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Visualization for Training and Racing

with Allysa Seely, Liv Racing Collective athlete

Visualization is a tool accessing imagination to realize all aspects of actions and outcomes in sport. More simply stated, visualization is mentally rehearsing a performance unfolding as desired. This may include mentally recreating sounds, sights, smells, taste, touch and movements. Visualization is one of many tools suggested by sport psychologists and used by athletes prior to big events and races to reach their goals and achieve success. Athletes will commonly use visualization to fine tune their process for an upcoming event. Less commonly, but no less important, it is a tool that can be used in daily training to reach smaller goals and attain a desired outcome. The benefits of visualization have proven to be vast, a few of which are: sharpened focus, improved confidence, ability to work through adverse events/scenarios, work through nerves, anxiety or negative emotions prior to race day, and increased performance under pressure.

Allysa Seely looking into the distance

How to Use Visualization

1. Visualize the desired outcome. During visualization, from a first-person perspective, walk through an event as you desire it to happen.

2. Be specific. Use all your senses. Imagine what you would hear, see, smell, taste and feel in your body. 

3. Move your body. Add in physical movements that coincide with the visual image you are creating.

4. Stop all negative visualization. Rewind and replay that moment as many times as needed until you can visualize a positive perspective and outcome.

5. Process nerves. Take time to feel the nervousness or anxiety before your event and use visualization to help yourself get used to the nerves and work through them. 

6. Get excited. Allow excitement to build as you realize the possibility of reaching your goal.

7. Practice frequently. Visualization may be a challenge at first, as many new things are, but with practice it will get easier and more beneficial. 

If you have practiced and practiced and still seem unable to visualize, start with visualizing simple objects. Can you visualize an apple, a sheep, your bicycle? If you can, visualization is possible; keep working at it and you will be able to visualize more and more. 

As an elite athlete, I have had the opportunity to attend numerous presentations on visualization. At each one, I walked away a little more puzzled than the previous. No matter how hard I tried, I could not visualize my race. I understood the concepts, the benefits, goals, and intentions, but I still couldn’t visualize. I thought about being told to count sheep to fall asleep as a child. I had always thought that was weird. Could others see sheep? I couldn’t. I asked during the presentation I was attending, “What if you cannot visualize even simple things like an apple or a sheep? How do you visualize such a complex event?” I was told, “Everyone can visualize. You just need practice.” So I practiced and practiced and I still couldn’t visualize. It was many years later I learned of the phenomenon known as aphantasia.

Allysa Seely riding away from the camera down a road

Visualization in sport when you can’t visualize

If you have had a similar experience to me and you can’t close your eyes and visualize an apple, a sheep, your bike… or now that you think about it, you can’t visualize anything? It might be a phenomenon known as aphantasia. 

Aphantasia is the inability to voluntarily create mental images in one’s mind. Aphantasia, also known as mind blindness, affects approximately 4 percent of people, yet very little research exists on the topic. Even less on athletes with aphantasia. According to my searches, no research exists on how aphantasia affects the benefits of sport visualization. 

I still wanted the benefits visualization offered, but without being able to visualize I had to come up with an alternative. What has worked for me is verbally walking through an event in my head. I may not be able to picture myself swimming, biking and running, but I can speak to each movement my body will make. As an example a verbal visualization goes something like this in my head, “I finish the swim. Put on my run leg and run to my transition space. I swap my leg. I slide my sunnies on, put on and buckle my helmet. I unrack my bike and run to the mount line where I mount my Avow and begin to ride. After 45 pedal strokes, I reach down and put my shoe on. I pedal hard for 3 minutes to get my power up before the first technical section. The best line is free and I take it aggressively.”  

Making these work-arounds gave me the benefits of visualization: building experience and confidence in my ability to perform under pressure.