Train Your Brain Like an Olympian

Train Your Brain Like an Olympian 

Seeing is believing.

Truth: Your body doesn’t know the difference between an experience and a thought.

This is because we stimulate the same neural pathways in our brains when we visualize an action, that we do when we actually perform that action. For example, when you visualize lifting your left foot, it stimulates the same part of the brain that is activated when you actually lift your left foot.

“The body doesn’t know the difference between an experience and a thought, you can literally change your biology, neuro-circuitry, chemistry, hormones, and genes simply by having an inner event.” -Dr. Joe Dispenza 

Research shows that using mental training or visualization is almost as effective as partaking in an actual physical practice and that doing both is more effective than doing either one alone. 

Scientists at the University of Oslo conducted a study to see if using mental imagery to imagine light could cause pupils to dilate as they do in real light. They asked participants to view shapes of varying brightness and then asked them to close their eyes and imagine the shapes they had viewed or visualize a dark room or sunny sky. 

They measured the diameters of the participants’ eyes and found that in response to imagined light, pupils constricted 87% as much as they did during actual viewing the light and that when imagining darkness their pupils dilated to 56% of their size during real perception. 

Many people who have achieved great success attribute it in part to their ability to mentally rehearse or use visualization to help them reach their goals.

For example, Michael Phelps’ coach, Bob Bowman, revealed that a huge part of Phelps’ success was due to his ability to mentally rehearse before a race. Phelps would spend roughly two hours a day visualizing himself winning. 

He would, “smell the air, taste the water, hear the sounds, see the clock.” He would envision himself as a spectator in the stands watching himself overcoming obstacles. 

Emily Cook, Olympic freestyle skier explained how she used visualization to help her recover from a two-year hiatus due to injuries, “I would say into the recorder: ‘I’m standing on the top of the hill. I can feel the wind on the back of my neck. I can hear the crowd… going through all those different senses and then actually going through what I wanted to do for the perfect jump. I turn down the in-run. I stand up. I engage my core. I look at the top of the jump. I was going through every little step of how I wanted that jump to turn out….I don’t think I could possibly do a jump, or especially a new trick, without having this imagery process…For me, this is so very key to the athlete I have become.”

“How does all of this relate to you? How can you incorporate mental rehearsal/visualization into your everyday life?”

Visualization is a very creative form of thinking (which is of course why I am writing about it!). 

A key step to successfully accomplishing any goal, big or small, is to become very specific on what you want to achieve. Spending time consciously thinking about your goals in a very detailed way and envisioning yourself going through each step helps you to become extremely clear on how to achieve them. 

Frank Niles, Ph.D. explains that this practice is effective because when you envision yourself performing perfectly and doing exactly what you want, you create neural patterns in your brain, just as if you had physically performed the action. The thought can stimulate the nervous system in the same way as the actual event does.

Visualization Exercise:

  • Choose a goal that is meaningful to you (i.e. running a half marathon, getting a promotion, playing an instrument, passing a difficult test, confidently speaking in public, losing 20 pounds, etc.…) 

  • Find a quiet place. Take several deep breaths and allow your mind to think boldly and creatively. Use all your senses and envision yourself going through the motions of whatever your goal is. For example, if you want to play that piano piece perfectly at your brother’s wedding envision your hands moving over the keys. What do the keys feel like? What does the piano sound like? How are you breathing? What note comes next? Etc.…

  • Write down each step you will take to achieve your goal. Use as many details as possible. People who write down their dreams and goals on a regular basis are 42% more likely to achieve them. Another option is to draw a detailed picture of yourself achieving your dreams.

  • Repeat these steps as often as you can and have fun doing it!