In his third column of the summer, ex-England ODI player-turned-performance coach Jeremy Snape considers the power of visualisation for the aspiring sportsman. Pick up a copy of the next issue of AOC – in shops July 12 – to read the next instalment.
“The mind is everything. What you think you become” Buddha 510BC
Although this seems like enlightened psychobabble, recent advances in neuroscience provide evidence to support this ancient philosophy.
The truth is that as soon as we start to imagine, our brain starts to create. Thoughts and beliefs are not clouds of ethereal smoke; they form physical pathways, dendrites connecting areas of the brain. With increased repetition and emotion, these pathways become insulated with myelin sheaths which create faster and more efficient neural networks.
Simply put: our thinking habits create broadband connections in our brain’s physical structures. At key decision points, we automatically ‘select’ these dominant pathways.
Far from baffling ourselves with science, it’s important to realise that we have a responsibility to control and manage our thinking. In sport, we rely so much on confidence to deliver our best game yet most people erode its foundations on a daily basis.
One of the key mental skills which sports psychologists refer to is visualisation, the art of simulating a situation to enhance performance. Usually this is a future event which we are preparing ourselves for.
We can all remember the images of Matthew Hayden sitting cross-legged at the end of the wicket staring down towards the bowlers end. For him this was a chance to get acclimatised to his ‘office’, the place where he would need to deliver his best work in front of the world’s cricketing consumers.
Given the importance of our performance, it may seem strange not to think about it ahead of time. Imagine if you hadn’t pictured the opposition bowlers running in, and how you will cope with their variations and allegations! Better to follow the boy scouts’ motto: ‘Always be prepared’.
The best example of this in my coaching career came before the South Africa tour of Australia in 2008/09. JP Duminy was a squad player with no immediate chance of making the starting line-up for the first Test match in Perth. Being left out can be demoralising so we set the challenge that he had to prepare 100 per cent as if he was the No.1 name on the list. Part of this was imagining Brett Lee and Mitchell Johnson testing him in the middle. How would he play? How would he behave? How would he cope?
The best way to think about visualisation is like a pilot who spends hours running scenarios in a flight simulator; it’s a lot easier to crash and burn when it doesn’t really matter.
The pilot in charge of the emergency landing on the Hudson River in 2009 when asked how he stayed so calm in the face of such a high pressure event said that he had been preparing his calm emergency response for 20 years.
Visualisation is our way of ‘pre-hearsing’ a future situation by creating the most vivid story we need to engage all of our senses. If you are doing it at home you may close your eyes to help set the scene. Hear your teammates clapping you out, feel the sun on your back as you step out from the pavilion, feel the thud of your bat in the crease as you make your mark… The rest is up to you.
Rather than dreaming of playing the Dilshan scoop to every bowler, be realistic and just get a ‘feel’ for how you will really approach it. Even imagining your posture, being slow and confident around the crease can be beneficial.
Visualisation can take many forms and from many ‘camera’ angles but like anything it takes practice to find a method which suits you. Using imagery as part of your preparation may feel weird at first but the pilot in the Hudson River is glad he persevered to create those high pressure habits.
If you have ever woken up from a dream in a cold sweat, you will know how powerful your imagination can be. Your brain creates pathways whether for real or an imagined action. The key is harnessing this to aid your performance.
The great news is that you are in charge of selecting the film clips you play in your head, so be sure to choose a blockbuster over a tragedy.
They say that the key to batting is to see the ball early – with visualisation you can do just that.
Jeremy is a director of Sporting Edge, delivering high performance coaching to professional sports teams and businesses. You can follow him on Twitter @thesportingedge and find him on Facebook and LinkedIn