The performance of most elite athletes is directly affected by their thoughts; they must master their inner emotions when the pressure is on.
Learning to harness the power of the mind is an extraordinary gift, not just for athletes but for any of us who need to think our way out of stressful or pressure-heavy situations.
If you’ve ever walked away from a conversation thinking, “That could have gone better,” then discovering how to control your emotions and anticipate circumstances is truly beneficial.
One thing separates elite athletes from average athletes: the power of guided imagery or visualization practised before the big event. In a world where performance and success are often measured in seconds (and few second chances), visualization can give an athlete an edge over those who haven’t mastered the skill of directing their thoughts and controlling their emotions.
When we are in high-pressure situations where we feel nervous (or filled with self doubt), we tend to stop thinking and simply react. Learning to pause the conversation in our own head during these moments will take a bit of practice but will reap tremendous rewards.
Start by slowing your breath rate to help relax the mind and the body.
The next step is visualization: create a mental image of what you want to have happen or feel. Our minds don’t comprehend the difference between fantasy and reality. So wherever you place your primary focus becomes the result, although sometimes those results are unintentional.
When an athlete visualizes or imagines a successful competition, they stimulate the same brain regions as when they perform that action. Conversely, when they visualize falling or fear, they get more of that, too. And so do you.
Think of visualization as a pre-walk-through. Visualization can eliminate some of the unknowns that create competition- or stress-induced anxiety. When a gymnast uses well-constructed focus techniques, they not only see the action unfold but truly feel the event taking place in their mind’s eye.
Visualization scenarios can include any (or all) of the senses. They can be visual (images and pictures), kinesthetic (how the body feels), or auditory (the roar of the crowd or music used in the performance). With practise (and a well-defined anchor), the gymnast is then able to call upon these mental rehearsals in the same way they call upon their physical practices.
Just like the gymnast, you can prep for a difficult conversation or a meeting so that your mind is ready and has anticipated the responses you need when the pressure is on.
Research has found that physical and psychological reactions can often be improved by learning to consistently direct one’s thoughts. Repeated imagery can build experience and confidence in an athlete, and it can for you, too. By working through the event in advance, you can stay more positive, be more prepared and gain valuable skills in performing under pressure.
Just like developing any new skill, imagery requires consistent practise. It needs to become part of daily routines. So before starting any imagery program, it’s important to consider your level of commitment to mental focus training.
But as useful as it is, it’s not a magic bullet. Mental focus training works best when you are fully prepared and integrate the techniques into regular training routines.
And then the success you imagine can become reality.
Troy Media columnist Faith Wood is a novelist and professional speaker who focuses on helping groups and individuals navigate conflict, shift perceptions and improve communications.