. Get very, very specific and imagine every minute detail. This can be very time consuming the first several times you do it because you remember one more thing at a time. But with practice, your mind works with blinding speed and hundreds of things can be gone over in seconds as you accustom yourself to the technique. The mind will “Cluster” several ideas together and you will think of only one but thirty images will flash that are connected with that single idea. With practice, what took a half an hour to go through originally can be gone over several times in a minute! Just keep at it and don’t ever try to speed it up. Let the mind go at it’s own pace. You’re not going for speed but your speed will develop with familiarity and without you trying.

But I can’t state this enough…be detailed. And connect emotions and sensations to the images. Emotions connected with images are the most powerful. Visualize what the weight feels like . Sense the pressures and the effort. Feel the weight give in to your muscles and sense the bar moving up. Feel the emotion of overcoming the weight. Even feel the butterflies in your stomach before the lift. Get every thing. Be accurate and cover all the bases. Sight, sound, touch, smell, and taste if there are any. ( I drink the same beverage in my workouts and at meets and I can visualize what it tastes like in mental rehearsal).

Finally , make certain that you do your skill flawlessly. Even if you don’t have perfect form, see yourself doing the lift with textbook precision. This is a key point. Don’t see yourself as you really do the lift… see yourself doing it better than you actually do it! You can actually begin to retrain your motor patterns and improve your form.

Never miss a lift and never make a mistake. This is like the golfer who steps up to the tee of a water hole and in his mind all he can see is his ball going into the lake. He tees up takes a practice swing and says loudly “ I’m not putting this one in the water!” with conviction. But in his mind is the image of the splash. What happens? His sub-conscious follows the image! Splash! The same for the next ball! His sub-conscious does not judge but simply holds true to the image. “I can’t believe that” he rants and storms off the tee. But it is all too believable and it happens all the time. So be very careful what images you feed your sub-conscious. Make certain they are what you want. If you happen to flash a negative image or a slip-up during your visualization STOP! Go back and begin again from the beginning and DO IT RIGHT. Never see a mistake. And if one pops in, erase it immediately do not move on. Move back and re-write the script.

In Practice

There are two aspects to proper visualization. One is alpha state or being relaxed and receptive. You can not expect good results by just daydreaming about success and through simple repetition. You must access the sub-conscious. And the second is creating the images. Even if you don’t consider yourself especially creative you can “make a movie” of yourself doing your skill and watch it in your mind. Some find best results if they imagine themselves seeing the skill done from another person’s view as if watching a video of themselves. Others do best if they imagine what it is like performing behind their own eyes looking out. Try it both ways. Remember to be detailed and practice perfectly.

In the early stages it will require about an hour of work to get relaxed and to meticulously imagine every little detail of your lifts. But rest assured the more you practice the quicker your body learns to relax and the faster the mind works to remember your images. You can easily go through many practice runs in a half hour including relaxation time.

At one point in my training when I was attacking the 700 pound barrier, I was spending 5 hours per week in physical training and 16-20 hours a week in mental training about 5 of which was devoted to visualization. I was spending more time thinking about training than actually training! (but remember, thinking about training in the right way IS training!). My current protocol is still 5 hours physical training per week but mental drills have diminished to only 3 hours of which only 40 minutes to an hour is spent in visualization. Believe me I know most of you don’t have lots of extra hours every week to do mental training. But you don’t have to. Just try the visualization drills for a month three times a week. That’s three hours a week. I’ll bet you can cut that down to 3 half hour sessions by the second month. If you still think that’s a lot of time, then go back to watching re-runs of Roseanne and Seinfeld every night and see if that helps your bench any!!

Mental training may not be for everyone. Some people just want to lift heavy and grunt and groan. Fine. But don’t ever expect to achieve your full potential without some kind of headwork.

I have tried to take one of the most effective mental techniques and make it un –intimidating and user –frendly. I hope it doesn’t sound mysterious or difficult or far-out. My hope is to make it make sense.

The competition is moving ahead and guys are looking outside the box and outside the gym for ways to improve. If you do this right, you can boost your numbers with mental training right from your sofa or bedroom floor. But before you decide its not for you give it three hours a week for a month. What do you have to lose except some excess stress and a few episodes of L.A. Law ?
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