Six Steps to Visualization

Do you know where your head is at?

So, you’re beginning to get to grips with movement practice: Your body is becoming stronger, more mobile, more flexible—more resilient all round. The basic movements of parkour are starting to click maybe, your balance is coming along nicely and the fluidity is at last emerging from beneath the awkwardness you thought you would never be free of. Nice.

But where’s your head at during all this? Are your training sessions a little incoherent and formless? Do you find your mind wandering for long periods when practising alone or even during classes? If so, you will probably find that your learning curve begins to flatten out and that you soon reach what is known as a “plateau,” a level of ability beyond which you find it very difficult to progress. The difference between most practitioners of any discipline and the few who attain real mastery is to be found in their ability to maintain good concentration throughout training; in other words, to focus.

Every sport requires concentration and the ability to be free from the effects of distraction. The development of athletic skill demands unbroken attention to the environment, to the patterns of movement and to other people involved, and to kinaesthetic sensations. It is well known that success at the very highest levels of competitive sport is directly correlated with constant presence in the moment. Indeed, concentration can produce a state of mind graced by extraordinary clarity and focus.

Sportspeople usually describe this state as “being in the zone,” a condition beyond their normal functioning wherein they achieve a harmony of body and mind and an overall physical synergy they are not typically able to access. In more recent times it has been dubbed “flow” or “peak performance” and it is understood to be the optimal state for both human performance and happiness.

And this state of mind, this ability to focus all of your attention on what you are doing with no distractions, is vital in our training.

This ability to focus is the key to true advancement in the art; to stepping away from that plateau and making some real leaps up the mountain. Learning to concentrate your mental energy alongside your physical attributes, and to do this regularly, will bring not only a fuller understanding of the intricacy and nuance of your motion but also genuine, ongoing progression.

In time and with practice you will begin improve your overall attention capacity and it will take less and less time to bring your attention to bear when you require it. The result: Your training will be much more effective, giving you a higher return for your efforts. Your sessions may be shorter, but they will be far more efficient.

The master’s method

Perhaps the most powerful tool of concentration is what is known as active visualization. It is important to realise that this is far removed from mere everyday reverie, daydreaming or reflections upon past events. Visualization is the actual mental rehearsal of an action before, and sometimes during, the action itself. You imagine yourself carrying out your intended action or movement in as much details as possible and with perfect success. You see exactly how you want the movement to go, and let that imagery sink into your body and mind.

Sports psychologist Richard Suinn wrote that this imagery “is more than visual. It is also tactile, auditory, emotional, and muscular … without fail, athletes feel their muscles in action as they rehearse their sport.” Imagery of this kind catalyzes the reintegration of physical performance. It is a well-controlled copy of experience, a sort of body-thinking similar to the powerful visions of dreaming.

Numerous scientific studies of sports have revealed that concentration during training upon the particular skill or body part being trained measurably increases the effectiveness of the exercise. Schwarzenegger once said that “a pump when I picture the muscle I want is worth ten with my mind drifting.” It was also found that a group of test individuals who, for one month, were only allowed to visualize exercising a specific muscle group actually showed an improvement in the density and strength of those muscles.

Here’s how it works: Essentially, as your brain conceives of an act, it generates impulses that prompt neurons to “perform” the movement being imagined by transmitting those impulses from the brain to the muscles. As a result our neuromuscular efficiency increases as the blueprint for our chosen action is laid down over and over within our body. Incredibly, we are able to program our bodies’ actions simply by visualizing the actions we want.

The same phenomenon was demonstrated when a group of basketball players at the University of Chicago were told not to shoot hoops for a month, but instead to visualize themselves sinking baskets for a certain amount of time each day: without touching a ball for a month, they showed almost the same performance increase (23 percent) as the group who practiced as normal for an equal period of time (24 percent). The control group, who were instructed to not give any attention to basketball for that month exhibited no improvement, and many of them worsened in ability.

Hundreds of such studies have been carried out and the overriding conclusion is that our very physiology is directly affected by our thoughts. However, this is not to say you shouldn’t physically practice! What is does say is that in order to get the best results from your training, it is vital you align your mental focus with your physical commitment.

Six steps to visualization

As with all skill practice, one of the master tools is visualization—something everyone has heard of. But what is your actual method of visualization? Are you just paying it lip-service without really understanding how it works and how to benefit from it? If so, it’s time to change your approach as it’s one of the most powerful training aids out there, used by every top athlete in every discipline.

Here’s the crash course:

  1. Consciously slow your breathing.
  2. Close your eyes and visualize in great detail the exact movement outcome you want.
  3. Do a “third person” visualization (picture the entire movement as if you were watching a video of yourself performing it) and then a “POV” visualization—that means actually visualize what it will look like from your own perspective.
  4. Visualize it in slow motion first and then what it will look like to you in real time. Your brain has to know exactly what to expect when you do the movement.
  5. Make your visualization as realistic and as context-based as possible: the surfaces, the temperature, the wind whistling past you, the landing, everything. The closer your visualization is to reality the more your brain will take from it.
  6. Take the time to do it!

Try this process a few times and as your visualization skill improves so will your actual movement skill.

Movement of the month: Step Vault

An exercise in pure efficiency and effective motion, the Step Vault is the safest and easiest way to clear an obstacle in your path below your own chest height. Commonly used to pass low walls, handrails or gates, it can be one of the fastest ways to vault. Train it until you can use it with a natural rhythm as if you are gliding over the obstacle in your path. Master this technique and you will find it becomes an invaluable part of your basic movement skills.

Key points: Don’t rush. As you push from one leg reach towards the obstacle with the same hand while you bring the other leg to step up onto it. Be sure with your hand and foot placement, and try to be light on the obstacle as you pass over it.

Step 1: Approach. Run at a comfortable speed with measured strides. Don’t stutter your steps as you near the obstacle. Be relaxed.

Step 2: Vault. As you get close to it, push off from one leg and reach with the same hand to place it on top of the obstacle securely. At the same time your opposite leg comes up to step on top of the obstacle.

Step 3: Passing Over. As you pass over the obstacle your trailing leg comes up and through the space between your body and the top of the obstacle—you literally step this leg over the obstacle. Keep your momentum going forward, and this trailing leg then becomes the leg to touch the ground first on the other side.

Photo credit: Robert Zampino