Visualization Without the Fluff

May 2, 2004
Outside Magazine
Outside magazine, September 1996

Visualization Without the Fluff

Beyond sports psychology's oblique tenets lie very real training techniques.
By Mark Jannot

Nate Zinsser works out of two sterile, white rooms at the U.S. Military Academy at West Point. The only adornment in the space is an upright, slate-gray, egg-shaped contraption called the Alpha Chair. Zinsser is the sports psychologist the academy chose to lead its mental training center four years ago, and the Alpha Chair is his therapist's couch. Today, I'm to be his subject.

Climbing in through the egg's front opening, I lift my feet to the footrest. The chair's plush padding and podlike shape have a crucial function: to shut out almost all exterior noise. As I close my eyes, Zinsser clamps a heart rate monitor to my left index finger. He fiddles with the controls. Seemingly from within my own head, a wave of lilting string music carries me away. The deep, mellow tones of a pillow-talk voice ride the waves with me: "Focus totally on your breathing. Block out all distractions, keeping your focus on your breathing. Take a deep breath and very slowly exhale. Let all the air out. All the way."

And with these soothing words I enter the world of applied sports psychology. It's a realm usually filled with pat aphorisms and oblique concepts--"Be the rock," a climber might be told--but little concrete training advice. True, athletes and coaches have long accepted that mental training-- and especially "visualization," the process of imagining yourself performing well--can be almost as useful as heart-rate monitoring; study after study has suggested that lounging around and "thinking" about an athletic activity can actually train neuromuscular pathways, allowing you to perform the skill better. Unfortunately, since mental processes are tougher to regiment than, say, speed work is, few programs have offered any kind of solid routine for putting mental muscles through their paces.

Which is where Zinsser comes in. Operating within the strictures of no-nonsense West Point, he and his staff of three experts at the Center for Enhanced Performance have worked with hundreds of athletes, distilling sports psychologists' vague concepts and bringing formalized mental-training techniques to the cadets as well as to the civilian masses in his private practice.

"People say, 'To do anything well at a competitive level is 50 percent in your mind,'" says Zinsser, who's been intent on making mental training three dimensional since his days as a psychology undergrad in 1975, when he established the south face route on the Moose's Tooth in the Alaska Range. "Yet if you ask how many hours a week they spend systematically working on these mental factors, they all say, 'I don't spend any time on that stuff.'" Such laxness is certainly understandable, he admits, given that the discipline is not as straightforward as rapping out several sets of bench presses. But the results of a rigorous mental regimen can be very real.

Believing Is Achieving
Zinsser tells of a study in which college swimmers were duped into thinking they had smashed their personal records. The next time on the blocks, most of them actually swam the new time. "There are a lot of people who have the physical capacity, but they don't believe in themselves, and that's why they fall short," Zinsser says. "Of course, you're not going to try to convince the guy he can do it if he doesn't have the physical capacity."

For those who do, Zinsser's mental workout is built around one central tenet: knowing when--and how--to shut down your conscious mind. "Most athletes tend to be overly analytical and self-critical," says Zinsser, "focusing only on their weaknesses and failures."

Yet, according to Zinsser, that's precisely the wrong mindset to have if you want to produce top-level performance. "Take rock climbing," he says. "When you think your way through a climb or try to work it out logically, you get so involved in doing it right that you're uptight, you lose your confidence, and your perception isn't necessarily accurate. But if you just stop thinking, trust your fingers, trust your eyes, trust your balance, you can climb the pitch."

That's not to say Zinsser advises giving yourself the powder-puff treatment every day, but in at least one workout each week, try to shut off your mind and lose yourself in the exercise. "Take a certain drill or a certain part of practice," he says, "and deliberately decide to let go of judgment, let go of criticism. Say, 'Here I'm going to play, to just have fun for a while.' " That might seem like a prescription for pleasure, but Zinsser says not. "The average athlete, competitive or recreational, will find this to be extremely challenging--guaranteed. The percentage of us who can play a round of golf or a set of volleyball and not criticize ourselves is minimal. If you stop critiquing yourself and just imagine you're performing well," he continues, slipping into airy mental-trainingspeak, "you can script a joyful kind of exercise experience."

But he quickly returns to firmer ground. The heart of Zinsser's mental-training regimen, in fact, is quite concrete, involving not just paths of consciousness but also home electronics. The goal, "controlled visualization," may sound nebulous, but it comes with a full set of instructions.

Do-It-Yourself Visualization
The key to successful visualization, he says, lies in conjuring up images as strong as your most vivid dreams. If you're a volleyball player, you should not only imagine the ball coming over the net in your mind's eye; you should also hear the pock as it leaves your opponent's fist, sense the warmth of the sun on your skin, and feel the thwack as you shoot the ball back past the other team's flailing hands. "You have to establish a comfort zone," Zinsser says, "where you can actually see and feel yourself achieving what you want."

But first, you have to prepare. To become your own best visualization coach, Zinsser says, begin by taping an audio narrative for yourself that recreates, in as much sensual detail as possible, the sensation of performing your sport. Take careful notes the next time you practice--about how you lace up your cleats or pull on your swimsuit--and work those into the script. Then narrate the tape entirely in the first person, present tense. "You want to make it as immediate as possible,'' Zinsser says. "And choose crucial moments of the game or race: the beginning, where you establish the pace; the first touch of the ball; the finish; that kind of thing."

Add music. "I'd suggest something gentle in the first section to bridge into relaxation," Zinsser says. For the rest of the tape, he recommends finding music to match the emotional tone you want while performing. His personal favorite? "The soundtrack to Schwarzenegger's first Conan movie is this heavy orchestration piece, deep drums. It's very triumphant, and a lot of our guys love it."

Finally, to start your personal visualization workout, sit somewhere comfortable, with your back and neck well supported. (If you lie down, you'll fall asleep.) Don't worry if you initially feel ridiculous, Zinsser says; getting over such self-consciousness is part of the process. Then, before you turn on the Walkman, spend five minutes on relaxation exercises: Breathe deeply from your abdomen, concentrating on each breath while also consciously relaxing every part of your body. Then hit "play." Ideally, Zinsser says, you should practice this visualization technique for 20 minutes every evening. Consider it easy-chair aerobics. "Visualization is a skill that responds extremely well to practice and that atrophies with disuse," he concludes.

Meanwhile, back at his West Point offices, the Alpha Chair has begun to lull me into a fully relaxed, almost dreamlike state. In the process, it's trying to make me a better soccer player. A soothing voice tells me, "I walk out to practice feeling refreshed. There's a slight breeze. It's sunny out, but it's not hot. I walk toward the field. I hear the birds singing. I notice the sound of my feet shuffling on the grass. My feet enjoy this walk, for they're getting ready for battle."

As the tape scrolls on, I begin to believe what the voice is saying: "The ball feels light on my feet. My toes feel the pressure from me standing on them. I now pass the ball. Every pass is crisp and clean, right to my teammate's foot, as if magnetized. One pass leads to another. I shoot. I score."

In my head, the crowd cheers.

Mark Jannot has been a frequent contributor to Outside's Bodywork pages.

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