Michael Phelps famously credits visualisation to his success in the 200m butterfly at the 2008 Beijing Olympics. He won gold and set a world record despite not being able to see for the last 75m while water filled up his leaky goggles.
You may be thinking, yeah I get it for elite sports but what has that got to do with the workplace. Well you can use visualisation whether for personal or business, the effect is just the same.
What is visualisation?
In essence it is a mental rehearsal using all of your senses – see, feel, hear, taste and smell.
Why is visualisation Important?
Visualisation is important because it helps to prepare and to teach you how to respond to a situation before it happens. It also helps you achieve your goals by conditioning your brain to see, hear, and feel the success in your mind.
How does it work?
Visualisation will engage the reticular activating system (RAS)—a bundle of neurons that acts as your filtering system and helps you to determine what information is important vs. what is not important. The phrase ‘you get what you focus on’ is linked with the RAS, and the reason why goal setting works and is important, since you are setting your RAS to filter everything for the goal achievement.
Three types of visualisation
There are 3 main types of visualization in performance psychology: outcome visualization, process visualization and clarity visualisation. I use all 3 types with my coaching clients where appropriate.
Clarity visualisation is when you look ahead to what you would like to see, hear and feel and then track back to find clarity of steps to get there.
Outcome visualisation is when you imagine your end goal. For example, you see yourself winning and crossing the finishing line of a running race.
Process visualisation is when you imagine each step it will take to get to your end goal. For example, you mentally rehearse yourself giving a presentation to an audience, going through the whole process of the event.
Does visualisation work?
In essence yes, and there are lots of examples used in sport along with everyday business, but also there was an empirical study conducted by Dr. Blaslotto at the University of Chicago in 1996 on visualisation.
Dr. Blaslotto’s study was conducted by asking a group of students who had been randomly selected to take a series of basketball free-throws. The percentage of made free throws were tallied. The students were then divided into three groups and asked to perform three separate tasks over a 30 day period.
– The first group was told not to touch a basketball for 30 days, no practicing or playing basketball whatsoever.
– The second group was told to practice shooting free throws for a half hour a day for 30 days
– The third group was to come to the gym every day for 30 days and spend a half hour with their eyes closed, simply visualizing hitting every free-throw.
After the 30 days all three groups were asked to come back and take the same number of free-throws they had in the beginning of the study.
– The first group of students who did not practice at all showed no improvement
– The second group had practiced every day and showed a 24% improvement
– The third group however, the group which had simply visualized successful free-throws, showed a 23% improvement
Mental rehearsal (or visualisation) is powerful because the subconscious processes the experience as a real one (by firing those neurons that are responsible for skill acquisition), makes the person calmer and more adapted to stressful situations, and can speed up the learning process.
How do you mentally visualise?
The process visualisation technique is a common one I use with my clients. Before you visualise, get yourself in a relaxed state, this can be done by sitting down, closing your eyes and taking 3 deep breaths in and out.
Once you are relaxed, visualise the situation, for example speaking at an event in front of a audience. Mental visualise what you will see, the people, the venue, the stage etc. Then what you can hear, you speaking, the audience and other noises you may hear in the room. Then move onto how you will be feeling when you are speaking, what you can smell, has food been served and also what you can taste.
Try to make the visualisation as vivid as possible, it helps if you have already been to the place before. Now visualise it all going well, using all the senses – see, hear, feel, smell and taste.
Now think of number of scenarios where there might be some obstacles to your presentation, e.g. you get a dry mouth as you are speaking, the technology doesn’t work etc. Now visualise the plans to mitigate those things going wrong, the plan B’s, e.g. having a glass of water to drink if you get a dry mouth. I would suggest you spend around 5 minutes on this visualisation, and look to do it a few times prior to the event itself.
In summary, visualisation is a powerful way to prepare yourself for an event or situation before you even get there, along with gaining insights into what could be the obstacles that get in the way, which gives the opportunity to develop strategies to overcome those obstacles.