The importance of sensualisation as an aid to enhancing athletic performance is now so widely recognised that very few elite sportsmen or women would dream of competing without first mentally rehearsing every aspect of their upcoming challenge.
“It’s been called ‘going to the movies,” says Ray Floyd winner of the PGA, Master’s and US Open. ”It may be the most important part of your mental package.”
Swimmer Alex Bauman, double Olympic Gold Medallist, has no doubt about the vital role they have played in his own sporting achievements, telling one journalist: “That’s what really got me the World record and Olympic medals.”
Golfing ace Jack Niclaus says that prior to playing he spends time visualising his ball landing on the green and watching it bounce. Next he visualises the arc of the ball in flight, his swing and finally the ball leaving the ground. He then joins these images together in the correct sequence; his swing, the ball’s trajectory, its landing and bouncing on the green in order to achieve the perfect stroke.
Here’s how triathlete Sally Edwards describes her preparations for the 1991 Ironman-Hawaii Triathlon in which she was racing: “As always I set my race plan and visualised it in advance. On race day I replayed that mental video. I knew just about when the monkey of fatigue was going to jump on my back during the 112 mile bike ride leg.”
There were many occasions during the 11 hours of fierce competition that she suffered pangs of self-doubt. On each occasion, by switching on her ‘mind movie’, Sally was able to confirm that this particular setback had been allowed for in her overall sensualisation which, she is convinced, led her to final victory.
When sportsmen and women use visual rehearsal to improve on their personal best they may imagine themselves competing at a familiar course or athletics track, taking part in a highly competitive game or recovering from early setbacks and storming through to victory. Apart from enabling them, and you, to explore an almost unlimited number of possible scenarios, visual rehearsals have the additional benefit of ensuring more accurate recall of any problems or errors that occurred. While memory of the event can often be misleading, rerunning an event in the mind’s eye is likely to prove more precise.
A professional skier, disqualified for falling during a race, for example, was convinced his tumble had been caused a sudden change in snow conditions. By recreating that event in his mind’s eye and incorporating such sensations as the coldness of the air, sounds of the race and the way his weight was being distributed, he quickly realised his recollection of the incident had been at fault. The tumble was due not to any change in the snow but resulted from placing his weight on the wrong ski at the turn. Having recognised where the problem lay he then imagined himself overcoming it during a mental rehearsal in which he not only saw the event but also felt the wind on his face, the coldness of the air on his skin and the sounds as he hurtled down the slope. He also became aware of which muscles were appropriately or inappropriately tensed at different moments in the competition.
The competitive edge sensualisation can provide no matter what sport is played is demonstrated by the fact that one tennis player who had been beaten in 85% of her games prior to visual imagery training lost only one during the remainder of the season. In cricket a bowler raised his average from 185 before training to 215 afterwards, while in basketball one player improved from shooting 61% from the free-throw line and 38% from the floor to 90% and 50% respectively.
Sensualisations have has also been shown to have a positive effect on motivation. In one study of novice golfers, for instance, it was found that not only did those using imagery spend more time practising and stuck more closely to their training schedules, they also set higher goals and had more realistic expectations.