Visualization and Your Game

All the buzz in the last few weeks has come from the mental game of Washington Capitals and Hershey Bears goaltender Braden Holtby. The netminder boasts a 2.17 GAA and .935 save percentage in his first six games ever in the Stanley Cup Playoffs. His trick isn’t really a trick at all, it’s visualization. Before suiting up you can find him leaning against his stick in the bench area facing down towards one end of the ice, eyes darting back and forth as he goes through his rituals and visualizes his movements about the ice during the game.

Watch and learn

Visualization can be a huge boost to the mental side of an athlete’s game. It comes in handy when attempting to correct or learn a new skill. I’ve found that sitting down and watching a professional at the highest level perform that skill over and over from multiple angles (top-down, front, rear, and both side views) allows me to better understand their movements as I attempt to mimic them for my own performance or modify it to fit my own abilities. This is very similar to the way in which we begin to learn to walk. As infants, we observe our parents and other adults moving having mastered the ability to walk. As we begin exploring on our own we attempt to mimic the movements of those who have mastered the art, this is called modeling. This usually starts with us having to hold on to a support as we discover a movement concept we have to learn in order to walk, balance. So we practice walking with support over and over while gradually using less and less support over time until finally we stand up, push off the coffee table in the living room and stumble across the floor without using anything other than our legs to hold us up.

Find an athlete out there who is considered a master of the skill you’re trying to learn. Watch them perform the skill on repeat from every angle possible.

  • Learn it.
  • Practice it in your mind.
  • Practice it more.
  • Do this all the time.
  • More visualization practice before you go to sleep.
  • Even more practice when you wake up.
  • Practice the skill without any implements (balls, sticks, clubs, bats, etc).
  • Mental practice and review of your attempt (rinse, repeat as necessary).
  • Practice the skill with implements.
  • More mental practice in between attempts.

Visualize for success

Just as when you’re visualizing while learning. If you think out your motion before performing it, you can correct many of your own mistakes before you make them. Like Holtby going over all of his movements before the game, go in with your movements fresh in your mind. Walk yourself through everything before you even run your warm-up, and do it again during your warm-up.

My usual Monday morning goes something like this as I run through my spine mobility exercises before I lift: “Okay, I’m deadlifting today. I need to keep my chest up, neck packed, shoulders back, back straight, drive with my hips, and press through my heels”. I visualize the lift over and over while I walk to the power rack. Sometimes I’ll go so far as to pull a light warm-up set with my eyes closed to let my visualization lead me through the movement (I keep a friend on hand to check form on those occasions).

I’ve had visualization work in the moments immediately before an action as well. Lining up to take the face-off of an inline hockey game I run through my motions in my mind just before the ball or puck is dropped. I tense my muscles as I work through the action and load up to perform them in the seconds after I’ve thought them through. Minute corrections are made to my stance and positioning to align with my mental image, and then I act.

With practice these thoughts become automatic, playing through the scenarios in my mind becomes an instant occurrence as play goes on or as a training session continues. Not only can you make mental corrections to your movements, but you can play out the entire game in your head an infinite number of ways, anticipating and reading the play as it happens.

The point to come away from this with is to learn your game. Learn your movements. Learn as many applications of your movements as possible, visualize them in in-game situations, go over the possibilities, develop these movement patterns in your mind, and then practice them on the pitch, rink, in the weight room, or wherever it is that you practice your art. This method may not work for everyone, but it’s one possibility of many in terms of ways to up your game mentally.

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