Vail Daily health column: Three ways top performers use visualization to perform at their peak | VailDaily.com

Vail Daily health column: Three ways top performers use visualization to perform at their peak

Studies continue to prove that when you take 20 athletes of equal ability and give 10 of them mental training, the 10 with mental training will outperform the 10 without it every time.

Of all the various mental training techniques used today, visualization is the single most powerful one used to optimize performance. Here are three ways top performers harness the power of visualization to perform at their peak and how you can too:

1. Skill mastery: When Olympic athletes are hooked up to biofeedback machines and visualize their event, the same muscle fibers fire off in the same pattern as if they were physically performing. This is because when you visualize a performance, using all of your senses to make the event as real as possible, the mind can't distinguish between really doing it and not.

Visualization helps code movement patterns thus making actions more familiar and automatic. No wonder visualization is an essential component in peak performance training. Even before you physically attempt a skill, and long after your body is done for the day, visualization works to accelerate reaction times, improve coordination and accuracy, and enhance overall performance.

2. Pain killer: Often the mind gives up before the body needs to. Despite any physical pain, willpower, predominantly controlled by visualization, can push you through any discomfort in order to realize heightened levels of performance.

There are two ways visualization can cope with pain. The first way is by controlling your interpretation of pain. The defeatist mindset interprets pain to mean "This sucks, I obviously didn't train hard enough and now I'll never achieve my goal." The competitive mindset, on the other hand, interprets pain to mean "My body is talking to me to either let me know I need to adjust some aspect of my activity or dig deep for that extra motivation to power through."

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To find that last bit of motivation, distract yourself away from the pain by visualizing skill mastery such as the next hill climb, sprint, golf swing, tennis serve, etc. In other words, once you know the pain is there to test your willpower, tune the pain out by visualizing a specific and successful aspect of your performance.

The second way visualization copes with pain is through symbolic imagery. In my consulting practice, I teach athletes to imagine their pain as gremlins. They then take control of the gremlins (i.e. pain) and imagine them moving away from the area of discomfort, leaving their bodies with the strength and stamina to keep moving forward.

3. Anxiety control: The athletes I consult have learned to redirect their nervous butterflies to fly in formation. This tactic requires visualization. Instead of experiencing the nervous butterflies in your stomach flying around frantic and out of control, in your mind, place them in an inverted V-shape similar to a flock of geese that travels fast and efficiently. By taking control of your nerves through visualization, you can reduce the amount of anxiety you experience and better utilize your arousal levels for peak performance.

Your mind can be your biggest enemy or your greatest ally. The next time you find yourself approaching self-doubt, pain or anxiety, use these visualization techniques to harness your mental strength and discover your personal best performance.

With a Ph.D. in sport and exercise psychology, Haley Perlus is a professor, published author, international speaker and peak performance consultant. For more free tips, go to http://www.DrHaley Perlus.com or call 303-459-4516.