Just take a look at a top-class gymnast, who's prepared to mount the horizontal bar for the last event in any Olympiad. Their bar routine, or even mechanics, is without an element of fault; their body language, and astounding form, not to speak of grace and elegance, have full control on all their optional forays. If their entire act is spectacular, so are their release moves. They let go their frame of the high-bar in mid-air, and cruise along in anticipation of a perfect landing. The entire journey is human engineering ingenuity at its best. So much so, a solitary blemish, howsoever trivial, is, simply, dreaded by the greatest in the business. For one simple reason: the way to winning a gold medal is more than a ‘touch-and-go’ affair.
How do gymnasts, and other sportspersons, achieve such great levels of perfection? Not by physical excellence alone, but by way of what is termed as their imagery disk. A replay of the actual exercise in the mind: something that would be in sync with one’s mind and body. New research has shown that calling on one’s mental practice training helps to ensure a flawless performance. Other studies have revealed another primal fact too: those athletes who actually made the Olympic team, and competed in the Games, were doing more mental practice in the final stages of preparation than their less successful colleagues.
Research suggests that mental preparation, or its timing, is the basis for one who succeeds. But, they are also next to nothing if visualisation strategies that are appropriate for a particular event aren’t incorporated, pitched-in for, with purpose and fortitude. Mental training, after all, is now an accepted part of most training programmes. What’s more, we are also in an epoch where sportspersons can honestly assert, that, they won only because they trained hard physically and psychologically, or psychically, to use a holistic description.
Mental homework holds the password for every sporting effort — including biomechanical training. If sportspersons are not prepared with a set of images that are out in front of them, they may not have anything to fall back upon when they race, or strike it out in the middle. Sport goals would only remain a chimera: a case of just not doing enough. Be that as it may, and thanks to the several dramatic changes that have occurred in the manner players prepare, train, and compete at all levels of sport, coaches are now ‘game’ to the mind-body approach to training. The results speak for themselves — more so, in the developed world, and also palpably in some Asian countries, like China. Here are its dynamics.
Steven Ungerleider, PhD, a sports psychologist and author of Mental Training for Peak Performance, is a researcher of sport dynamics. He focuses his study on a host of mental strategies champion athletes use to excel in a variety of sports: from running, cycling, golf, tennis, swimming to weight training. His bottom line: before you can win on the track, court, etc., you have to win in your head. It is a prescription that is more than worth its weight in gold.
“Mental practice,” according to Ungerleider, “simply means repeating a task in your mind without any movements from your body.” He adds, “Imagery can [therefore] be described as an exercise that uses all of the senses to create an experience in the mind... [And] visualisation is just one part of this imagery experience.” “Competitive athletes,” he further explains, “use imagery to help control anxiety, anger and/or pain. Athletes who learn these skills recreate emotions in their minds to enhance the quality of their performances.” When imagery is used effectively, notes Ungerleider, the learning process becomes exciting. It also opens up a whole new realm of human potential.
Imagery is the animated part of the learning process. Athletes, for instance, emulate the actions of others because their minds ‘take a picture’ of the activity. Next? You have it taped. And, they use it as a model for their performance. “Imagery is based on memory, and we experience it internally by reconstructing external events in our minds.” One paradigm: if you are a tennis player, it tells you what to do. “[Virat] Kohli, get your girlfriend out of the picture, relax your grip, get your feet in motion, and derive joy from the game.” The alchemy looks easy to understand, but it is a delicate relationship, or balance: a template of mind-over-matter analogy.
How does mental practice work? Research contends that there are two possible explanations behind the idea. One is called the symbolic learning theory; two, the psycho-neuro-muscular theory. It is believed that imagery maybe a part of a coding system that actually helps sportspersons to understand movement. The symbolic learning theory says that every move we make in life is first coded like a blueprint in our minds and the nervous system. When an athlete, for instance, mentally rehearses an athletic event, they are factually blueprinting each move, making the gestures symbolic, or more familiar, to their body chemistry. By constant mental practice, the stage is set for movement to become fairly automatic and also easy to recall.
Example: If Ajinkya Rahane wants to improve his drive further, he might break out each component of the task by mentally rehearsing each sequence of the shot: of each movement of his hand, forearm, and elbow. From such a code of symbolic components, he’d create a familiarity that would enhance his shot, make it more relaxed, strong, and also accurate. Ultimately, Rahane can think of the whole exercise as a platform: a platform for the higher purposes of his dexterous game itself.
