Don't Visualize With Anxious Athletes

When I bring up the topic of mental skills with swim coaches, I hear one word more than any other: visualization. It sends chills down my spine. While visualization (a sort of mental dress rehearsal for actual competition) has value in certain situations, it can actually do more harm than good, especially when dealing with athletes that are anxious in competitive situations.

Visualization as a technique has existed for a long time, long enough that I remember doing it in the mid 90s as an age group swimmer. For a long time in my career, I dismissed it. When I did give it a try, it was my most anxious swimmer that convinced me that it was the wrong solution.

You see, if someone is anxious about an upcoming event, asking them to imagine themselves in that event is far from helpful. Anxiety plays tricks on your mind, and intrudes on your rationalizing of what will come in the future with horrible, unlikely outcomes.

If you don't address the underlying anxiety an athlete is facing, asking them to visualize is like forcing them to have a nightmare. The visualization will then have the opposite effect you intended as a coach, as it will make the "unlikely" poor outcome more likely, and only reinforce their paranoia.

I'm convinced that one reason visualization is so popular is that it is a "one off" type of exercise, something coaches can pull out at random interval and declare that they did what they could to mentally prepare athletes.

That is not to say that visualization is totally useless. For athletes that are especially visually oriented, (think artists or designers), it can be very effective in augmenting their performance. Just be careful that those athletes aren't also fearful in race situations, as the negative effect will be even greater.

To address the underlying anxiety athletes are feeling about competition, the solution is much more about a long, sustained effort, just like teaching any other technique. As I have discussed in a previous post, there are concrete steps you can take as a coach to address this situation. 

There are a lot better ways to improve the mental skills of your athletes than visualization, with many research backed techniques out there that can make a huge difference. Want to add them to your team or personal practice? Write me for a free consultation.