Visualization and Affirmations for Peak Performance
If you can see it, you can be it.
What is the difference in the psychology of a winner and a loser; of one who is stressed out and one who is relaxed; of one who is angry and one who is calm; of one who is worried and one who is confident? Although it may not be possible to account for every variable, a large portion of the difference is attributed to how one views situations and what one says to themselves. Many outcomes are predetermined by our beliefs and our beliefs are influenced by our visions and our self talk.
Creative Visualization and Simulation
In examining NASA astronauts who had the “right stuff”, world class athletes, top level CEOs, the best surgeons, and the most accomplished artistic performers, researchers have found some common traits. It seems that many of these individuals prepare themselves mentally for any challenge they encounter. The performance in the face of these challenges often seems effortless. The reason it appears effortless is that these individuals have practiced the skill over and over in their mind hundreds of times. Winners are masters of the art of simulation. They have seen themselves perform flawlessly and that becomes their self fulfilling prophecy. As Dennis Waitely puts it, “Winners say, ‘Of course I can do it! I’ve practiced it mentally a thousand times.’ Losers say, ‘How can you expect me to do it? I don’t know how!’”
Watch a world class down hill skier prior to a big race and you will see them close their eyes and ski the course in their mind. On the absolute edge of their skis, they are going faster than anyone has dared to go. Watch the Olympic gymnast before the big event. They see themselves perform the most difficult maneuvers without a miss. Dismounting perfectly, they see themselves “stick it” and get the perfect 10. It is no different for the experienced sales person who negotiates the best contract or the speaker who gives the most motivational presentation. High level performers practice physically and visually over and over again. It was Thomas Jefferson who said, “I’m a great believer in luck, and I find the harder I work, the more I have of it”.
Many commercial relaxation tapes use examples of guided imagery to get people to relax. If one can create a visual scene of relaxation the body will adjust accordingly. Visualization for relaxation works best when individuals are able to create their own relaxing scenes. Not everyone is relaxed by floating on waves or in the clouds. These images can be very stressful for some. If you want to use visualization for relaxation, imagine yourself being in the most relaxing environment you have ever been in. Real or imagined recreate that special place as vividly as possible.
The power of visualization is so strong that is has been found to influence our physiology at a microbiological level. Cancer patients taught to practice visualization of tumors shrinking and cancer cells dying as an adjunct to chemotherapy, got well at a significantly higher rate than a control group receiving only chemotherapy. The literature is full of examples of controlled studies where visualization has been used to enhance both physiology and performance.
It is difficult if not impossible to visualize excellent performance if your self talk is negative. The mind will believe what you tell it. It is important to combine visualization exercises with positive affirmations. Poor performers and those with a negative self image tend to be self depreciating. If you tell yourself you can not do something you will be very surprised if you are successful and rightly so.
It can be very difficult to change negative self talk if this is part of your personality, part of who you are. Often when people try to change they end up putting themselves down even more each time they catch themselves saying something negative. For example, “I should have done better on that exam, I am so dumb sometimes. There I go criticizing myself again, I’m such a loser”. Rather than trying to eliminate negative self talk, try and reduce it by practicing saying positive things to yourself. This is not easy and often people will feel silly and phony using affirmations (i.e., Stuart Smalley from SNL, “You’re good enough, you’re smart enough and gosh darn it people like you”). If someone has spent their whole life listening to negative scripts, it is unlikely that they will immediately believe the positive statements they make. It takes time and practice.
Below are some guidelines and suggestions for the use of visualization and affirmations.
Phrase affirmations using the first person singular. Take ownership of the statement. You can not control others only yourself. For example, “I am…”, “I can…”
Phrase affirmations in the present tense when possible. You can not change the past. The future is too unpredictable to control.
Phrase affirmations in the most positive way possible. Avoid the use of words like “no”, “don’t”, and “not” in your affirmations. This is very important because your brain is not capable of visualizing a negative action. The right side of your brain is predominately visual, the left side is logical and literal. In many ways they do not communicate very well. If you are practicing self-hypnosis all suggestions should be positive. To illustrate this ask someone to do exactly as you say, then tell them to close their eyes and not think about what their hands are doing. If you ask them, they will tell you that when you asked them not to think of their hands, they thought of their hands. Your visual brain can not understand the word not. Its like when you are riding a bike and you tell yourself not to hit a rock in the road. You will inevitably run right over the rock because that is the picture you have created for your brain and your brain controls your muscles.
Sport psychologist have understood this for some time and there are lots of sports examples. Have you ever been in the classic situation playing softball or baseball? Its the last inning, your team is losing, the bases are loaded, there are two outs, with you up at bat and two strikes. If under these circumstances you say to yourself, “don’t strike out”, that is probably what will happen. What the best batters will do is visualize what part of the field they are going to hit the ball to. There is no doubt that they are going to hit it, it is a matter of where they will hit it.
If you are taking an exam, or preparing to give a speech, or going for job interview, or asking someone for a date, if you say, “don’t get stressed out”, you are creating a picture of someone who is stressed out. If you say, “I feel calm and relaxed, I am confident and alert” then you are creating an image of someone who is relaxed and confident.
The implications of this can be profound. If you are a parent, teacher, administrator or leader of any type, tell people what you want them to do. Don’t tell them what you don’t want them to do.
Make affirmations short, simple and clear. Brevity furthers. Long complex statements are more difficult to internalize.
Use as many senses as possible in affirmations and visualizations. Verbalize statements out loud after writing them down. Better yet watch yours and listen to yourself say these statements while standing in front of a mirror. When you visualize your performance, recreate as much of the scene as possible to create an accurate simulation. Imagine what it sounds like, what it feels like, smells like, etc….
Make affirmations and visualizations emotional. Imagine what it will feel like to be happy, successful, powerful, self-assured. Visualize yourself experiencing these emotions. At the same time work to eliminate statements of negative emotions from your life (e.g., I’m tired, I’m sad/depressed, I’m lonely, I’m bored, I’m overwhelmed, etc…).
In summary, create and image of someone you want to become and then continue to focus on that image. Figure out what you want to be able to say about yourself and then start saying it.