You See, You Do: Visualization That Works

Feature by Tonya Nascimento, Swimming World intern

TALLAHASSEE, Florida, October 22. HAVE you ever woken up confused or in a panic as a result of what you were dreaming? The images in your dream were real enough to cause emotional and autonomic nervous system changes. The mind cannot distinguish between an event vividly imagined and one that actually occurred.

That effect means you can practice in your mind and actually send chemical signals (called neurotransmitters) through your brain and nervous system making the same connections as if you were to physically practice. The signals are not as strong, of course, and that is why mental practice cannot replace physical practice, but it sure can enhance it. Furthermore, you can practice skills and outcomes that you have not yet actually experienced. This creates the connections in your brain and nervous system so that physical execution becomes easier later.

Consider the various ways imagination can be used in swimming:
To improve technique
▪ Mentally rehearse a change in stroke technique just before leaving the wall.
▪ Imagine analogies to aid in technique (e.g. scooping a bowl for breaststroke pull, swimming like a dolphin for butterfly kick).
▪ Imagine objects to aid in technique (e.g. diving over a pole and into a hula hoop or hole, butterfly over the lane-line, breaststroke "jump the gap" or grab the ledge on the catch and lift out of the pool, swimming over rolling barrels for high elbows on freestyle).
To prepare for a race
▪ Change the interpretation of anxiety or pain by assigning a concrete image to the abstract feeling and changing it (e.g. imagining the nerves as butterflies in the stomach that then fly away).
▪ Imagine breathing in the color of calm and out the color of worry or nerves.
▪ Get pumped up for a race and infuse self-confidence by viewing a mental movie reel of past successes.
▪ Prepare for an upcoming race by visualizing yourself reaching the goal time.
To swim faster
▪ Imagine a fishing line from the top of your head to the wall and getting reeled in (my favorite; it might work for you!).
▪ Imagine people important to you watching you practice or race.
To recover after injury
▪ Mentally rehearse your swimming to keep yourself attuned to how it feels.
▪ Imagine your injury healing, and imagine yourself fully healed. Research shows this can speed up the process.

These are a few examples of the nearly endless way to use imagery to your advantage. As you start to become aware of your ability to use your imagination, creativity will flow. To visualize effectively, use all your senses, use emotion, and relax.

Use all of your senses.
The most important component of visualization to master is the ability to use all of your senses. The more realistic the mental movie, the more you will believe it. Have you ever been completely swept into the character of a movie you were watching? Your mental movie can be as powerful – actually, more powerful, because the character is you. Step into your image. Become a part of it. To do that, use sight, smell, taste, touch, and sound.

To start practicing using your senses, try visualizing items with an emphasis on one sense. For sight, try visualizing your kickboard, goggles, and then put yourself on the deck of your home pool and look around. For smell, try smelling a fresh baked pie, sweat, or chlorine. For touch, mentally feel your soft bed and covers over you, your swim suit stretched on you with various pressure points, the sandpaper or smooth blocks beneath your feet. For sound, hear the start buzzer, crowd noise, or water going by your ears.

If this is difficult for you, spend some time first becoming aware of these senses at swim practice. Note the smell of the pool when you go to practice. Listen to the splash and streaming of the water. Feel the pressure of the water on your hands and the cold hardness of the deck. The more attuned you are to your senses in the actual environment, the better you will be incorporating them into your imagery.

Use emotion.
In addition to the five senses, use emotion to make your visualization realistic. Especially for mental rehearsal of an upcoming race or for mental movies of past successes, get into the scene. Feel the intense emotions before the race. Channel them, contain them, and use them rather than letting them overwhelm you. Experience the ease of swimming fast and having everything work. Let your body respond to the intense excitement and welling of satisfaction that comes with succeeding. Finish your race all the way to the time on the clock and joy in your heart. You can watch yourself like an actor in a movie, or you can be inside your own body looking through your own eyes. The important part is that you sense everything, including the emotion.

Learn to relax.
Part of the emotion might be nervous excitement during the mental rehearsal of an upcoming race. This is just fine, as long as the muscles stay relaxed. Visualization can be used for a multitude of scenarios, but in no case should you be tense.

To get into a relaxed state, get comfortable and then take two deep breaths. These breaths should fill up your lungs from the bottom to the top on the inhale and take a while to exhale. Breathe into your core. Use your diaphragm and let your belly round out. For short visualizations, this should be enough to relax.

If you are proceeding with mental rehearsal of a race, you might try progressive muscle relaxation (PMR). Keeping your breath deep and steady, tense up muscles groups for about 5 seconds and relax them. Start with your feet and ankles and proceed up to your face and head. The time it takes varies depending on how many muscles you include in a group. Start with fairly large groupings and gradually get more and more specific. This teaches you to discern the relaxation state of specific muscles versus others. This can help in your swimming. However, you can also induce relaxation by taking those two deep breaths and then mentally scanning your body, relaxing muscles as your mind focusing in on them. When you are finished you should feel like you are sinking or melting into the floor, bed, or chair.

Consider using anchors.
Anchors are cue words, actions, gestures, smells, or images that remind you of the emotions during your full visualization. For example, you might imagine yourself swimming a personal best time, viewing the time on the clock, and pumping your fist. After mentally rehearsing that several times, you can anchor the image by physically pumping your fist. Then right before you actually swim the race, you can simply pump your fist to evoke all the emotion associated with the image. This can help you get mentally and emotionally prepared for the race. My former swim coach used to have us smell winter green (extract on a sponge kept in a case) just before racing broken swims during taper and again before visualizations of our upcoming race. The winter green was an anchor readying our mind to get in the zone. Just before the actual race, we would smell the strong scent again. Other anchors could be the image of the smile on your coach's or parent's face, a high five, jumping up and down, or the two deep breaths you always take before visualizing.

Mental practice can enhance physical practice if both are done diligently. Imagination can be intermixed with positive self-talk and instructional self-talk for better practices (see Practice Positive Self-Talk and Perform Positive Self-Talk. Longer mental rehearsals of races can be part of the pre-practice routine or even bedtime routine (just don't fall asleep!) Once the visualizations become part of daily athletic life, they can be used to help you race as fast as you can imagine.

Tonya Nascimento is a doctorate student in the sport psychology program at Florida State University. She was a competitive swimmer for 20 years, during which she swam for FSU. She also coached Maverick Aquatics for eight years and the Niceville High School swim team for four years.

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