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Let me introduce myself. My name is Mark Sisson. I’m 63 years young. I live and work in Malibu, California. In a past life I was a professional marathoner and triathlete. Now my life goal is to help 100 million people get healthy. I started this blog in 2006 to empower people to take full responsibility for their own health and enjoyment of life by investigating, discussing, and critically rethinking everything we’ve assumed to be true about health and wellness...

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July 10 2009

Creative Visualization

By Mark Sisson

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!

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28 thoughts on “Creative Visualization”

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  1. It’s only a finger but interesting nonetheless.

    Strength increases from the motor program: comparison of training with maximal voluntary and imagined muscle contractions

    G. Yue and K. J. Cole
    Department of Exercise Science, University of Iowa, Iowa City 52242.

    1. This study addressed potential neural mechanisms of the strength increase that occur before muscle hypertrophy. In particular we examined whether such strength increases may result from training-induced changes in voluntary motor programs. We compared the maximal voluntary force production after a training program of repetitive maximal isometric muscle contractions with force output after a training program that did not involve repetitive activation of muscle; that is, after mental training. 2. Subjects trained their left hypothenar muscles for 4 wk, five sessions per week. One group produced repeated maximal isometric contractions of the abductor muscles of the fifth digit’s metacarpophalangeal joint. A second group imagined producing these same, effortful isometric contractions. A third group did not train their fifth digit. Maximal abduction force, flexion/extension force and electrically evoked twitch force (abduction) of the fifth digit were measured along with maximal integrated electromyograms (EMG) of the hypothenar muscles from both hands before and after training. 3. Average abduction force of the left fifth digit increased 22% for the Imagining group and 30% for the Contraction group. The mean increase for the Control group was 3.7%. 4. The maximal abduction force of the right (untrained) fifth digit increased significantly in both the Imagining and Contraction groups after training (10 and 14%, respectively), but not in the Control group (2.3%). These results are consistent with previous studies of training effects on contralateral limbs. 5. The abduction twitch force evoked by supramaximal electrical stimulations of the ulnar nerve was unchanged in all three groups after training, consistent with an absence of muscle hypertrophy. The maximal force of the left great toe extensors for individual subjects remained unchanged after training, which argues against strength increases due to general increases in effort level. 6. Increases in abduction and flexion forces of the fifth digit were poorly correlated in subjects of both training groups. The fifth finger abduction force and the hypothenar integrated EMG increases were not well correlated in these subjects either. Together these results indicate that training-induced changes of synergist and antagonist muscle activation patterns may have contributed to force increases in some of the subjects. 7. Strength increases can be achieved without repeated muscle activation. These force gains appear to result from practice effects on central motor programming/planning. The results of these experiments add to existing evidence for the neural origin of strength increases that occur before muscle hypertrophy.

  2. I use pre-visualization all the time when practicing complicated whitewater kayak maneuvers. Typically I’ll watch video of the move, making notes as I go. Then when I’m on the water I’ll visualize myself in the video, doing the move. Finally I’ll attempt it.

    For any sport that involves whole-body co-ordination (e.g. gymnastics, martial arts, parkour) it’s a very valuable technique. It gets you thinking about what you’re doing right, what you’re doing wrong, and starts to fill in a basis of theory so that you can potential experiment with new tricks in the future.

    1. I found that pre-visualization helped me too in whitewater kayaking and has really increased my progress in playboating and river running.

  3. It’s a bit of the chicken and the egg. While mental training no doubt enhances performance, there will be little gain if the physical foundation is not in place.

  4. There is a wonderful book on the subject called “On the Sweet Spot” by Dr. Richard Keefe. He is a sports psychologist at Duke university.

    I know this is anecdotal, however Jack Nicklaus says he never hit a golf shot without visualizing the landing down to the blade of grass.

  5. I disagree…
    “…I don’t think you’ll see entire practice sessions take place solely in the player’s head…”

    I’m a musician (a neglected but real branch of athletics!), and I can definitely say, whole practice sessions take place in my head. And even if it’s not at the same time, or even the same day, the next time I physically play, I see improvement.

    I don’t know where the improvement comes from, or why it works, or even how I got started doing it, but it really obviously does work. I agree with Greg above; you are “teaching” your body a movement both physically and mentally. Both must be present to win.

  6. There are a number of studies that validate visualization, though, as we know, you can prove a flat-Earth theory if you have a strong enough profit motive.

