Creative Visualization

Last week, I discussed the tangible effects of positive thinking. While we can’t quite say whether the connection between happy thoughts and good health/success in life are correlative or causative, it’s safe to assume a couple things: positive thinking is strongly associated with self-confidence and initiative, and all three seem to lead to good things for most people. There are no guarantees in life, of course, but there are ways to stack the deck in your favor. Eating the right foods and living in accordance with our ancestral past are two important, obvious (at least around here) ones; creative visualization may be another.

The idea behind creative visualization is that by merely imagining the performance of an action, whether it’s the perfect golf swing or a complex piano arrangement, a person can improve actual performance of that action. So instead of just focusing on physical training, an athlete, or even a musician, can theoretically improve his or her skill by visualization alone. Though the idea sounds compelling I’m not really sure I buy into it. You see a lot of basketball players employ visualization techniques at the free-throw line during games to mentally prepare for the shot, but I don’t think you’ll see entire practice sessions take place solely in the player’s head. And when I squat and deadlift, I envision my back as a rigid tree trunk because it helps me maintain the tightness I need to stay safe and handle the weight. That’s visualization, but it’s also realization of the vision. I’m not just thinking about it. I’m actually performing the action. Something tells me the NBA won’t be switching to all-mental practices anytime soon. Enough speculation, though. Show me the evidence!

The Internet is full of claims suggesting verified positive effects of creative visualization on athletic performance. I found the Wikipedia entry to sound a little “salesy,” but it does list a reference to a study involving Russian Olympic athletes and creative visualization. According to Karate of Okinawa, Russia Olympic coaches and scientists set up four different training regimens for athletes:

I.    100% physical training
II.    75% physical training; 25% mental training
III.    50% physical training; 50% mental training
IV.    25% physical training; 75% mental training

The athletes in group IV showed the most improvement in actual performance, even though they performed the least physical work, while the athletes in group I performed the worst, even though they performed the most actual physical work. Amazing results, but what does it mean? Unfortunately, the authors were very vague, failing to give any details, so we don’t even know what kind of athletes these were. Moreover, I couldn’t find any actual references, other than the book itself. As it stands now, the only sources of this “well-known study” appear to be an obscure book without references, a Wikipedia page, and a smattering of other blogs. Efforts to source a similarly ubiquitous claim that a basketball coach at the University of Illinois once improved his athletes’ free throw percentage by having them envision the ball go into the basket – almost to the level of players who actually practiced and far superior than players that didn’t do anything – were futile. I could never pin down an actual study abstract displaying the effect. I did some more digging but couldn’t find anything I could really sink my teeth into.

Maybe I’m old fashioned, but I like good hard evidence. You could defend the Primal Blueprint on a purely speculative level using basic evolutionary knowledge, and you’d still have strong arguments, but getting out the papers and the studies makes them even more compelling. Creative visualization seems like it would work (much like positive thinking, imagining the completion of a task or action can be the first step toward building confidence and then actually performing), but, as far as I can gather, there just aren’t any real studies that make the case.

If I’m mistaken, though, I’d love to hear about it. The idea fascinates me, and I’m a firm believer in the power of the mind, especially as it relates to motivation and positive thinking and the subsequent behavioral improvements. You can’t pound out those last few reps of pull-ups unless you believe you can. And if you can’t even imagine yourself doing those pull-ups, you may never even try. The real change comes when those visualizations become reality.

I’d love to hear your thoughts on this oft-cited sports training technique. Does hard evidence exist or is creative visualization an urban legend of the sports training community? Hit me up with a comment!

About the Author

Mark Sisson is the founder of Mark’s Daily Apple, godfather to the Primal food and lifestyle movement, and the New York Times bestselling author of The Keto Reset Diet. His latest book is Keto for Life, where he discusses how he combines the keto diet with a Primal lifestyle for optimal health and longevity. Mark is the author of numerous other books as well, including The Primal Blueprint, which was credited with turbocharging the growth of the primal/paleo movement back in 2009. After spending three decades researching and educating folks on why food is the key component to achieving and maintaining optimal wellness, Mark launched Primal Kitchen, a real-food company that creates Primal/paleo, keto, and Whole30-friendly kitchen staples.

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