Hours before every game, when the arena is still empty and the only sound is the quiet hum of workers preparing for the night’s event, Zach Parise makes his way to the bench and takes a seat. With his stick across his lap he surveys every inch of the ice, visualizing himself competing in each spot.
It is more than a simple game day routine; it’s an important mental exercise that allows Parise to perform at his highest level.
Parise isn’t the only one to practice visualization or mental imagery. According to Hans Skulstad of Minnesota Center for Sports and the Mind, any athlete can practice visualization and reap its benefits.
“The brain does not necessarily distinguish between what’s real and what’s not,” Skulstad said. “There are numerous research studies that suggest performance can be enhanced with mental imagery and rehearsal, even better than singularly practicing a skill. It improves your ability to learn how to block out distractions; it improves your ability to execute in pressure situations because you’ve practiced it before, and it makes the skill of a situation seem more familiar.”
The key, according to Skulstad is to have an athlete visualize playing in their optimal performance zone, doing all the things they do well.
“Sometimes I find it helpful for athletes to select four words to characterize playing really well or in their optimal performance zone, and then focusing on that with the senses,” Skulstad said.
While mental imagery is beneficial for athletes of nearly any age, it can be difficult to get young athletes to buy into the idea at first. Skulstad suggests trying a guided visualization for about a week and then assess whether or not it seems to be working for the team.
This guided practice should focus on positive aspects of an athlete’s performance and should strive to incorporate all the senses, emotions they feel and how their body feels when they’re experiencing success in their performance.
For instance, a youth hockey team may choose to have several guided visualization sessions with a focus on playing fast, physical, confident and as a team. As the players are led through the exercise, they will try to mentally picture what they see, hear and feel when fulfilling each of those aspects of their performance. Once players learn how to practice mental imagery through the guided sessions, they can begin to do it on their own.
In Skulstad’s experience, teams that have bought into mental imagery have gained rewards after regular visualization.
Though not a hockey team, Skulstad pointed out a girls’ basketball team for which he recently created a guided visualization. When he started, the team had just lost to their biggest rival by 20 points, but after regular mental imagery practice, with their four chosen words, they beat that same rival in their next meeting by six points.
If you can see it and believe in it, it becomes that much easier to go out there and do it.