By Brian Sabin
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.”