There is no doubt that sports psychology can assist in improving your performance. However, it remains one of the most mystifying topics for athletes and coaches and as such it isn’t used anywhere near as widely as it should be. One of the issues is the wide range of activities that you can undertake and it can be quite confusing which one is relevant before even trying to under how to do it.
If you’re new to the world of sports psychology and just wanting to get started with an easy exercise then visualisation is the one to go for.
Visualisation, also called ‘mental imagery’ or ‘mental rehearsal’, is the process of developing a mental image (in your minds eye) of specific parts - of a skill or outcome, for a sport or activity before actually completing it. While it is usually best done during dedicated quiet time, i.e. time set aside for this activity, it can be done during training sessions. One common example of this is a rider who imagines themselves winning their target event while out on a training ride. This is the simplest form of visualisation but it is important to recognise the two key parts: a specific skill or outcome must be the focus point and it should involve the senses, e.g. the elation of winning.
So, how does visualisation help improve results? Quite simply it helps you become mentally prepared for a range of scenarios during a race and therefore enhances the precision of your actions during the actual event. The easiest way to better understand how visualisation work is to undertake a quick example:
Sit down in a quite spot and close your eyes. Imagine yourself riding along a nice stretch of road, somewhere along your favourite route. Just focus on this one stretch of road for a moment. Then think about whether its windy or not. Are the trees moving or is the grass being blown about? Think about what it feels like moving at the speed you are, how does the bar tape feel under your fingers? Try and describe it? Now see yourself surrounded by a pack of cyclists, racing towards the finish line. Where do you see yourself placed? Are you boxed in or do you have good position? If you are boxed in think about what you would do to get out into space. If necessary go over this point a few times in your mind until you get it right (i.e. until you successfully get out) and then focus your mind on the finish. How hard are you breathing? How hard are the other riders breathing? What side of the road is the wind coming from? What side of the road do you want to start your sprint? What gear do you want to be in? Think of the feel of the shifter as it crisply changes gears and you start your sprint, it's a long sprint and another rider is challenging for the win. You dig deep, your legs spinning in a frenzy as you cross the line. Did you win????
In this example I have deliberately added extra detail however, generally speaking it is best to start with smaller, more concentrated areas of your event, for example in a time time you may simple visualise just the first and last km of the event. Try and really focus in on only a few things at a time until you get the hang of it. Try to focus on the main details for the key points you have chosen and really immerse yourself in the scenario. Once you are happy with the outcome of the specific focus points then it’s time finish. To finish up your visualisation session it's a good practise to review the details, just like you would review a race after it's finished. Spend a few moments to think about how you felt and focus on positive outcomes as this helps to set this result to memory and means that you will be more likely to do things correctly during in a race.