Hi everyone, hope I find you in good physical and mental shape in this post-quarantine period. I am not quite finished with home confinement, but it is mostly because I choose it. In this post I’ll share with you an article I wrote for Croatian portal for female basketball. You can find the original post here: Vizualizacija – Ženska košarka. This post will target basketball players, but ideas can easily be extrapolated to different profiles of people.

In the middle of COVID chaos in Croatia I decided to give back to a community that played a great role in my upbringing writing an article about a psychological technique – imagery, also known as visualization. This mental tool, apart from usefulness in daily routines, is particularly handy for those who are injured and need to take a break, or in this case, during confinement periods which don’t allow trainings on a basketball court.

Visualization is a crucial skill for elite athletes in their preparation and performance. It is not saved only for high performance circles though, most of us have already used it in some forms. Main ingredient for good imagery practice is imagination.

Remember when you were in a car on your way to the match and you were imagining how the game was going to unravel and if you are going to win or lose? Or when coach was drawing a dashed line on his coaching board and in your mind you could see a pass from a playmaker to a shooting guard at a three-point line. Or when a coach benched you and you began re-creating a mistake you made.

You have already used some imagery practices, but unfortunately only automatically and without a clear direction. To briefly explain why human minds tend to focus on threats we need to mention human evolution. Natural selection took care of people who weren’t picking up on dangerous cues and who had their guard down.  We are in a way wired to recognize and predict negatives. Therefore, a basketball player will look for cues that might threaten his/her health or performance. Preparing for the ‘worst case scenario’ is also a part of training, but more so in a problem-solving setting that is a topic for one of the next posts. 😉

What is imagery & visualization

Let’s start with a definition:

Imagery is creation or re-creation of sensory experiences that can provoke emotional and real-life responses (Morris, Spittle and Watt, 2005, p.4).

Imagery can have a strong impact on your thoughts, feelings and behaviours which will consequently affect your performance. It was shown that when you are doing a certain motor movement, like passing the ball, the same brain areas activate as when you are imagining that same movement without moving at all. This is called Psychoneuromuscular Theory and it posits that you are training your muscle memory as you imagine scenes from your sport and using the same neural pathways as you do when doing the physical work. It is as if you were taking the same ‘brain path’ from one neuron to another, and more of the times you take that path it gets easier to pass through. In biological terms this is called thickening of a myelin sheath.

 

What do successful athletes say about visualization?

Look at this short video in which Fernando Alonso was challenged to drive a Barcelona circuit with the same time as he previously did in real time, but this time he had to use a simulator. What do you think, has he been able to nail it to exact same timing? Take a look yourself:

Here you can see how to practice timing. For example, if you are a playmaker, how long should it last from when you first pass a ball in a tactical play called ‘1’ until the ball comes back to you? Imagine that play from the beginning till when it reaches your hands and compare it to the timing that you have on video. This can be practiced following visualization steps we’ll talk about later in the post.

Next example of a great athlete that uses visualization is a young tennis sensation Bianca Andreescu. She’s talking about how she played her performance in her mind’s eye before stepping out on that court and she’s emphasizing the importance of mental preparation for games.

 

Similarly to Andreescu, Carli Lloyd explains how doing visualization helped her win World’s Championship 2015 in a game against Japan.

 

As in formula, tennis and football, there are examples of basketball players using visualization as well. Klay Thompson mentions how David West, Andre Iguodala and coach Kerr encouraged him to take more care about his mental aspect of performance and use visualization a night before a game so he could better prepare and train his reactions in different scenarios.

 

Visualization starter pack

Before starting with a main part of visualization training, we need to ‘prepare the field’ to raise probabilities of having better quality and effectiveness of a visualization practice. It consists of 4 parts:

  1. Imagination capacity
  2. Motivation
  3. Commitment & Discipline
  4. Self-awareness

Some individuals have naturally bigger capacity of imagination that can be measured using a standardized test with a (sports) psychologist. There are short and simple kinds of exercises that can help us train our imagination capacity. Try it on your own: sit by your window and for 2 minutes pay attention to what’s going on, what you can observe, all little details. After a couple of minutes of observation, close your eyes and try to recall details as vividly as you can. You should repeat this practice for 3-4 days so you can get the most out of your visualization later.

For working on your motivation, first you need to understand what the tool is about and how it can be useful. Only if you really desire to learn the ropes of visualization, then you can plan your ‘quest’ and start with first steps (you’re doing it already 😉 ). I suggest getting yourself a little notebook in which you can write what your goals are with visualization practice and note down experiences and practices.