    My take: I’m a believer. Done properly I think it’s a great tool. If nothing else I believe the visualization part calms you so that you are relaxed upon execution of the action, not in your head, prepared to allow your body to respond without thought. Even if it’s psychosomatic, who cares? If it works for you, do it, if not, don’t force it.

  7. Mark – you’re not wrong. Last winter, I decided it would be cool if I could do pull-ups. I hadn’t done a pull-up in 45 years, and it hardly seemed possible now, at age 66. Hanging from the pull-up bar, I could barely bend my elbows.

    After months of doing “negatives” – jumping up and grabbing the bar and letting myself down slowly – I was able to do a single pull-up, and several weeks later I was able to do two.

    That first pull-up was a huge high. For the rest of the day, my body and mind soared with happiness. It was great!

    Oh, and immediately after I walked away from the bar, an old man – even older than I – walked up and did 12 pull-ups effortlessly. Let it never be said that God lacks a sense of humor.

    Several weeks later, I had finished my two pull-ups and was attempting a third. A big Latino football player with an orange-dyed afro saw me struggling grotesquely to bend my arms. Behind me, I heard a scornful snicker.

    The next week, the young football player was at the gym again. I was feeling extraordinarily positive. I jumped up and grabbed the bar, bursting with confidence, and did three pull-ups without strain. I didn’t hear a sound, but I could feel the young man’s respect, and apology. (I later discovered that he was no dumb jock – his major was microbiology, and he’d had been accepted at UC Santa Cruz.)

    For weeks thereafter, I remained stuck at two pull-ups. I didn’t have the same level of enthusiasm, and my energy sagged. My spiritual teacher said, “The greater the will, the greater the flow of energy.” And a big component of will power is enthusiasm.

    Last week, I decided to try an experiment. Before I did my pull-ups, I would prepare my mind and heart. The “stuck” period had sapped my confidence, and I needed to resurrect my enthusiasm.

    I took a stroll around the gym and prepped my attitude. I visualized the zest that it takes to make exercise really fun and enjoyable. No big ego-trip, just rip-snorting, energy-making, light-hearted joy. Wahoo!

    I leaped up to the bar and did three pull-ups. The last was a stretch, but that was okay.

    The lesson? Without enthusiasm, is exercise ever really worthwhile? Every landmark run I’ve ever had, has been marked by extraordinary enthusiasm. High energy goes hand in hand with abundant willingness.

  8. Think about the feeling used when performing an exercise or competing in your sport. Ever think about the neurological pathways you can create by attempting to “feel” and recreate the movement in your mind?

  9. If you think about it long and hard you will realize that the life you are leading is pretty much a visualization. The body and mind cannot be seperated except for discussion purposes.An amazing thing it is.

  10. I have tried lots of mental techniques ever since reading that not only does laughter increase the release of growth hormone, even the anticipation of seeing a funny video increases the release of growth hormone. Similarly the body probably starts to respond to the anticipation of intense muscle-effort prior to the effort. The body might also respond to the remembrance of intense muscle-effort.

  11. I can’t find the references at the moment but there are a couple of theories/findings that would support visualization working at the brain level.

    First, there was a study comparing two groups of children learning to play the piano. One group had pianos/keyboards at home while the second group had only a plastic template that looked like a keyboard. Both groups were given the same lessons. It was found that the children using just the plastic templates learned to play the piano just as well as those with a real keyboard after they were given 30 minutes to acclimate at a real piano. This isn’t exactly visualization per se but contributes to the possibility that just going through the motions can really help.

    The second theory has to do with REM sleep. Brain scans apparently show that during REM sleep, what was learned during the day is played back over and over at very high speed. With some recent evidence that sleep improves athletic results ( this could corroborate the theory that visualization works.

  12. I am a huge believer in visualization technique and have instilled it in many areas of my life…sports, work, play…it also works well in public speaking situations. Done correctly, visualization taps the subconscious mind…one thing studies have shown is that the subconscious part of the brain cannot separate what is real from what is not. So…in practicing positive visualization you “visualize” yourself performing the action perfectly over and over again. Shooting free throws or something similar is a perfect example!

    I had great experience with this early on in life with sports. Its amazing how surreal it feels when you realize its working!!!

    Another proponent of the subject is Brian Tracy….he also has several books and tapes available.

    Great topic!!!!

