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Visualisation and Mental Performance - Charlie Unwin - Performance Psychology - Episode 14

How can visualisation improve athletic performance?

Watch the video below to find out 👇


If you would prefer to read a text version of Charlie's latest vlog - check out the video transcript below

Amy Williams:

Hello, and welcome to another U Perform episode. And we have Charlie, our mental performance expert for U Perform. Now, we've been going through coping with stress and anxiety in sports performance, and you've had several layers of this. So we've had breathing a few episodes ago, then we had relaxation and today we're focusing on visualisation. Now I'm quite into this because I've spent a lot of my years shutting my eyes, visualising everything around me, but I'm keen to know how you go about this and what you advise us to do.

Charlie Unwin:

And you had no choice, right? Because how many times can you go down one of those horrific ice runs in one day, twice maybe. So, I worked it out once, that was one minute 56 of training, pretty much every day. If we were to take the 10,000 hour rule, Erickson's 10,000 hour rules; that it takes 10,000 hours to become world-class in any given skill. I think that's certainly well over 400 years of training, it's just not realistic. Is it? So what choice do you have then to learn in your mind?

And really that's all visualisation is. It's a fascinating topic. I mean, it's one of those topics I could talk for a long time about. I'm going to keep it related to what our theme is around developing performance under pressure, under stress, but visualisation has ramifications for how we accelerate our learning, how we build confidence, how we improve our skills and techniques. There is so much the visualisation can to do, and it's an underused skill for so many people and in life as well. I think if we all just got up in the morning and we were able to visualise exactly what it was we were trying to do, we would be much better prepared for life. So it's a big topic.

Amy Williams:

Yeah. I have to say, when I go and do talks in schools, I always tell the children, average age five, six, seven, about visualisation in my sport, and I get them all to shut their eyes and just visualise there bedroom at home. And can they do that? Can they walk through the door, see where that bed is, where the toys are and all of that. And actually a really simple way of getting children to visualise which clearly is a little bit different than us in a very high performance space.

Charlie Unwin:

They probably do it better, I mean, the kids that is.

Amy Williams:

So what are we going to do today? What can we get people at home and I guess a little bit more layer of diving into the importance of it?

Charlie Unwin:

Yeah, let's keep it related to the theme that we've been talking about; around performance anxiety, managing the nerves and stress. So today we'll talk about visualisation with the goal of being able to manage your emotions and control ourselves under that additional kind of physical and mental pressure or stress.

Now, the reason that visualisation becomes a really important tool is because for the brain, thinking is the same as doing. When we imagine doing something, we use exactly the same neural pathways as if we are there doing it. Now, I think that's pretty cool. I think that's very special and that's why I don't think we use this enough. The more accurately we can imagine what it is that we're going to do. And it could be as simple as a complex move that you're learning in the gym, you know, or something difficult that your instructor has given you.

The more accurately we can visualise what we want that to feel like done well done in a relaxed, confident fashion, done smoothly. The more we are accessing the precise neural pathways that equate to that very movements. More than that, once we've used it to be able to control the quality of what we're doing, we can then put ourselves in any environment; at an Olympic Games, at a national finals, at your local 5km run at the weekend. And you start to feel a bit nervous. And then see ourselves executing those skills whilst at the same time feeling that slight sense of nerves and pressure that we get, such that we can maintain control of what we're doing despite that stress.

Amy Williams:

Sounds good. I mean, to be fair. I think the only two times I've really visualised since my Olympic races was walking down the aisle at my wedding and I used it because I was so nervous about it, knowing that everyone was going to be watching, I had to visualise it at the back of the church, walking down, everyone's faces looking. And, and then the visualisation that you do when you're in labour giving birth and that preparation. And what's it going to be like and trying to feel and sense. And I have to say, I don't think I've come anywhere close to those two major bits of right, visualisation really needs to work for me here.

Charlie Unwin:

Well, I can't speak for the labour. My wife's gone through the same experience herself and I kind of watched with a strange fascination as it all unfurled. The only analogy I can think of is Mike Tyson's saying, which is: "everyone has a plan until they get punched in the face." But do you know what that doesn't mean to say that we don't prepare for what we want to do because what we don't always appreciate from that saying is that by having a plan, we're able to adapt and we're able to stay in control. So yeah, we might not know what's going to happen, but it doesn't mean to say we can't stay in control. We can't make good decisions. We can't stay relaxed. So visualisation puts us into the very environments in which we need to practice these quite specific skills that we spend all our life practicing.