Commitment and discipline are a safety net for when you don’t feel like training or look for any excuses that might disrupt your improvement process.

Self-awareness is disregarded by many athletes, especially younger ones who rarely put it on their priority list. Jackson & Csikszentmihalyi (1999) explain: “An athlete cannot notice important cues that lead to improvement in sports performance without self-awareness.” (p. 105) Process of raising self-awareness can be stimulated with introspection exercises, two of which I’ll draw for you (somewhat literally 😀 ).

First exercise that I call ‘Mandala magnifier’ can help us shed light on all kinds of different characteristics necessary for improvement. Anything we choose can be used in this mandala to help us explore and focus our attention on aspects we might have not been fully aware of. Below you can see an example of this exercise where an (imaginary) athlete Andrea has evaluated psychological characteristics important for basketball.

He/she has bolded parts of the circle that corresponds to the rating of the characteristic from 1-5 and the result was an interesting shape that visually represents the subjective strength of psychological characteristics of this athlete. A perfect circle would represent dominance on all characteristics and any different shape emphasizes space for improvement. This mandala exercise can be useful to check athlete’s perception of how they are doing through different points of season.

The second introspection tool is called SWOT and it was originally made for market research. Here we will adapt the questions for inspection of Andrea’s descriptive characteristics focused on 4 points of SWOT: Strengths, Weaknesses, Opportunities and Threats.

SWOT

As you can see, it is a small grid with bullet points that can take anywhere from 5-15min to finish. Here are some questions that might help you to fill it in with precise and useful information:

  • Strengths – What are my qualities on & off the court? Which characteristics make me a dangerous rival and a great teammate
  • Weaknesses – What does make me a weak link of the team? What skills and abilities would I like to improve? What are my common mistakes?
  • Opportunities – What can help me to accomplish my goals? What unused potential do I have? How can I take advantage of my strengths on and off the court?
  • Threats – What affects my performance negatively? What do I think can threaten my status and position in a team?

When you finish this task, you’ll have a list of characteristics and situations that you can start planning a strategy for improvement and change. Think and answer the following questions: How can I apply my strengths and use them better? How can I improve/change/remove my weaknesses? How can I take advantage of my opportunities? How can I protect myself from threats and turn them to my favour? It is really important to be at least aware of these details that sometimes pass unnoticed.

Main part of training

Now that we have grown in consciousness, we can move on to practice imagery based on PETTLEP model (Holmes & Collins, 2001) which was proved to be the most beneficial way of practicing visualization (Smith, Wright, Allsopp, Westhead, 2007). PETTLEP acronym describes multiple components of visualization: physical, environment, task, timing, learning, emotion, and perspective. Adjusting all of them is meant to increase functional equivalence of imagery and for this purpose we will describe relevant parts that we can put to use.

Environment in which you will do your visualization is the first to consider. The goal of visualization is to re-create mind and body state as it is in a real match/training. I’ll drop a little motivation piece in here: the sooner you break down visualization basics, the sooner you’ll be able to train from the comfort of your own bed. 😛 The best place to train on is at a site of real action – basketball court. If that is not an option, try to create a competitive atmosphere by adding photos, putting one of your basketball matches on video so you can relate to sounds from the court. Just make sure no one will interrupt you in the middle of the process.

Sports evoke a range of emotions and so should we in attempts to visualize our performance. We can do that by controlling our breathing, or doing exercise prior to that to increase cardiovascular activity  so it can be equivalent to when we are executing the movements in action.  Relaxed stated is not ideal if you’re trying to recall match setting or any competition.

Put your jersey on, warm up a little bit, you can use movements while visualizing as well (please be careful if your eyes are closed, we don’t want no injuries please! XD). Many scientific researchers suggest movement during visualization which is called dynamic kinesthetic imagery (feel one’s own body and execute a motor task from a personal perspective) and it helps you create more authentic mental images.

Do everything in your power to bring yourself to a similar emotional state as it is in a situation you are visualizing. During your imagery practice, especially if you are in tension and provoke some anxiety, it is likely that some negative thoughts will appear. In that moment you can use another tool from sports psychology called ‘thought stopping’. Basically, you need to recognize, stop and replace negative thoughts with positive ones. Or even better said, useless thoughts for useful ones. Focus on thoughts that lead you to successful execution: “Attack vertically to the basket and go strong”, “Quick change through legs and pass the ball”.

