You’ve heard it a million times. The power of visualization. What exactly does it mean, and why does it work?
Visualization is simply the process of creating an image or movie scene in our head- daydreaming, if you will. Some people are better at this than others, but it seems as if this skill can be worked upon and developed.
You can even teach this skill to a kid; Sit them down and ask them to imagine their favourite food (probably ice cream). Tell them to imagine their favourite flavour, the fact it is hot out, and the cool creamy texture on their tongue.
Within seconds, you will see them licking their lips and mouth watering with a smile on their face. Do they want an Ice cream now? You bet!
The reason for this is an inextricable Link between mind and body.
If you focus on a situation where you are normally confident (for me, it’s the first tee at the golf club I grew up on) you will instantly feel a sense of confidence and put your body in a posture which signals that to others. Before we had language, we used postural cues to convey to others our thoughts and emotions. We are still attuned to these cues these days, even if we don’t realize it.
As an example, if you walk into a room with your head held high and chest out, shoulders back, it signifies confidence to the room. Now, you could simply fake these positions through being aware of them. Or, you could work on things which make you more confident. The former person has to be constantly aware of their posture to project the right things to the room. The latter person has this posture automatically.
Visualization is a great focus tool. By visualizing in great detail, we can improve our attention onto what we do want to achieve. This doesn’t necessarily have to be done during the shot (I personally perform better with a zombie-like performance state during the shot itself), but pre-shot visualization can really help.
Tiger woods has been known to say that he struggles to visualize correctly. I’m not sure I believe him, or think that his definition of visualization may have been too strict or unrealistic. But, watch his eyes as he is preparing for this shot. What do you think he is doing here?
Watch as he uses his imagination to visualize the shot – even going so far as hitting an imaginary ball, then watching it roll down the slope in real time.
Have a look at this short video – see if you can count how many passes they make?
You were so focused on the counting of the passes, that you didn’t see it,like 98% of others who do the above test. Interesting huh?
Visualizing can also help to block out unwanted stimulus. Just as when you focus on a good book, you sometimes don’t hear the clock ticking (until someone brings it to your attention), visualizing the shot as you wish it to be can block out crowds, danger, unwanted swing thoughts, playing partners rattling the change in their pockets etc.
Use Vizualisaton to block out negative thoughts, distractions, bunkers, out of bounds etc.
If you flash an image of a coke can to anyone, their brain will light up neurons associated with this. Usually an image of a red truck with the tune “holidays are coming ” will rush through your head automatically. This is due to the conditioning your brain has experienced through all of the marketing and advertising.
Coca Cola did not sponsor this blog post
The same is true of movement. If you visualize a certain outcome, your brain will be firing neurons associated with that movement pattern. This can also work in reverse; see the water in the left and you may say to yourself “I had better stay away from that”. Now you are accessing neurons related to a slice shot, or push right.
For this reason,
- The visuals you try to imagine
- The words you use to yourself and
- The feels you subsequent try to create
should all be as positive as you can.
Now, this may not mean aggressively positive, as in “hit it to that pin tucked 3 feet from water”. We should still exercise a good STRATEGY, but you should be visualizing what you want, not what you are avoiding.
A study was conducted with skiers where they sat in a chair, hooked up to EMG ( which measures muscular activation) and were asked to imagine going down a ski slope. The results of the EMG showed that, even though the skiers were sitting motionless, their muscles were firing in a way were similar to actually going down the slope – simply by visualizing it.
“I want you to sit in the chair, and just imagine skiing down the slope”
Obviously, this links to the above point about neuronal activation. As movement stems from the brain, any visuals we use can activate both neurons and muscle fibers. This electrical activity in the muscles builds up as a potential. We have other mechanisms in our brain which convert this potential to movement or not, but needless to say, visualizing the wrong or right thing can have a big effect on your performance.
This is evident in (CLICK HERE TO LEARN MORE) where an idea causes a motor response. Get a person to hold a long necklace like a pendulum. If you ask them to visualize the pendulum moving back and forth, it will start to do it ( try it!).
