Visualization Without the Fluff
Outside magazine, September 1996
Visualization Without the Fluff
Beyond sports psychology’s oblique tenets lie very real training techniques.
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
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.
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
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
Believing Is Achieving
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
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.’
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.
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
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
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
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
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.