When it comes to timing, there are various options that depend on the task itself.
If you are trying to learn a combined dribble between the legs – behind the back then you will use slow motion in which you can pay attention to small details and fine movements. To perfect your timing, you will use real time imagery.  For revision of offensive strategies you will use fast motion visualization. All three methods have practical applications that you need to pick and choose yourself.

As we learn this skill we are going to adapt approaches. In the beginning there is more thinking about the movement and in later phases you can get ‘the feels’. Skill practice naturally goes from being more cognitive based to autonomous – from thinking about process goals to automatically executing movements or creating mental images.

Last aspect is perspective of the visualization. There are 2 main ones: first-person perspective, from your own eyes and third-person perspective, like watching yourself from the stands or on a TV. In the beginning I suggest you use the first-person one because it is more intuitive and also it has a bigger impact on your brain, research says.

Now that you have some starting points, let’s see how you can make your ‘visualization muscle’ stronger and train it with approximation method. As an example we will take a fast double dribble between legs.

  1. Do the movement a couple times with the ball and opened eyes
  2. Repeat the movement without the ball and opened eyes focusing on the sensations in muscles of arms, legs, torso and back as they contract and follow the movement of the change.
  3. In a static position, without the ball and with closed eyes try to re-create that same dribble in your head. Ask yourself: What do I see? Where do I feel the movement? How does it feel?

With these and similar prompts you can train to improve your visualization skills. Repeat this exercise as many times as you need until you experience the same sensations in step 3 like you did in step 1. Take notes on your improvement and change the visualization object from time to time. Free throw shooting is another element of basketball that you can learn visualization practice with. You can focus on movements, weight and smell of the ball, sweat on your hands and similar.

At the end of the day, mental practice has the same importance as technical, tactical and physical part. All 4 aspects of performance are necessary to work on for continual growth and improvement. Key to implementing any new exercises or changes in your approach to training/life, you should introduce small tweaks that are sustainable over time. Nothing crazy and unattainable, rather challenging, and realistic. You can create your own record of imagery practice and repeat exercises 5-6 times a week for only 3-6 minutes a day. It is more likely that you will start with something that ‘takes away’ less time from you in the beginning. Figure out what’s your path and get your imagery practice going!

* Disclaimer for personal responsibility: All readers that might come up with a fantastic idea: ‘Great, finally I have a sports psychologist advice telling me that I can do ‘physical activity’ sitting in my sofa and that it is going to have the same effects as would running for real. Awesome, bring me some chips and let’s get this going.’

– I’m glad that I have enticed your creativity, but please don’t go there … xD

REFERENCE LIST

  1. Filgueiras, A., Conde, Q.E.F. & Hall, C.R. (2018). The neural basis of kinesthetic and visual imagery in sports: an ALE meta -  Brain Imaging Behavior, 12(5), 1513 – 1523. doi: 10.1007/s11682-017-9813-9
  2. Hanrahan, S. J. & Andersen, M. B. (2010). Routledge Handbook of Applied Sport Psychology. London: Routledge, https://doi.org/10.4324/9780203851043
  3. Holmes, P.S. & Collins, D.J. (2001). The PETTLEP Approach to Motor Imagery: A Functional Equivalence Model for Sport Psychologists. Journal of Applied Sport Psychology, 13(1): 60 – 83.
  4. Jackson, S. A., & Csikszentmihalyi, M. (1999). Flow in sports: The keys to optimal experiences and performances. Human Kinetics Books.
  5. Morris, T., Spittle, M. & Watt, A.P. (2005). Imagery in Sport. Champaign, IL: Human Kinetics.
  6. Mugford, A. & Cremades, G.J. (2018). Sport, Exercise, and Performance Psychology: Theories and Applications. Routledge. ISBN: 9780429798245
  7. Smith, D., Wright, C., Allsopp, A. & Westhead, H. (2007). It’s All in the Mind: PETTLEP-Based Imagery and Sports Performance. Journal of Applied Sport Psychology, 19(1), 80 – 92. http://dx.doi.org/10.1080/10413200600944132
  8. Fernando Alonso video: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=iydl7nbF4wM
  9. Klay Thompson interview: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ErAqMAH5WjM&t=27s
  10. Carlie Lloyd press conference: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5Nx-hBlg8w0&t=561s
  11. Bianca Andreescu press conference 1: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1kRjvvUmjAY
Visualization

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