Most swimmers instinctively use some aspects of imagery. However, they do not learn to take advantage of all of the benefits imagery has to offer because they do not realize that imagery is more than just visualization or daydreaming. It is focused mental training and it is powerful.
It starts with memory, even when you are preparing for a new experience or skill. Your brain creates an image using bits of memory you have collected. It can be things you have experienced yourself, things you have been told, or video you have watched. Learn about your sport to help you create lots of memories for your imagination to chose from.
Manage Your Mental State Want to feel confident? Imagine yourself feeling and looking confident, with a big smile, head held high, shoulders relaxed. Not that motivated to practice today? Use imagery to keep you going strong through tough practices. In a slump? Top athletes all have them and they often use imagery to get back on track.
Manage Energy Level Nervous swimmers can use calming images to relax and conserve energy. Feeling flat? Use imagery to fire you up!
Learn and Retain Skills Add imagery to practice to help learn new skills or perfect complex ones faster. Away from the pool? Imagery is no substitute for practice, but it can help keep skills fresh when you cannot work out during an injury or illness. When you imagine doing a motor skill your brain sends minor impulses to your muscles, which fire back, strengthening neural pathways. New technologies like Ikkos are helping swimmers maximize this use of imagery for top results.
Focus Use imagery to block out distractions. Some elite swimmers describe visualizing themselves in a tunnel - no fans, no media, and no competitors - just them, the starting system, and their lane - to block everything else out and concentrate.
Prepare for Performance Smart swimmers warm up mentally, as well as physically, before practice and competition. Get the most out of every workout by using effective imagery before and during practice. Imagery of the competition environment and every aspect of your races prepares your mind and fires up the brain-body connection for top performance.
Prepare for Stressful Situations Have to have a difficult conversation with a teammate, coach or parent? Know that you are facing a physical or emotional challenge that was difficult in the past? Imagery can help you face the encounter with more confidence.
Evaluate Performance After an event - a practice, a race, or a stressful situation, use imagery to replay the event, reinforcing your strengths and listing areas you want to improve.
Learning Effective Imagery
Using effective imagery is not easy, but we can give you some pointers to get you started.
Be Patient and Systematic
Just like physical skills in swimming, learning mental skills takes some effort and practice. Be patient! What seems hard at first will become natural over time. Eventually you will be able to use imagery at anytime in even the most distracting environments.
- Have a Plan Just like you have a physical training plan, you need a plan to develop the tools in your mental toolkit. See the resources below to help you evaluate your current imagery skills and some exercise to help develop your skills. Reevaluate your skills as you work and keep using imagery in swimming and in other parts of your life.
- When? Start by setting aside 15 minutes at the same time each day for a minimum of 4x per week for one month. Pick a time when you are not so tired that you may fall asleep. If you are practicing imagery to motivate you or get your energy level up do not practice right before going to sleep.
- Where? Use the same quiet, comfortable place that is private enough for you to relax.
- Start Slow If you are having trouble painting a vivid mental image start by focusing on something smaller. If you are learning a complex skill break it down into parts and do them one at a time. Imagine it step-by-step in slow motion, and then speed it up to race pace.
Just like physical skills in swimming, learning mental skills takes some effort and practice. Be patient! What seems hard at first will become natural over time. Eventually you will be able to use imagery in just a few minutes at anytime in even the most distracting environments. Establish a Baseline Evaluate your imagery ability using the exercise below or one your coach provides. Be sure to save your written evaluation. It is your baseline - you will use it to evaluate your progress. Then practice your imagery. You can use the exercises below to progress from a simple exercise to one that is more like the ones you will use as an athlete.
- Evaluation How good are your imagery skills? Start here and get a baseline . . Effective Imagery Assessment
- Exercise 1 - A Lemon Imagine a lemon on a white plate. Focus completely on the lemon . . Exercise 1
- Exercise 2 - The Pool Imagine yourself sitting in Lejeune Pool. Nobody else is around. . . Exercise 2
- Exercise 3 - The Skill Pick one swimming skill that you know how to perform well (e.g. relay start, breaststroke pullout, freestyle flip turn) . . . Exercise 3