Powerful though your mind may be, you can’t just think your way from running a nine-minute mile to a five-minute one. “Imagery can’t make you perform beyond your capabilities, but it can help you reach your potential,” says Tom Seabourne, Ph.D., an athlete and imagery expert and the author of The Complete Idiot’s Guide to Quick Total Body Workouts ($15, amazon.com). So imagery can be a handy tool the next time you have set your sights on a goal. Here’s how to put it into effect.
Use all your senses. Mental imagery is often referred to as visualization, but it’s not limited to the visual. “The most effective imagery involves all five senses,” says Michael Gervais, Ph.D., a performance psychologist in Los Angeles who has worked with numerous professional athletes and teams. What are you smelling, hearing, feeling? “You should be so immersed in a mental image that it seems as if it is actually happening,” he says.
Be the star, not the audience. To engage in your practice fully, “imagine performing the activity from your own perspective,” says Seabourne. Don’t watch yourself as if you’re viewing a movie.
Practice. “Effective mental imagery is not wishful thinking, nor is it brief moments of ‘seeing’ success,” says Gervais. Just as you can’t become a better speaker simply by reading a book on the subject, “the only way we get better at mental imagery is by practicing it,” says Tammy Miller, a speech coach in State College, Pennsylvania, and a speaker for Toastmasters International, a communication- and leadership-development nonprofit. The imagery should be so detailed that it takes almost as long to execute in your mind as it would take in real life. (Of course, if you’re getting ready for a marathon, you’ll probably want to work your way through just the tough spots.)
Write it down. If you really want to hone your efforts, put the story of how your feat will unfold in writing, says Kay Porter, Ph.D., a sports-psychology consultant and the author of The Mental Athlete ($20, amazon.com).