Thinking young woman

Everyone daydreams, perhaps about a set of new clothes or winning the lottery. But can using your imagination bring about healthful changes to both your body and your mind? Athletes often report that imagining themselves performing at top form helps them do their best in reality.

Anecdotal evidence and reputable research have demonstrated that visualization—also called guided imagery—can indeed contribute to better athletic performance when practiced seriously and properly. Jack Nicklaus, considered the best golfer of all time, played a mental game that involved visualizing a positive result, then focusing on positive suggestions while blocking negative thoughts. Swinging automatically, he struck the ball with full trust in his body’s muscle memory.

For visualization to have the most impact, you need to be in good physical condition to perform to the best of your ability. This involves an exercise regimen to build your strength and stamina, as well as addressing problems giving you specific difficulty—a twinge in the shoulder on your backswing, for instance. As you improve your physical condition, you can learn how to practice guided imagery to your greatest advantage. Books, DVDs, coaches and sports psychologists all provide detailed instruction.

Given the belief that the brain actually processes your visualization of an action as it would if you were physically doing it, the neural pathways you’d create while visualizing the movements get “practice.” Actually performing whatever you’ve visualized—thoroughly, clearly and at least several times a week—becomes easier to accomplish. Guided imagery may be performed individually or in a group, but just as with all mental skills, it must be practiced consistently and correctly to produce positive effects.

Another key to the success of guided imagery is relaxation. If your visualization of a skill—say, sinking the perfect long putt—includes staying calm and collected, those responses can carry over into the actual game. Your nervous and endocrine systems will recognize the situation not as something new or daunting but as something familiar.

Improving performance is important to most athletes—amateur and professional. Should you wish to give guided imagery a try, we’ll be happy to work with you to improve your physical condition to ensure that you get the most out of this technique.

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