Parker Stinson tucks his head of loopy-locks down, and grits his way up the hill for another tough repeat. The 10k runner and former 9 time Collegiate All-American is struggling a few ticks back behind his Hudson Elite teammate, Venezuelan marathoner, Luis Orta.
At the top of the hill Stinson pushes out a big burst of air, and takes in a huge gulp, causing his lean barrel-chested frame to expand. The recovery back down gives him time not only to rebuild his legs and lungs, but check in with his brain. Is it carrying its weight? Stinson recalls the mental prep he had done just hours before, and then his whole being shifts. He starts back up again, and the hills begin to feel effortless, as if flattening out. Even though he struggles a bit on the last repeat, he lets go of fault-finding. Stinson’s on top of the world.
Michael Jordan, a former standout runner for the American Distance Project who now runs for the US Army World Class Athlete Program, paces around his hotel room. It’s the night before the Cross Country Club Nationals, and the long-legged steeplechaser is having a hard time reeling in his thoughts.
“There was so much going on,” recalls the 2016 Olympic trials qualifier, “that I didn’t know what to focus on.” Jordan knew it was time to tune up his brain. He lies on the bed and takes his mind for a spin over the race course. The next day he helps his team win Club Nationals and runs the best cross country race of his career.
Seeing is Believing
What sorcery did these two young runners cast to get back their mojo? They practiced a sport psychology technique called visualization. Visualization is a mental strategy that programs your brain to move towards a target. If the target is to reach a mental state of calm, joy, or intensity—once rehearsed—the focus comes more quickly when needed. As you can see with these two runners, their visualization practice set them up for a big physical shift. They were able to run smarter and faster when needed.
Research shows that visualization not only helps you access desired emotions, but improves how effective you feel in controlling them. The repetition of positive imagery can build experience and confidence in an athlete, allowing them to perform skills under pressure and anticipate a variety of scenarios. Studies also show that visualization increases belief in reaching your goals.
There are a number of ways you can practice visualization. For example, hours before Stinson’s hill workout, he did a guided meditation to channel a negative experience, and then a happy one. When he channeled the happy peak experience, snagging the bronze at NCAA Nationals, his whole body felt different compared to the negative memory.
“On the run back down the hill,” says Stinson, “I thought about that powerful memory of happiness, and how it just engulfed my body during the meditation. By the time I finished my recovery jog, that thought changed me from feeling tired to having the mindset of calm and excited, wanting to work hard and let it happen.”
Jordan’s approach was slightly different. He knew that in order to regain his focus, he needed to HAVE one. He wrote some key words and phrases, then laid down on his hotel room bed, breathed deeply, and thought about the 5-loop race.
“I took myself as slowly as I could through the course. I saw grass, trail, gravel, and heard pounding feet. In the first loops I imagined myself in the top 50 runners, doing the right thing. I repeated the phrase, Breathe and Relax. On the next two laps I used, Effort and Contact, and envisioned myself moving up through the pack. I felt my heart beating, and worked on controlling it. On the final lap I used, Pac Man and Hammer. I focused on my body, arms swinging more, seeing myself passing certain people and crossing the finish line. I even listened for my breath to make sure I was giving everything I had.”
Jordan used the focus words on his warm-up as well as during the race. Stinson channeled a happy memory to recover his drive. Here’s how to use visualization for your next challenge:
Visualize Your Own Success
• Sit in a relaxed place free of distractions and breathe calmly.
• Imagine the workout or race ahead, or recall a powerful and positive memory.
• Bring in all of the senses—what do you see, hear, feel—to have a present moment experience of the event.
• Add focus words or phrases that will stimulate action.
• When the big day comes, use these cue words.
• Practice consistently and be patient. The more you rehearse, the easier it is to flow when you need to.