Visualization and the Power of Thought

I recently posted on our Facebook page about a Youtube video, The Scientific Power of Thought, that beautifully describes how directed thought can change our brain, and even improve our motor skills. It’s based on the incredible 2007 book, The Brain That Changes Itself, by Norman Doidge, MD (educated and now teaching at University of Toronto!)

Rewiring the Brain

Basically, the book deals with the relatively new field of neuroplasticity, or the ability of the brain to rewire itself based on what we do and even what we think. If I over simplify it to a ridiculous extent, it boils down to the idea that performing certain activities or even THINKING about those activities can rewire the brain so that we become better at those activities.  The book is filled with numerous examples of people with serious brain injuries and disorders who through ingeniously simple treatments are able to regain lost functions. It’s a fascinating concept, and one with long reaching impacts on our future health and wellness.

So why is this relevant to swimmers, or in fact any person who wishes to improve any given activity?

Well, swimmers participate in races which include many complex, individual movements. So many in fact, that it is actually impossible to consciously remember them all as we do them.  We just can’t remember every movement element of the start, flight, entry, underwater, breakout, strokes, turns, etc.  This is why we practice these individual elements so much and pay so much attention to detail.  Neuroplasticity tells us that we can also fine tune and improve these individual movements merely by thinking about them.

Play The Movie

As with many things in swimming, it turns out that Michael Phelps and his coach Bob Bowman (and many other top swimmers) were way ahead of us. For years Phelps visualized his races in detail, and usually many times a day.  Bowman would instruct his swimmer to “play the movie” over and over so that all of the little things could be done as perfectly as possible, and with as little conscious thought as possible. Whether they knew it or not, they were rewiring Phelps’ brain to improve all aspects of his racing.

There are a couple of interesting things about how Phelps, and virtually all other top swimmers, do their visualization.  First of all, they often start their visualization from well  before the start of the race. Even as far back as the ready room where the swimmers congregate before walking out onto deck for the finals of big meets. This is to get the swimmer comfortable during what could be a scary and diverting activity before a race.  And secondly, top swimmers develop the ability to visualize their races at the same speed they swim them! So that Phelps’ 100 Fly visualization would involve pre-race preparations, getting on the block, taking his mark, and then 50 seconds of visualizing the race. Exactly the amount of time it will take him to swim it.

Does our team practice visualization?

Yes! Our team has been visualizing ever since the Tritons were formed 5 years ago.  You can recognize it as those times when the kids are all down at the starting end of the pool, just standing around doing nothing for up to 5 minutes. Usually they are quiet. Then they get on the block and swim. They may look like they’re wasting valuable pool time by just standing there, but in reality they’re practicing their visualization of the race, trying to mentally picture doing each element perfectly.

We’re also getting better at it, or at least one aspect of it. Many of our swimmers can now visualize their 50s and 100s, with the visualization taking within a second or so of their actual race time. That’s impressive!  Of course, some of our swimmers can also spend minutes visualizing their “practice” races, and then get on the block and ask what they’re swimming. I can’t help but wonder what they were visualizing, but I suspect it wasn’t swimming.

Visualization Is For Everyone

I think the moral of this story is visualization is a powerful tool that has the potential to help many more people than just those with brain injuries and disorders, or those involved in fields such as music or sports. It can help rewire and optimize the brain for virtually any activity you can think of.

And that’s something to think about.


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