I started playing ultimate when I moved to Halifax in 2000 and began playing competitively on touring teams in 2003 but I have never played on any team outside of Halifax until recently. In fact, I became so comfortable in the Halifax scene that while in Winnipeg for the month, it was very stressful to play in the Winnipeg scene – an ultimate tradition that I admire greatly, in principle! But playing outside my comfort zone played havoc on my performance and confidence. My throws were horrible. I was cutting people off left, right, and centre. I turned away from several discs only to have them drop beside me as a turnover. Horrendous! And how I felt inside was equally horrible. My poor, shattered ego!
Clearly, I couldn’t continue playing or feeling like this for the entire month of my visit. So what was I to do?
Well, given that taking a shot of whisky before each practice and game was out of the question, I dipped my hand further into my stress-relieving toolbox. Recognizing that this was a mental skills issue, not a physical performance issue, I looked for a mental solution and came up with visualization.
Visualization in sport is a conscious act of bringing up the mental image of a specific skill, drill, play, etc. in one’s mind. It is also known as mental imagery. Specific skills can include anything from throwing, to catching, to cutting, and even to the sophisticated integration of skills required to execute a full offensive or defensive play. Skilled visualizers can even hold a whole game inside his or her brain and let it play out exactly as desired!
Scientifically, there is ample evidence that visualization can significantly enhance physical skill development and increase performance in many sports including college basketball and soccer. There is even evidence that visualization of weight training can lead to significant gains in muscle mass and strength!
Neurologically, visualization invokes many of the same areas of the brain involved in the actual physical manifestation of the skill. Because of this, there are tremendous neural connections that are strengthened during visualization that are transferable to the physical domain.
But like any skill, it too requires practice.
Start simple with a very specific skill in mind. For example, throwing your 10s (backhand, forehand, i/o, o/i, etc.). Picture yourself and your target – seriously, pick someone you know to throw with! I have more trouble in real life throwing with people who are better than I am. So I pick someone more skilled to throw with during visualizations.
When visualizing, feel the grip, feel the release, feel the follow through, watch the other person catch the disc. Throw a fake in if you can. The more visuals the better! The more you practice, the more you’ll be able to call up visuals. Make sure you really nail down the simple visualizations first before you attempt anything to complex – and only you really know when that is. You may even want to use the simple visualizations as a warm up for the more complex.
After simple visualization, progress to more complex imagery. Picture yourself throwing in a drill that you like with others participating in the drill, then a drill that you aren’t spectacular at – let yourself BE spectacular in your mind! Then picture yourself throwing while in your regular on-field position (e.g., O line cutter, D line handler). Make sure to add as many visuals as possible, for example specific receivers, color of the receiver’s jersey, the color of the disc, the grass beneath you and in the endzone, teammates all around. Make sure you can visualize as many kinesthetics (sensations of body awareness and movements) as you can. Watch your hand grip and notice the torque in your body and where your feet are pointing. There are numerous visuals that you can invoke, all of which are important parts of the game and the skilled players’ brains process all of these automatically. And that’s exactly what you’re trying to do – create automatic thinking and behaviours in your brain with practice, practice, practice.
If you’re really keen, head to your favorite throwing technique video (check out ultimaterob.com) or favorite pump-up ulti video first then visualize yourself doing what you just watched. This primes your brain to invoke the areas that it needs for visualization. And STEP IT UP! Don’t just mentally practice what you already do well. Practice where, how, and what you want to be. If you’re having trouble laying out then picture yourself laying out all over the place, on D, on O, in the endzone, etc.
To really solidify your mental practice, get on the field within about 20 minutes to continue your practice physically. This immediately reinforces the connections in your brain and keeps everything fresh in your mind while you physically practice.
Summary of Tips for Visualization
- Keep is simple at first then graduate to more complex imagery.
- Make your images very clear, elaborate, and kinesthetically true
- Prep your mental work out with real external images through videos
- Follow it up with your own real physical practice
- Visualize as often as you can to reinforce your new brain connections
- Go the distance! Visualize yourself doing what’s just out of your physical reach and then watch it manifest on the field – mentally and physically!
Visualization is an Important Mental Skill
Not only will visualization help your physical skills, it will inevitably build your mental skills. And as any competitive athlete knows, the mental skills are half the battle!
There may be times when you don’t have the space or time to do a physical practice and NEED to rely on your well-developed visualizing brain. For example, during a time out when your captain calls for a NEW endzone play trusting in his or her players’ abilities to “see” the play being described and then execute it effectively. Having good visualization skills will increase the likelihood that you can execute something physically that you only saw in your mind.
Or imagine you’re in a situation where you have to take on someone else’s role on short notice. I remember a time myself during my last season of varsity hockey, after playing only left wing for the previous 2 years. My coach called me in to her office the night before playoffs to tell me I was moving to center and had no opportunity to practice in this position. I had to rely entirely on my own brain, my own ability to visualize. I spent the night visualizing myself in drills as the center and then in game-like situations. Knowing I could practice in my own mind gave me the confidence to head into the playoffs without having to watch my performance and confidence plummet.
As a mental skill, visualization also builds confidence and mental focus. Knowing this was exactly what led me to call upon the power of visualization in Winnipeg, and to get me out of my own damn way and start playing like I know I can. A few minutes of visualization before a practice gets me into the zone and ready to go with confidence. Spending time visualizing before a practice or game is a great way to transition from the mental clutter of work, family, relationships, money that can hold us back on the field and into the really important stuff of life like running around a field chasing a piece of plastic as if there is nothing else in the world to do at that moment!
So get your cleats on and start practicing on your all-weather mental fields. Start teaching your brain what is possible and watch it develop on the field! I, and many other scientists and athletes, guarantee this will enhance your game!