When one sits in a chair, and relaxed too, for example, one is actually producing small muscular contractions similar to those involved in a particular sport. This is also a passive kind of mental practice, and one reason why mental practice works. To cull an example from Ungerleider, “In the mind of Olympic diving champions such as Greg Louganis, mental ‘faxes’ and other electronic impulses are constantly sent to the muscles and tendons to remind them how to leap from the springboard, prepare to tuck, rotate for several spins, and then unravel the body for a perfect no-splash entry into the pool. These messages travel at lightning speed and cause the muscles to fire at appropriate sequences, so they can perform the correct sporting movement.”
All great, new programmes that have been devised to help the modern sportsperson are broad-based on building one’s confidence, with affirmations and self-talk. Tennis legend Roger Federer, for example, uses such positive affirmations and self-talk to remind himself that he could conquer an opponent even if he is behind, and not playing well. Talking to oneself, psychologists opine, boosts belief in one’s own ability. In the process, they become great emotional strengths and enhance self-esteem and self-worth. It is a lifelong event that we never lose.
Ungerleider also emphasises on the magical, potent qualities of clearing the athlete’s mind with breathing and meditation. Meditation is nature’s most natural antidote for competitive stress: more so, in this age of greater expectations, where there’s always so much at stake. He explains, “Breathing properly is important because it sets the stage for other mental and physical responses that cue your body to prepare for competitive stress. With each inhalation, you should include a feeling of relaxation; with each exhalation, focus on letting go of any muscular tension in the body.”
It goes without saying that athletes can maximise performance with mental snapshots, even without realising it. It helps one call the shots. But, one ought to be careful. You’d, of course, as a sportsperson, always practice the correct imagery response — not the imperfect. Practice, after all, makes things perfect. You should also try to be relaxed: to rev up. Ungerleider has this illustration to drive home the point: “In tennis, as in any other sport, strong emotions are involved in the mental practice of the correct athletic skills. When you are tense or annoyed, you might fire off an out-of-control backhand followed by a series of terrible shots. If you don’t correct the imagery, the shots get worse.”
Relaxation holds the key to physical and mental skill development. It brings the best in us all. Relaxation, in sports, must be cultivated no less through a structured training programme that includes imagery and visualisation strategies. Agreed that most of us are susceptible to all sorts of emotions, including anxiety and/or anger. Emotions can be disruptive to learning and practicing imagery skills. So, how does a sportsperson can go about the ‘ideal’ method of relaxation that is contiguous with proper imagery and visualisation skills? Here goes.
Sit in a chair and begin to tighten your right hand fist. After ten seconds of tightness, release all the muscles, and let your hand go completely limp. Now, do the exact thing for your left hand, making a tight fist and increasing the muscle tension for ten seconds. Now release. Notice the tension, followed by a sensation of letting go and relaxed energy flow. It should feel pretty good. You can see that if you were to spend 30-40 minutes each day tightening and loosening all the major muscle groups of your body, the outcome might be delightful. You can add on to the programme too. On your own. For better results. In addition, you can make your own video, and talk your way through a complete body relaxation. All you have to do is get more comfortable and visualise a pleasant, relaxing image — of yourself.
With relaxation, you are also assured to get into a level of sharp focus: of precise structures without too many distractions. You are also loosened up. It is a skill anyone can learn. Once you have become proficient, you can get into your ‘zenith,’ or ‘zone,’ of what is known as guided imagery: to make your visions more vivid, to fine-tune your style, to rewind and review, and have access to your image bank. It is a visual rehearsal of sorts, where you have your strengths and weaknesses taped in your mind. It is also a blueprint, which helps one get over faults and improves one’s strengths. All athletes, says Ungerleider, should get psyched up without losing the edge. If distractions can destroy concentration, one ought to be more focused, and not let feel forced. It’s imperative, therefore, that you controlled yourself, and made last-minute adjustments, and/or studied your opponents.
You’d call this pulsating, wholesome mindful credo as the psychical ensemble of every sportsperson’s biomechanical visage — a holistic aggregate, a part of the whole and sum of its parts. That sport is also played in the mind — between your two ears.