There is a lot to be said about visualisation, it's a big part of what I practice within the The Conscious Sale. Visualisation as part of Intention setting, an aspect of Conscious Performance essentially becomes the direction for the engine driving our subconscious mind. The picture we create in our mind, rich with colour and texture provides direction for our actions and energies. The stronger the image rendered the more tangible the path becomes to realise the outcome. In today's article some of the the worlds sporting heroes and one of the most fearless daredevils reflect the need of this imaginative and creatively powerful practice to bring about extraordinary performance. I hope you find it inspiring.
It’s nearly five years since Felix Baumgartner gazed down from the world’s highest ever balloon trip, 24 miles up, and contemplated whether to hurl himself into the void. A simple choice for most, but the world watching live in terrified anticipation didn’t know ‘Fearless Felix’ had a big secret: this was not the first time he had enjoyed this particular view. The Austrian skydiver had been in this exact spot before – often, in fact – and only he knew.
“I did this jump a thousand times in my mind,” Baumgartner tells me. “I think about how it will feel, what it will look like. I’m really good at pre-programming my mind and I always do this. When I stood on that exterior step it felt like I expected.
"When I finally jump for real, 99 percent of the time it works exactly as I’d visualised. The more you can turn thoughts into reality, the better you are.”
It may sound like daydreaming, but such ‘visualisation’ has quite an effect: it’s about taking control of the future and tailoring it to our liking. By continually dreaming of his freefall from the edge of space, Baumgartner created a momentum in his mind that made success all but inevitable. He duly became the first human to break the sound barrier under his own steam.
Mercifully, during seven years of tracking down the greats of world sport for my new book, In The Zone, I found out we don’t need to flirt with mortal danger to discover the untapped power of our minds to work such magic.
The world’s most decorated Olympian Michael Phelps amassed 28 swimming medals, 23 of them gold. The American has the perfect physique for swimming – a long trunk and wide arm span – but it’s in his head that he shines brightest. From an early age he was taught to write down his goals, specifying target times to hundredths of a second. He soon found himself hitting them precisely. Moreover, Phelps always dreamt big.
“I started visualising when I was 14,” says Phelps. “It was about thinking how a race could go so you’re ready for anything – and it helped throughout my career. It’s crazy to look back because it feels I’ve been living a dream come true. This is everything I dreamt of as a kid. It’s like: ‘This is real?’ And it’s wild. I wanted to take the sport of swimming to a new level – and I have.”
The ‘face’ of London 2012 Jessica Ennis-Hill used the same technique. She was often twitchy ahead of big competitions but as she began her Olympic heptathlon – before a capacity crowd of 80,000 and an expectant nation – she felt a strange calm, thanks to picturing everything in intricate detail long before she set foot in the stadium.
“It takes a lot of mental rehearsal to get yourself into that state,” she smiles. “I never visualised winning; I didn’t let myself think too far ahead. I have to stay focused on each event so I always break it down and picture the perfect race, the perfect jump and let it build that way.”
The formal use of visualisation in sport dates back half a century, starting in Eastern Bloc nations during the Cold War. Once its effects became apparent, the practice spread. But even these apparent pioneers were late to the party.
“Visualising successful outcomes is nothing new,” insists sports mind coach Don MacPherson. “In fact there is evidence of our cavemen ancestors using it to bring on a successful hunt for food. Paintings of speared wildebeest were placed near exits to be the last thing they saw before venturing outside the safety of their cave. We don’t find pictures of cavemen being eaten because it is always better to visualise what you want to happen, not what you don’t.
“Your imagination is your brain’s Sat Nav and it can drive you to your dreams and goals. What you can ‘see’ you can ‘be’. A golfer should visualise the ball bouncing down the middle of the fairway, rather than a mental picture of the water hazard. Jack Nicklaus would never hit the ball until he had enjoyed what he called his ‘Hollywood movies’. Visualisation lets you be the producer, director and the hero of your movie.”
The simulators to train pilots are based on the same principles – hence why Formula 1 teams now invest in picture-perfect recreations of the world’s tracks. But visualisation requires no equipment other than what we all have between our ears. Indeed Sebastian Vettel, who leads the 2017 F1 world championship as he chases his fifth title, shuts his eyes in the garage to watch his own movie trailers before each fast lap.
“Qualifying is very raw so you spend time going through the lap,” says Vettel. “What are the key points? Where do you have to improve compared to the run before? Once you start the lap there is no time to think so you clear your mind and you have to be in the moment. You focus corner by corner – and ideally let it flow.”
The best news? You don’t have to be an international sporting superstar to turn your ideal imaginary future into a real present. Try it; they may say you’re a dreamer, but you’re not the only one…
“The great achievers, winners, inventors, musicians and painters have all been great dreamers,” adds MacPherson. “What’s exciting is anyone can visualise. We can use it in everyday challenges like school exams. If you have to make a best man’s speech, first picture your audience using all your senses: sight, hearing, smell, touch. See yourself feeling relaxed and confident. Hear the audience laughing and clapping, then coming up to congratulate you.
“These mind movies turbo-charge your confidence because the subconscious doesn’t know the difference between the real thing and something imaginary. Like all skills, the more you practise the better you get. But your brain loves a target so give it a big one. Then visualise how you’re going to get there, step by step.”