See It Happen to Make It Happen

Coaching

Visualizing yourself crossing the finish line or acing that job interview might just be the it factor you need for all kinds of progress.

Last updated: June 30, 2022
6 min read
  • Visualization can get you more excited and confident about chasing your goals, plus help you actually achieve them.
  • Imagine as many details as possible, like what shoes you’re wearing and how you might be feeling, to make your visual as realistic and attainable as possible.
  • Bring your fitness visions to reality with a workout program in NTC or a race-training plan in NRC.

Read on to learn more…

See It Happen to Make It Happen

Did you know that your brain lights up similarly whether you score the winning goal or merely imagine yourself kicking the ball in the net? Research actually demonstrates it. That’s why visualization is a go-to motivator and performance enhancer among the world’s greatest athletes, entrepreneurs, and the mentors and coaches who guide them.

Visualization means creating distinct, vivid scenes in your head. It can be used for relaxation — or to pump up and prep yourself to achieve an outcome. “When you develop an image in the brain, several areas become activated,” explains Sheri Dewan, MD, a neurosurgeon at the Northwestern Medicine Central DuPage Hospital. First and foremost: your frontal lobe, which is responsible for learning, planning, and executing those plans. You also engage your occipital lobe, which helps you really see what you’re thinking up.

And then seeing the image on repeat essentially dulls your amygdala response (your amygdala is the fight-or-flight center of the brain), which can lower anxiety and fear around the activity. Visual repetition also reinforces the motor pathway between your brain and your muscles as if you were actually doing it in real time, adds Angie Fifer, PhD, a certified mental-performance consultant in Pittsburgh and an executive board member for the Association for Applied Sport Psychology. All of these mechanisms work together to boost your ability to perform your best, says Dr. Dewan.

That could explain why visualization can be so effective and has captured the attention of researchers for so long. According to certified mental-performance consultant Alan Chu, PhD, an assistant professor and the chair of sport, exercise and performance psychology at the University of Wisconsin–Green Bay, one of the first visualization studies was done in 1960. It split a high school basketball team into two groups: one focused just on physical practice, and the other worked exclusively on visualizing specific motor skills. After 14 days, the group that used visualization was found to be nearly as adept at those skills as the players who concentrated solely on physical training were.

Since then, there have been a slew of studies on the topic. One study in the Journal of Neurophysiology found that when people in wrist casts imagined themselves flexing their wrists, they lost 50 percent less strength than their non-visualizing counterparts did after being immobilized for four weeks. Another revealed that folks who wanted to up their fruit intake and envisioned each step of the process (when, where and how they would buy, prepare and eat fruit) doubled their consumption. And a pilot study published in the Journal of Imagery Research in Sport and Physical Activity found that gymnasts who engaged in imagery techniques boosted their self-confidence. The list goes on.

See It Happen to Make It Happen

How to Visualize Like a Boss

All that said, visualization isn’t as simple as closing your eyes (if only). Experts say there are best practices for making your mental work…work. Here’s your guide:

1. Wake and create.

Right after waking up, do a five-minute “process visualization”: Envision all the behaviors needed to achieve your goal, then write them down. Let’s say you want to resolve a weeks-long conflict with a family member. See yourself texting to schedule a call, meditating or exercising to center yourself before the call, calmly talking through what you want to say, and buying a card to send them. Then follow through and do exactly what you envisioned.

This builds confidence, and if practiced consistently, tells your brain that you deserve success because you’re behaving according to your plan, says Michael Ceely, a licensed psychotherapist and mental-performance coach in Berkeley, California. And doing the technique first thing in the morning ensures that your mind has time to register your visual plan before you act it out in real life, says Ceely.

It’s also a handy step to land before you advance to more challenging visualizations — say, running a marathon . “Learn to rewind your images and start over slowly” if they don’t resonate with you, says Fifer. “Eventually, with practice, you will gain more control and ability to manipulate the images to exactly what you want to experience.”

2. Mine the details.

According to Chu, when you imagine every detail, scenario and emotion involved in achieving your goal, you’re actually practicing how to succeed with concrete actions rather than just casually thinking about achieving it. To do this well, consider as many of your five senses as possible and how they’d apply to your goal, says Anna Hennings, a mental-performance consultant in Austin.

If that’s summiting a mountain, visualize the feel of your shoes gripping the trail, the scent of the outdoors, the sight of the valley beneath you, the sound of the wind, and the taste of the lunch you’ll eat at the top. If your goal is to sport that first marathon medal, picture the outfit you’d wear running, the breakfast you’d eat beforehand, the music you’d listen to, etc. By leaving nothing — OK, everything — to the imagination, your image can feel more real and achievable, says Chu, and thus more appealing to get after IRL.

3. Recall a peak performance.

Replaying a successful event can help you identify your strengths and the steps you took to make things happen so you’re better equipped to repeat them, says Hennings. It can also help you tap into the energy and confidence from a previous win, which is particularly useful if you’re facing self-doubt or lack of motivation.

Don’t have a trophy moment that feels similar to your current goal? Think back to a time when you felt completely calm, immensely excited or incredibly strong, says Hennings, then use that moment “to influence and drive your emotions and physiology in the present.” For example, if you want to ace a virtual presentation but you’ve never done a live one in front of a big crowd, rewind to a time when you managed to cool your nerves on the spot, like a first date. Or you could borrow from someone else’s past performance, says Hennings. Closely observe someone else doing the task successfully, pinpoint what worked, then visualize yourself improving your craft based on what you learned.

4. Picture the opposite of what you want.

If you ever lose motivation for something you’re chasing, try a trick called negative visualization. “Imagine what life would be like in the counterfactual, where you don’t get to do that,” says Laurie Santos, PhD, a psychology professor and the head of Silliman College at Yale University. See yourself suffering an injury that makes backpacking impossible, or losing your memory and no longer being able to write your novel. “Just that little mindset shift causes you to have so much appreciation,” says Santos, and thus new motivation.

Words: Rozalynn Frazier
Illustration: Davide Bonazzi

CHECK IT OUT

Visualizing yourself getting stronger or running farther? Turn your vision
into reality with a workout program in the Nike Training Club app or a
training plan in the Nike Run Club app.

Related Stories

It’s Safe to Exercise While Breastfeeding — Just Follow These Tips From Experts

This Is Nike (M)

How to Be a Breastfeeding, Exercising Powerhouse

Working Out After Having a Baby? Here’s What Experts Want You to Know

This Is Nike (M)

A Refreshing New Way to Think About Your Postpartum Goals

What to Do If You Can’t Feel Your Pelvic Floor Muscles Postpartum, According to Experts

This Is Nike (M)

Your Pelvic Floor Is Still There — Here’s How to Find It

Back Pain During Pregnancy? You Might Want to Fix Your Posture

This Is Nike (M)

What to Do About Your Not-So-Great Pregnancy Posture

How to Manage Pregnancy Aches and Pains With Movement, According to Experts

This Is Nike (M)

How to Deal When Pregnancy Aches Slow You Down