This will happen even if the person holding the pendulum believes they are not moving it at all. The pendulum merely amplifies the small signals being sent to the arm by the brain.
Neuro plasticity, long term belief systems and confidence
It has been demonstrated that, when we think about something, our brain literally changes it’s structure.
This is called neuro plasticity. Our brain consists of a bunch of neurons (amongst other things) which are connected in millions of ways. When we activate neurons via thought or intention, we fire an electrical impulse. Do it enough times and the pathways of the signal get strings get and more efficient. Do it even more, and a substance called myelin wraps itself around those neurons, increasing the likelihood that this becomes a habit.
This is why learning and practice works. Done in the right way, practice benefits our ability to draw out the desired outcome. To find out more about how to practice effectively and supercharge your learning, click HERE
But this also works on a subconscious level too, and is strengthened by emotions. As an example, if every time you met a friend you smelled the Abercrombie and Fitch scent, you would eventually link the two.
Now, any time you smelled that scent, you would think of them. If you happened to develop a romantic relationship with that person, that link would become stronger. Years later, long after the relationship was over, you smell that scent and immediately thoughts of them, and the emotions associated with them arise.
Whole belief systems and basically who you are as a person is a result of this process. A large part is genetic, but we know a lot of personality is a result of our environmental conditioning too.
Imagine taking control of this mechanism and attaching visualizations, and the emotions associated with that, to something else. Imagine if every time we visualized our good shots and felt those good shot emotions, we squeezed our thumb and forefinger together.
Eventually, with enough repetitions, the good shots would be attached to this finger squeeze, and just like a perfume reminds us of an old flame, we would instantly be flooded with confidence when we make this finger squeeze action in a pre shot routine.
A clockwork golf?
There is obviously no way of definitively proving this, but it is likely that the long term benefits of visualization are huge. With what we can achieve in our brain through neuroplastic processes, and the subsequent effect this has on the rest of our body on a cellular level, it is very advantageous to understand this process and take control of it.
Not just for golf, but for life.
If you can set your brain up to be more conditioned to see the right things, think the right things, interpret scenarios in a specific way and draw out certain emotions, you can really maximize your potential in lots of areas.
It is even commonly accepted that we can produce certain genetic changes within ourselves (research the field of epigenetic). Although be realistic, you are not going to get Usain Bolt’s sprinting genetics just by visualizing it over and over 😉
No amount of positive visualization is going to give you his genetics, unfortunately.
If you are consistently visualizing appropriate things, you are improving your brain’s ability to seek out things which relate to it. You are changing your brain’s attractor state patterns, re-wiring the brain (literally), conditioning your cells to certain emotions etc.
Can visualization beat practice?
No. Well, no study has shown this yet. But a study showed that basketballers who visualized free throws improved EQUALLY AS MUCH as ones which physically practiced.
This was compared to basketballers who did nothing and didn’t improve at all. So, visualization has the potential to improve you even when you are unable to practice. Imagine combining practice AND visualization. At the very least, if you are unable to physically practice for whatever reason, doing a 10 minute visualization session can still allow you to improve. No excuses for not getting to the range in your head.
I have my own anecdotal evidence that visualizing a certain move can help you achieve it technically. I have improved my own swing technique just by visualizing myself from different angles in a desired position, and going through the motion at different speed in my minds eye.
When I was younger, my swing path was about 10 degrees to the right. As hard as I tried, I could never get the club to move to the left through impact. Yet, through effective visualization of impact, I am now able to easily achieve whatever swing path I desire. It’s as if my visualization opened up the pathway to change my technique.
Picture Taken from The Practice Manual – The Ultimate Guide for GolfersJust by visualizing what I wanted the club to do through this point in space I was able to effectively change it.
This brings us to an important conclusion, and one which I am adamant of making players and coaches more aware of.
We are so quick to look at the effects (kinematics) such as what the club did to cause the hook. We know the face was closed to the path, but what caused that? Well, now we are entering an era where we can analyze the kinetics of what caused the kinematics. Maybe the rotor cuff fired hard, applied a torque to the club and closed the face down too much? But what caused that?
