“I want you to picture a basketball…”
Years ago an Australian psychologist named Alan Richardson conducted a now famous experiment in sports visualization and muscle memory. He gathered subjects and had them shoot 100 basketball foul shots, recording their base numbers. He then randomly divided the subjects into three separate groups. Group A was told to practice foul shots for 20 minutes, 5 days a week for 4 weeks. Group B was ordered to do nothing basketball related for 4 weeks, not even to think of basketball. Similar to Group A, Group C was asked to come in 5 days a week for 20 minutes each but was told that they would be guided by a professional in visualizing shooting foul shots without ever touching a ball. After 4 weeks Richardson had the subjects shoot 100 foul shots again. Group A had improved in their ability 24%. Group B (the no-bball group) unsurprisingly made no significant improvement. Group C (the fantasy free throw group), however, improved by 23%, nearly as much as the group physically practicing everyday…
Sports visualization had existed long before Alan Richardson’s compelling experiment, yet it has not found traction as a major training technique even today. Its inability to garner a massive following likely stems from the fact that it feels so strange. Indeed visualizing a sport seems so anti-sport. The wandering mind is oftentimes the enemy of adept physical athletic performance, i.e. “paralysis by over-analysis” or “beware the left brained!” But visualization is not meant to replace physical training, it’s meant to supplement the physical to improve even faster.
Seeing the Future
The benefits of visualization are becoming clearer as more star athletes hints that visualization plays a role in their successes. From Tiger Woods to Michael Johnson to English Footballer Wayne Rooney each have utilized visualization to great benefit. David Winner’s biographical article on Rooney uncovers the Man U star’s devout dedication to pre-match visualization, down to the very minutest detail:
“Part of my preparation is I go and ask the kit man what color we’re wearing — if it’s red top, white shorts, white socks or black socks,” he says. “Then I lie in bed the night before the game and visualize myself scoring goals or doing well. You’re trying to put yourself in that moment and trying to prepare yourself, to have a ‘memory’ before the game. I don’t know if you’d call it visualizing or dreaming, but I’ve always done it, my whole life…when you get older and you’re playing professionally, you realize it’s important for your preparation — and you need to visualize realistic things that are going to happen in a game.”
You visualize a multitude of possible situations that could occur and plan appropriate responses to each of them. You’re not reacting once you get to the game because you’ve already played the game.
Believe to Achieve
What we can take away from the foul shot experiment and Wayne Rooney is that your brain is the starting point for physical prowess. Muscle memory and physical execution are crucial to sports and training, but they both begin with neurological firing. But to effectively train your mind in this way you have to believe it. Details are crucial. You’ve got to reinvigorate your childhood imagination to make it work. You need to see the vivid colors of the arena around you. You need to feel the cool breeze against your skin as you line up for a shot. You need to hear the sand crackle under your cleat. You need to feel the tacky grip of the ball in your hand. Close your eyes and feel your body bending its knees, coiling like a snake at the ready, and launching into beautiful action. Don’t let this resource lie dormant — reach your potential.