You may associate visualization techniques with feel-good
self-help, but some of the world’s greatest athletes take the
practice very seriously.
Dr. Michael Gervais is a sports psychologist who prefers the term
“imagery” to “visualization,” to keep the focus on all five
senses rather than just sight, and he explained his approach to
Tim Ferriss for an episode of Ferriss’ show “Fearless,” which he also
sampled on his podcast.
Gervais worked on staff with the NFL’s Seattle Seahawks during
their Super Bowl XLVIII and XLIX runs (winning the former), and
has also worked with Olympic gold medalists, UFC fighters, and
Austrian skydiver Felix Baumgarten, who completed a
record-breaking dive to Earth from the stratosphere in 2012.
Gervais told Ferriss that his psychological coaching approach
with all of his athletes is essentially the same, noting that the
approach is universal and can also be applied to something like
giving a presentation to an audience.
Before looking at Gervais’ imagery technique, it’s helpful to
understand the context he puts it in.
He has all athletes ask themselves “What is your ideal
competitive mindset?” and “What are the strategies you employ to
turn that on?”
It’s about creating an awareness of what works, attaching words
to specific feelings so that they can be replicated and adjusted.
When these parameters are set, the athlete can then practice
the imagery technique, which is similar to how they would
approach mindfulness meditation, Gervais pointed out, the
difference being that, “Mindfulness is about insight and
wisdom. The aim of imagery is enhanced performance.”
Some athletes choose to accompany visualization with music, but
Gervais finds it distracting. The athletes find a place where no
one will bother them, and then sit and close their eyes.
“The objective is to create such a lifelike experience that your
body believes that it could be real,” he said. It’s a full
sensory experience. “So there’s a switching on or an animation
that happens within you when you create an image that is crisp
and has color, and sound, and smell, and taste.”
In this state, the athletes then imagine how the match will
begin, unfold, and what victory will feel like.
In the same way that practicing meditation leads to enhanced
focus, practicing imagery leads to more realistic experiences,
which in turn allow your mind to train for the real thing.
Gervais said that it is necessary to practice imagery on a
regular basis well in advance of game day (or the day you give
your presentation), because otherwise it’s a “hack” and won’t be
The idea is not, of course, to try to predict the future, but
rather to prepare your mind to react to anything that can be
thrown at it. For a fighter, for example, this means even
visualizing the first step into the ring, a move that Gervais
said can throw even physically prepared fighters off their game
if they did not mentally prepare.
Gervais told Ferriss that he liked the way the retired MMA legend
and Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu master Rickson Gracie explained imagery:
“It’s the most beautiful movie, and every time I relive it I
create images and nuances that I want to experience.”
You can listen to the full podcast episode below.