So, yeah if it's okay we'll talk about that. And specifically what that looks like. So I've got a few rules, I suppose, is the best way of putting them. You can tick these off the list and see how many of these you actually did when you were visualising as well.

I know certainly, I loved working with skeleton because you're absolutely right. Of course it's essential. Of course it's important. And you're going through what 14 corners is it something like that.

Amy Williams:

14 to 18 corners.

Charlie Unwin:

Yeah. And if, say, for example, you are to make a mistake on corner number two, and it threw you off, and then you lost your train of thought and then you had nothing to come back to or focus on. You've lost effectively half a day's trading, you know, you look back up and you think, Oh, what happened there?

And you have no idea and you can take nothing away from that. So visualisation gives us that capacity to internalize our performance. I call it a blueprint, what we're trying to create for our self. That nice notion of a blueprint. If you think about building a house, which is where the term blueprint comes from, we draw a picture of exactly what it is that we want to build.

If we do that, we're not going to make any massive mistakes because by and large, we know what dimensions, what materials you've got to build. Is that house that you build perfect? No, it has little errors and little flaws, but you can bet your bottom dollar that if you didn't have a blueprint, it would probably have some major flaws to it. So for me, that's why I like to call it a blueprint.

So a few rules. Firstly, I think when you're visualising, always imagine being yourself there in that environment. So looking at what you're looking at through your mind's eye, whether it's in the gym, whether it's on the start line, whether it's in the warmup arena, whatever that might be.

Amy Williams:

So if we don't use this skill of visualisation, what impact have you noticed, or do you think an athlete might notice themselves by not using it?

Charlie Unwin:

Well, the first thing to that is that we all visualise whether we realise it or not. You know, if I drop my pen on the floor, as I'm about to go and pick it up, I am accessing the neural pathways that equate to the movement I need to make in order to pick it up. So I'm preempting the movement before doing it. So in a way that is a form of visualiation. So, what I try and do is encourage everyone to recognise how they're always visualising, we just need to do it better, be more mindful, do it more consciously, like everything, part of our performance. So that's the first thing.

The other thing I'd say is it really shows up in lots of ways really. One example I always think of is in pacing. So maybe you're a swimmer, maybe you're a runner, cyclist. And you know, you've got this kind of natural nerves that we've been talking about and you're on the start line and you're ready to go on your marks set, bang and everyone's heart rate in the room has just gone up just by those very words. Now, of course, what we know is happening is energy is filtering through the system and the mind and in the muscles. So what do we do? Bang. We go out of the blocks and we end up going way too fast. So people find it really difficult. It's really challenging to pace yourself when every training session has started from this sort of calm, relaxed, coherent place. And then suddenly you're in competition where you feel like I can sprint this race from beginning to end. I can sprint this marathon and you can't. So, it allows us to sort of control the very feelings, emotions, that allow us to perform consistently.

Some of the most amazing research in visualisation came from swimming, where they found that of, I think, 40 different variables that they studied and these elite swimmers as to who would make it from national level to Olympic level. And they wanted to see what were the biggest predictors of who would take that step from national to Olympic level. And the thing that came out at the top of the list was their capacity to internally recreate their best ever swim. So it might be, say a 200 meter swim and the way that they measured it was that they had a stopwatch and in their head, they had to go on your marks, get set bang. And they literally had the starter doing that, started the stopwatch and in their heads they dived off the block, into the pool, fly quick up, into their stroke turning. And when they got to the end of that 200 meter race, they put their hand up and they stop the stopwatch.

Olympic level swimmers were able to get within a few tenths of a second, every single time of their PB, whereas national level swimmers might've been a few seconds out. Still very good by the way, I think this really nicely highlights what visualisation is about because already we can say, yeah, that kind of makes sense that the athletes who can accurately internalise their best performance are clearly to be the ones who can more consistently recreate it for real. It kind of makes sense. Right?

