Before Alex Honnold climbed the northwest face of Yosemite’s Half Dome, he sat in his van for a whole day.
He was about to break a world record, and become the first person to free solo the half dome.
Free solo means no rope, no safety harness, no friends.
And the half dome is 2000 feet high.
Here’s some footage of Alex on the dome to give you a bit of an idea:
So, how did Alex prep for something like that?
What was he doing that whole day before the climb, alone by his van, in the wilderness?
He was visualizing!
He’d climbed the dome two days earlier (with buddies and a rope). So now, he ran through the climb again mentally. He imagined what might go wrong, and what he'd do right. He laid out all the potential paths, ahead of time, in his mind.
I guess that’s what it takes to pull off the incredible!
So, what is it about visualization that's so damn powerful?
So crucial that record breakers like Alex rely on it as essential prep?
Well, to help us shed some light, let’s consider 3 mind-bending insights from science.
Did you know:
- The exact same brain cells fire when you lift weights as when you imagine lifting weights?
- Science shows that, because of this, people can get 22% stronger by just imagining strength exercise?
- This principle applies to all training, and it’s a big part of why Olympic athletes practice visualization?
Our amazing brains are capable of gaining skills not only from our experience, but from imagination!
Let’s take another mind-blowing example. To prove the point.
This super-jock swam 6 hours per day, 6 days a week, to prep for the Olympics.
But so did every other athlete. The body can only train so much.
So what made Phelps stand apart (to become the best swimmer of all time)?
In Phelps' own words:
"The biggest thing is how strong you can be mentally."
Every night, after practice, Phelps' coach set him a new visualization:
- Imagine you’re swimming sick
- Imagine your swim cap comes off in the finals
- Imagine you swim the perfect race and break a world record
By the time the 2008 Bejing Olympics came round, Phelps was making great time in every race.
But during the 200m fly, everything went sideways.
His goggles breached and logged with water.
Disaster! Every swimmer’s fear.
When you’re going that pace, you can’t afford to swim with vision totally obscured!
But Phelps had played through this scenario in his mind. It was one of Coach Bowman’s standard visualizations:
- Imagine your goggles come loose and you can’t see a thing!
Phelps was mentally ready. He kept his cool. He counted strokes to measure distance (with his eyes closed). And he kept on swimming.
Oh yeah... and he broke the world record that day.
That very same race, he swam the fastest 200m butterfly in recorded history.
Epic performers use visualization for mental edge.
It helped Honnold and Phelps achieve the impossible.
But how can we mere mortals use this same tactic to power up practice, and find our flow?
Well, visualization empowers us in 3 major ways:
1. Overcoming Resistance
What if we’re too tired, too busy, or too reluctant to practice?
No problem. We can sit down, close our eyes, and run through practice in our minds.
We can do this on the bus, or in the dentist’s waiting room.
Or even any of those times we put practice off, because it feels too overwhelming, challenging or complex.
Sometimes, all we lack is clarity. We put things off because we don't quite trust ourselves and our hazy plan for what we're going to do.
And imagination truly helps us solve this: We get clear about the challenge, the scope, the obstacles, and options for solutions, in our minds.
Hesitation drops away. And our newfound clarity contributes to the second way visualization can help us:
2. Setting Micro-goals
We discussed this last week.
One of the best ways to get “into the zone” with practice is through keeping attention focused in the now.
A great trick for this is to do all our planning up-front, so later we can relax into the moment of practice, and give our whole awareness to the task at hand.
Visualization was made for this sort of preparation!
With eyes closed, we can run through practice, ahead of time, moment by moment, and set intentions:
- I’ll practice at 2pm cuz the house will be quiet
- I’ll start with handstands cuz they need most work
- First I’ll spread my fingers wide apart to form a solid base
- Now’s the time I normally feel a bit reluctant: How’ll I deal with that?
- Maybe, I’ll take 3 deep breaths, and say, “You’ve got this!" and mentally run through my motivation
- Next up? I'll focus awareness in my hands (because that’s how I’ll balance!)
And so on.
Each time we clarify a step in imagination, we strengthen the pathway in our brain.
Remember, these are the exact same brain cells we’ll use to perform the practice later. We are literally building the infrastructure for new skill in our minds.
And with clear goals set for each moment, when practice time comes, we know exactly what to concentrate on.
So, our focus gets supercharged, and that's always our very best chance for dropping “into the zone”.
And there’s a third and final way visualization can help us:
This is a different type of visualization.
Beyond imagining the practice session itself, we can visualize the outcome that will happen if we meet our practice goals.
As a better handstand yoga practitioner, imagine the glow of strength in your body. Imagine the peace in your mind. Or the greater energy you’ll have to play with your kids.
Or imagine how proud both you and your loved one will feel when you high five, and tell them:
“I did it. I just held my first handstand for 3 seconds. Boom!"
Whatever it is for you, that represents success, you don’t have to wait till afterwards to feel that flood of reward chemistry in your brain.
You can feel the rush now. By using imagination.
Why not let that happy brain juice flood your system, and prime you for action? It reminds you why you’re doing all this, and stokes the surge of energy that helps you deep dive into practice.
Whatever way you enjoy visualization, by all accounts, the secret is to...
Make it as vivid as possible. 😊
Don’t just imagine with your eyes. Get all the senses involved! And above all, imagine how the experience will feel.
The cool of the floor under fingertips. The rush of blood to your head. The pattern of pressure in your hands when you get the balance right.
And what does it feel like when things go sideways? How will you course-correct?
Because it sounds very much like visualization can be used to test-run pretty much anything!
What does it feel like to be grateful, to be kind, to trust yourself, stand taller, hold eye contact longer, or apologise quickly when you’ve been unkind?
Using imagination intentionally, like this, helps us prepare for complex actions, and feel ready for unpredictable futures. It builds skill, and helps us trigger flow during practice.
And it sounds very much like it may also be the keystone to living a more deliberate, adventurous life. 💚
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