  13. Hi Mark, this might be what you’re looking for:

    Authors: Vinoth K. Ranganathan, Vlodek Siemionow, Jing Z. Liu, Vinod Sahgal and Guang H. Yue
    Title: From mental power to muscle power—gaining strength by using the mind
    Published: Neuropsychologia, Vol 42(7), 2004

    Here’s the abstract:
    The purposes of this project were to determine mental training-induced strength gains (without performing physical exercises) in the little finger abductor as well as in the elbow flexor muscles, which are frequently used during daily living, and to quantify cortical signals that mediate maximal voluntary contractions (MVCs) of the two muscle groups. Thirty young, healthy volunteers participated in the study. The first group (N=8) was trained to perform “mental contractions” of little finger abduction (ABD); the second group (N=8) performed mental contractions of elbow (ELB) flexion; and the third group (N=8) was not trained but participated in all measurements and served as a control group. Finally, six volunteers performed training of physical maximal finger abductions. Training lasted for 12 weeks (15 min per day, 5 days per week). At the end of training, we found that the ABD group had increased their finger abduction strength by 35% (P<0.005) and the ELB group augmented their elbow flexion strength by 13.5% (P<0.001). The physical training group increased the finger abduction strength by 53% (P<0.01). The control group showed no significant changes in strength for either finger abduction or elbow flexion tasks. The improvement in muscle strength for trained groups was accompanied by significant increases in electroencephalogram-derived cortical potential, a measure previously shown to be directly related to control of voluntary muscle contractions. We conclude that the mental training employed by this study enhances the cortical output signal, which drives the muscles to a higher activation level and increases strength.

  14. I am not sure if someone already said it but have you seen the “Secret”? In that show, they talk about the Olympic trainers doing an experiment on athletes where they had them run their event in their head and they measured the muscles that fired and they were the same ones as they would’ve used in running the actual event. Kind of interesting.
    I know I am a firm believer in the mind, even to those that doubt, wouldn’t you rather be in a positive, “happy” mind frame than a negative one?

  15. Something I was told while back: believe you can, believe you can’t – either way, you are right! In other words, whatever you truly believe, that’s what you get. The Secret – Law of Attraction – this is all part of the bigger picture. You attract what you focus on, so being positive, visualising yourself achieving goals, thinking of things that make you happy (if you’re in a negative mood, try writing down a list of things you are grateful for – this is a fantastic way to lift your spirit and turn your feelings around!) will bring all good things into your life. It really works and I’ve been living this for a while now, getting better at it daily and I really cannot complain – life is GOOD!!!

  16. Check out “The Body Has a Mind of Its Own – How Body Maps in Your Brain Help You Do (Almost) Everything Better” by Sandra and Matthew Blakeslee.

  17. I’d heard of the basketball coach thing, didn’t realise it was anecdotal and not written up though.

    Anecdotally (!) when I was a trucker and had to drive a different motor, I’d often start off crunching the gears, hitting the wrong switches etc. I found the best technique was to drive for an hour or so then stop for an early breakfast.

    During the time sat not driving, my brain would somehow integrate what I’d learned down into a subconscious level, so when I started driving again I was suddenly no longer making the same mistakes.

    In WW2 the RAF called it “Fighter Pilot Syndrome” where under pressure you’d react faster than you could think, and if you hadn’t transitioned properly from one aircraft type to another you’d get into trouble, probably a good reason for the development of flight and other simulators. Would be interesting to know how the current military deal with such phenomena. I’d strongly suspect “interval training”, flying a simulator then taking a break, would work better than intensive training.

    Anecdotally again I’ve heard the same sort of thing from musicians, practicing then stopping generates a different learning than continous practicing.

  18. Yes I’m a big fan of the Law of Attraction … it’s what led me here. I thoroughly enjoy reading posts by positive people.

    I read a story recently about a POW in Vietnam who spent the better part of a decade in captivity. He was an avid golfer before he was captured. After his release, he shot even par on his very first round. When asked how he did it after not touching a golf club for so long, he replied that everyday he simply imagined shooting a perfect round.

    It’s all in your head, man.

  19. If only we could imagine every moment as the best moment of our life. In this moment you are everything you’re meant to be. If you were to die tomorrow you’re lifes purpose would be fulfilled. Everything, all needs are satisfied. All desires have been met. you are now perfect!

  20. Never could climb a rope until one day I pretended I was a monkey.