You’ve probably heard gurus, teachers and even business coaches tell you that to achieve what you want, you first need to visualize yourself doing it. But what happens when you try to form those images in your mind, and all you see is empty space? What does drawing a blank mean for your goals?
Nothing, as it turns out. While it is true that visualization is a powerful tool proven to help you achieve more, perform better, and get physically stronger even if you aren’t actually lifting a thing, learning how to do it is harder than most people admit. In fact, experts say that all of those articles advising you to “picture yourself” succeeding are really telling you to jump into the deep end of the pool.
“When I ask about visualization, a lot of people will say, ‘No, I’ve tried, but I can’t really see anything. I don’t understand it,” says Brent Walker, Ph.D., associate athletic director of championship performance at Columbia University in New York and former president of the Association for Applied Sport Psychology. “That’s why I rarely would ask a person on day one to visualize themselves doing something. A lot of people who haven’t visualized before will struggle to do that.”
Walker’s job puts him in contact with a lot of first-timers. He works directly with the school’s many student-athletes, most of whom will not have had access to a sports psychologist, like him, when they were in high school. But by the time they graduate from Columbia, Walker says they learn to use visualization before any type of performance—whether that’s on the field, in the weight room, or in a classroom.
The key to learning how to visualize, Walker says, is to start somewhere familiar—somewhere you feel right at home. From there you can use repetition to help strengthen your abilities. Take a page from Walker’s playbook and try these techniques to build your own visualization practice.
The Most Beginner-Friendly Visualization Ever
“For a lot of new students, where I start is to ask them to simply picture their bedroom at home,” Walker says. “It’s so familiar that virtually anyone can do it.”
Try it yourself and see. (No pun intended.) Most likely you’ll find that the image of your room comes to you easily. As it does, notice whether you are seeing it through your own eyes, or if it’s like watching a movie and you are a character on screen. Neither is right or wrong. It’s just about noticing and understanding your perspective.
If you find that you are still coming up empty while trying to conjure up images of your room, don’t worry. Walker has another technique you can try. “If a person were to struggle with [the bedroom visualization], I have them to watch a short video clip,” Walker says. “When it’s over, I’ll just ask them to close their eyes and try to re-create components of the video clip.”
How to Deepen Your Visualization Practice
After you get the hang of using your mind to build pictures of familiar places, it’s time for some action. “The next step is to complete a task and then re-create it in the mind immediately after,” Walker says. “For instance, if an athlete had just completed their max bench press, we’d have them imagine it again in their mind—what it felt like, what they did during the lift.”
Walker calls this “post-visualization,” and it’s meant to reinforce what success feels like. “After I do a skill very well, I stop, take a moment, and try to take it with me,” Walker says. “I take that positive feeling and just keep replaying that all week.”
You can take things a step further with the help of your smartphone. Shoot video of yourself performing an action. When you capture footage of yourself really doing it well—whether it’s sinking the perfect shot or gracefully executing a yoga pose—watch that video over and over. After each viewing, try and re-create those images in your mind. You’re essentially using the video as a blueprint for your visualization. Walker suggests repeat the process until those pictures become engrained.
Once you can call up those images in your mind effortlessly, you can use them to help you perform just as well—or even better—the next time you go to perform the task. “I recommend seeing yourself perform each skill immediately prior to doing it,” Walker says. “This is like priming the pump, seeing it and getting your mind ready to experience it.”
This visualization technique—and the video you build around—can also be very helpful during times when you might struggle. “A lot of times when we lose confidence, it’s because we’ve lost the picture of what it’s like to succeed. So if you have that video to refresh your memory, that’s pretty powerful,” Walker says.
Other Tips to Help You See Success
Walker says there’s no true right or wrong way to do visualization. Your goal should be just to make the pictures as clear as you can in your own mind. Which means…
1. You don’t have to close your eyes.
While some people like to close their eyes and let their brain take over, it’s by no means a requirement. You just need to imagine the feel of performing the activity.
2. You can even move around while you visualize.
Walker says that it’s sometimes more powerful for an athlete to mime the actions they will take during a task. He offers the example of someone shooting a free throw. The person could go to a court, stand on the line, and even perform the actual arm motion and leg motion without a ball. “There’s at least one study showing you have better outcomes when you have an athlete go through the motions while visualizing it.”
3. Relax before you put your mind to work.
Walker begins his visualization practice with a relaxation practice that helps put body and mind at ease. You could choose to do a simple breathing meditation (like this one), or just take a few longer, deeper breaths, letting go of any tension before you start.
4. Don’t just think about success.
Think about the situation. “If you ask 90 to 95 percent of people what they do when they visualize, they’ll say “Oh, I imagine myself succeeding,” Walker says. “But I think there’s a limitation to that because the things that could prevent you from succeeding are still going to show up on game day.” So rather than focusing just on winning, Walker teaches people to picture themselves staying composed in an adverse situation. For an athlete, it might be a large and unruly crowd shouting insults as they need to sink a shot. For a mom, it could be a stranger throwing shade while her kid has a meltdown in a store. Whatever the situation, envision yourself staying relaxed, composed, and ready to do what you want to do. “By picturing the issues—and seeing yourself handle them with grace—you won’t be surprised when a problem actually does arise, and you have to handle it,” Walker says.
5. To strengthen your visualization, practice often.
Walker suggests doing it “as much as possible,” including during the times when you’re actually performing the tasks. A golfer could visualize every shot before they hit it, or a pitcher could see the pitch in their mind before they throw it. When the action goes well, replay it in your mind to reinforce the feeling of doing it. “Visualization works because your mind doesn’t know the difference between what’s real and what’s imagined,” Walker says. You may find that as you get better at imagining success, it’ll be easier to achieve in real life.
By Brian Sabin