Amy Williams:

Well, you know what I used to do exactly the same thing though. I used to lie on my sled. We'd keep them in our hotel bedrooms. Because it was at that point in time, there was no special workshops. And I would lie on the sled. I would sometimes have a video running of a certain track. I would shut my eyes. The video would be running in real time. And I would see when I thought had gone through all those corners; finished open my eyes is that video at the bottom.

So I would already do exactly the same, no sound, no nothing. It was just because you know, I didn't have a stop watch. It was just me in a hotel room. Can I get down to the bottom of the track in exactly the same time as I thought, and I would practice that over and over because sometimes you'd realise that the top of the track, you know, this sled was still gaining the speed and when you rush in those corners, so when I've worked with different athletes, I try and get them to do the same, just lie down on the floor now exactly that, visualise yourself going through those patterns. And then look at the time, did you get down in roughly 55 seconds or 60 seconds, 62 seconds of what you would normally?

Charlie Unwin:

And how easy or difficult do they find it to do that?

Amy Williams:

It's really difficult. Normally they will go way quicker. Way quicker than they would think.

Charlie Unwin:

Yes, exactly. Yeah. Well that is probably one of our first rules then of visualisation, which is we will always imagine it quicker than it really is. Our mind naturally wants to rush through a race, rush through a process. The problem with that is that we start to learn it and internalise it way too quickly, which means that when we're there, ironically, we make mistakes because our mind jumps ahead. So we struggled to stay present e where we are in this moment. We're not living it as we had intended or imagined. So slowing everything down, which is ironic when you talk to someone whose sports is about speed, but actually being able to slow it down and do it at the right level.

And especially when you compare your first corner, I imagine to your 12th corner, you're going to be going at very different speeds. And it's really important that we're able to live and breathe and feel those speeds as accurately as possible and feel the very techniques that we're adopting with the right timing. So perfect. Yeah. First rule is slow it down.

Another rule is, and I think you've said this in your story as well. You've implied it. Is see it through your mind's eye, be there doing it on your sled, feel the sled underneath you feel all the consoles of it, spend time doing that. If you need to, make it as realistic as possible. And more that, put yourself in that environment where you've got the sounds. What can you hear? What's going on? What can you smell almost? Because every competition environment has a sort of different, you know, feelings, smell to it. What can you see? What do you notice? What are your cues? So being able to really spend time immersing yourself.

Amy Williams:

That's probably what I think people would forget is that you visually see it, but the hearing. So if you're a cyclist, you can see that bike underneath you with your handlebars, hearing that noise of your bike and everyone else's wheels, you know, shifting around gears or whatever it might be, that tarmac, that's the kind of side of it that I would forget to do. And the smell like you said that smell and all of that environment around you rather than actually visualising in silence most of the time.

Charlie Unwin:

Exactly, the word visualisation probably doesn't do it justice because we are internalising every sense and it's an immersive experience, right? Isn't it. Now that's where training stress comes into it. Because, if I got you, probably wouldn't work as much now as it would have done, you know, a number of years ago. But if I got you to really imagine that competition environment, to imagine the warmup, your competitors, the sounds, the loud speaker, the cameras, see the sites that you do, you know, smell the ice and that environment. I'd be amazed if your heart rate didn't start going up. And as we found in the previous episode with that, there's a danger that you could get tension in the muscles. Now at that point, everyone always says, well, hang on a sec, why am I trying to do this? All that stuff sounds bad to me. You know, I meant to be staying perfectly Zen and relaxed.

Well, the reality of it is you are going to be there in that competitive situation. So you can either bring it to my now in as an immersive fashion as possible, or you can wait until you get there. And trust me, if you wait until you get there, it's going to overwhelm you. And even if you can cope with all this extra stimulus, you're probably not going to be as tuned in to the various specifics of what you're trying to do. So you're right. This immersive experience is so important and we should invite the stress. We should invite the heightened heart rate because if you've watched the last two episodes, we know exactly then what to do. So we're now in our environment, we're there and we're living and breathing it. And before actually visualising the skills and techniques.