Not all faults have a physical cause.
Read it again. In fact, as all movement stems from the brain, you could say that almost all technical faults come from an incorrect mental process.
Imagine this scenario – player steps onto first hole on a new course. It is very similar to the thirteenth tee at their home course; their dreaded hole that they always miss left on. Their subconscious is firing the brain wildly, and they are visualizing the ball go left, just like their home course. So they aim right to compensate.
How would this hole affect you mentally? How would it affect your Trackman Numbers?
As they are over the ball, they feel the have overcompensated, but they have set up their body now – they have to commit. Then they remember they were blocking it on the range. Aiming right and a block pattern is not a good mix.
As they make their swing, the fear of blocking it further right sets in and they make an unconscious adjustment during the downswing which closes the face. End result – they hit the ball exactly where they didn’t want to. A double bluff.
This above scenario is certainly a common thing with players. But the majority of players go straight to fixing the swing mechanics. This is the equivalent of fixing your broken car by getting a Plumber to take a look at the sink. Wrong fault buddy.
Time to work on Dem mechanikz
Higher handicaps will usually have a similar situation, but may go something like this;
Player sets up and there is danger on the right. They have been slicing all day so they don’t want to go in the danger. They stand over the ball and their instincts take over, and they make a massive swipe at the ball, swinging 20 degrees left through impact (because the believe direction is caused by swinging the club through impact one way or another – see my article BALL FLIGHT LAWS for a better understanding).
As a result of swinging 20 degrees left, the ball carves right into the danger they wanted to miss. This is still a mental fault, a misunderstanding of a slice cause, combined with poor strategy and poor visualization.
So, question yourself. Question your players (if you are a coach). Don’t just take it for face value that you sliced it because your path was left. What mental processes contributed to that?
At my level, I would say 95% of my faults are mental to some extent. Whether that is overdoing a technical fix, or simple fear of a poor shot. I try to make my players as aware of this as possible. We have been so conditioned to automatically jump to fixing the symptoms of a shot (the club kinematics or body movement) that we almost completely ignore the engine which is driving them.
The mind is the engine
Visualization is important. It can be a tool for
- Changing our attention
- Blocking out distractions
- Improving our ability to create a desired movement (through muscular activation and neuronal excitement)
- To change our perceptions of the world and what information gets through to our conscious mind (reticular activating system), along with genetic changes.
- And many faults can be attributed to processes associated with this.
One last example
I once worked with a very good player who was struggling with driving the ball. They were down to hitting 25% of fairways. I looked on the range at their swing. We analyzed it with video, looked at the numbers. Yes, they could have been improved, but she was hitting 80% fairways on the range, even with RANDOM PRACTICE.
I took a different approach. Rather than change her swing (I knew she had it in her) I just needed to draw that technique out on the course. Even consciously, she said she was visualizing positively and felt confident. But I knew there had to be something going on subconsciously.
I knew it wasn’t a case of creating a new swing, but unlocking what was already there
We spent one day going around the course and hitting a drive on each hole until she nailed one, before buggying to the next hole. Her task was to then go home and visualize each of those shots she nailed, imagining the routine, the feeling of confidence before the shot, the feeling of elation after the shot. As she did this, she held her driver in her hand and squeezed the grip.
After one week she was hitting 50% fairways. After 2 weeks she was up to 70% success. We filmed the swing – no change. The success was not in the technique change, but her ability to reproduce what she already had.
Now, obviously there is an element of snowball effect (player starts to hit a few more fairways, gathers confidence which has a further effect) and Placebo effect. But, those are mental elements too. If visualization improves those, it is just another reason to do it.
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In The Strike Plan, I use animations and slow motion videos to explain certain concepts which are vital to improving your golf game. By being able to see what you are trying to achieve in your “minds-eye”, players are much better equipped to be able to improve their strike quality.
To find out more, click the image link below.