So maybe so you could be a triathlete, right? And maybe you're in the transition area. And the interesting thing about the transition area is that your heart rate is naturally going to be high anyway, because you've already done physical activity already. So you're going to be in this physically stressed state. You're going to kind of mentally be wanting to sort of get through this transition as quickly as possible. You're going to be aware of all the other athletes coming in around you. You're going to be aware of the crowds probably where they congregate, because it's an interesting place to watch, the transition area. So you've got all of these extra things that you just don't get in training. So what I would say is that as your first step for practicing relaxation, just immerse yourself in that environment start to be there in the middle of it and start to enjoy it.

Notice what impact that has on your physiology. Notice your heart rate going up and start to see that as an exciting environment. Once you've done that, it sounds weird, isn't it? That we're kind of making someone, we're putting someone into a stressful place in order to practice lowering our heart rate, breathing, relaxing, but that's exactly what we've got to do. That's how we train our psychophysiology. Now you're ready to start visualising the specific skills and routines that you will need to get through that. And again, as we've mentioned, don't rush through that transition, do it methodically, do it step by step, if anything, do it slower at first. And so you've got the quality of every movement and the sequence right. And when you're really happy with that, you can start to build the pace a little bit up, you know, through the layers.

Amy Williams:

Okay. So is that all our rules? How many is that? Do we have any more?

Charlie Unwin:

There are other rules which I incorporate for different goals of visualisation. But you know what, I think those are probably the most important ones for training our psychophysiology in stressful places. And probably more than enough for people to be getting on with.

Amy Williams:

Well, and I think it makes sense. I think it's very hard. And what might be people's questions is if you've never been to, I don't know, never done the London marathon, never stepped foot at a world championships and Olympic games. It's very hard to recreate all this visualisation. Imagine it, or when you've never lived it before. And how can you really imagine and sense and have that feeling when it's something very unknown? And like you say, you are only imagining that you are, you actually haven't done it for real. Would you advise people to then even watch things on TV or watch their sports, or maybe you're a hockey player, should they then go and watch a Olympic finals in hockey to feel and see and sense those things?

Charlie Unwin:

Totally. You're spot on. Athletes kind of enjoy doing that anyway, I was working with a biathlete the other day who is hoping to get to get to the next Winter Olympics. And it's really interesting because sadly through the global pandemic athletes haven't been able to compete and some of them feel like they've lost their sort of competition, their sort of competition edge. Yeah, and so I'm using visualisation more than ever before with athletes, even experienced athletes who have been to the Olympics before, because they are missing all these experiences. And training has become quite a sterile process for them rather than that really real kind of lived experience of competition, that rawness of competition.

So yeah, you're spot on. And really going through previous videos is a great idea whether that's watching themselves or watching other people, anything that kind of gets the blood up and then use that to then put in place the skills, the techniques that they've been developing and training, applying them to that competition environment.

And you know, what is a measure of that? I've seen a real sort of almost contrast, dichotomy between athletes who get injured when they come back, they either really struggle or they're on fire and they're performing the best that they've ever performed. And very often when you dig beneath the surface of that, the athletes who are struggling, they're the ones who've almost been kind of, I think, fighting the injury that their focus has been on the injury and on getting away from a bad place.

For the ones who really thrive and come back and they perform better than they've ever performed before. They're the ones who've always been thinking forward towards getting back into competition, getting back into that environment, almost desperate for it. And in doing so kind of imagining the work that they need to do in the gym, imagine all the stuff that they can't do, but that they can visualise and recreate in their head. So I think that's a very powerful measure of how we can use it.

Amy Williams:

Wow. That is a good amount of homework that we can now be getting away with, very concise information for everyone. Is there anywhere else that we can be taking this or you can take us in the future?

Charlie Unwin:

Yeah, I think, I mean, visualization, I love the topic so much and there are so many different spinoffs from this, not least things like accelerated learning, our capacity. Some of us, you know, we were most people watching, probably aren't full-time athletes. They have to work a full day and the amount of time they get for training becomes so condensed. Well visualisation our capacity for good visualisation skills allows us to eek as much quality out of everything that we do as possible. So, I mean, wouldn't it be great if we get one of our subscribers down and work through this with one of you, maybe use you as a bit of a case study if you're up for that. Um, so yeah, I think there's bags of potential with this.

Amy Williams:

Thank you. Well, thank you to Charlie. It's been a really interesting episode, please tune in and subscribe to listen to some more really interesting episodes with Charlie. We will see you then.

Tune in next week for Episode 15

See you then!

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