The theme of visualization comes up quite frequently in conversations between my coach and I, and yesterday the subject was broached by someone else. As is often the case when I’m asked an unexpected question, I felt like a deer in the headlights and I stammered out some sort of response that felt inadequate. In typical Angela fashion, I spent the rest of the day thinking about the question and my weak response. While I was able to connect later with the one who posed the question, my brain was still chewing on the question as I lay in bed last night, which is where this blog post was born.
Do I use visualization? The short answer is yes, but I am a thinker which means that there is much more meat to my answer than simply yes. I don’t think I truly used visualization much before I began training three years ago. While I could day-dream about how I wanted to look or what I wanted to achieve, those imaginings were wisps of smoke that vanished with the slightest breeze. Those aren’t visualizations. To me, visualizing a dream or goal requires focus, belief, determination, and persistence.
In the weeks and months leading up to my first competition of this year, visualization was an integral part of my day-to-day life. I had a couple of big goals for that competition. Firstly, I wanted to deadlift more than 300 pounds, which would be at least double my bodyweight and, secondly, I wanted to break the World record for the deadlift in my age/weight class, which was 319 pounds. I had never pulled 300 pounds before, but I desperately wanted to achieve both of those goals. For the World record, I had this one chance, because this was my only opportunity to compete with this organization this year and I would enter a new age group in January. The goal seemed very big.
I have not always been confident in my deadlift. I will never forget my second competition, because I went into it with absolutely no confidence in my deadlift. In training leading up to that competition, my deadlifts sucked and I expected the struggle to continue on the platform. As my coach and I had to settle on attempts during the competition, he wanted to choose higher numbers, while I wanted to play it safe. My final deadlift turned out to be super easy. I should have trusted my coach, but I learned a lesson that day. That lesson really doesn’t have much to do with visualization, but I mention this story to show the difference in my outlook over the course of one year. In April 2015, I thought my deadlift was a weak link and would never improve. Leading up to May 2016, I was gunning for a World record, and I believed that I could do it.
Training has helped me learn to believe in myself and my abilities. Not perfectly. I still sometimes struggle with insecurities and doubts, but I do find that I must make the choice to believe in myself in those instances when I don’t feel up to the task. It isn’t always a natural instinct. I guess it is kind of like a muscle…you’ve got to keep using it or it atrophies. Visualization has played a big role in believing in myself. Visualization is more than just an image inside your head. It is actively thinking through the steps required to reach your goal. It is a form of discipline, a conscious decision to align your thoughts, feelings, attitude and body into a cohesive unit, because quite often we are rather messy inside and branching out in a multitude of directions.
With my big deadlift goal, I pictured myself going through the motions from the moment the judge called out, “The bar is loaded.” I saw myself striding to the bar with purpose, settling my feet into position, taking a breath and grabbing hold of the bar with my hands in proper position, breathing again and pushing my legs into the floor as the bar would rise until my body was fully erect and knees locked out. I could hear the judge give me the down command. I saw myself lower the bar under control. I saw the white lights. I could see myself break the World record. My visualization was so intense that I would frequently be emotionally affected by it. It didn’t matter if I was pouring coffee at work, out for a walk, or laying in bed, I would visualize my deadlift and I would feel the emotion of it as if it was actually happening. Adrenaline would course through my body. My hands would get a little shaky. My voice would choke and tears would sting my eyes.
Of course, visualization isn’t always going to be that intense and overwhelming, at least not in my experience. I think that the enormity of the goal resulted in such an extreme response, but most of my visualization takes place without the fanfare. In most cases, I just make sure that my head is in the right frame of mind for what I am trying to achieve. In terms of my training, I mentally go through the motions of the mechanics of the exercise and the little cues that my coach uses to help me. I picture myself doing the exercise properly, efficiently, and strongly, and I can feel the pride and joy that comes with such success.
I wish I could say that using visualization will always result in real success, but I can’t. I was unsuccessful in my attempt to break the World record. That’s disappointing and frustrating, because I feel like I had the ability. However, I did still deadlift more than 300 pounds, so that is success that I can sink my teeth into and be happy with. Visualization hasn’t made chin-ups any easier for me, and there are still days when I have a very hard time believing that chin-ups will ever get easier for me. As I am working on my little overhead squat goal, my biggest challenge is getting the bar overhead, and that process is fraught with landmines of doubt and frustration, because I am learning new skills that make me feel awkward and uncoordinated. In this situation, I need to be careful not to think too much, because over-thinking can get me into trouble. Visualization and over-thinking are not the same thing, I don’t think; however, that line may be thin at times.
Over-thinking, in my experience, often leads to mistakes and hesitation because we’re afraid of making a mistake. As I was learning stuff for my new job, I would begin to over-think, because I didn’t want to make a mistake and I doubted myself. It got to the point where I would have dreams at night about work and going through the motions of making drinks. There was no intent on my part to dream about work, and my thinking about work was merely stressing me out more. Visualization shouldn’t cause more stress, not in my opinion.
I think that the act of visualization is something that should become habitual and practically effortless. Ideally. It should be something so deeply ingrained in our behaviour that it is a natural part of who we are and what we do. I’m not sure if this example is the best, but I think it works. Way, way back when I was in grade 10, we had to take a typing class. Yes, as in typewriter! We were taught how to type properly with two hands and without looking at the keyboard. I distinctly remember being instructed to use every opportunity to visualize and practice no matter where we were by moving our fingers as if typing. And so, as I would watch television or listen to someone talking, my fingers would be moving as if striking keys. I’ll let you in on a secret…sometimes, to this very day, I will still catch myself “air typing” while listening to conversation. I may not be the fastest or best typer in the world, but I am comfortable on a keyboard. My hands know what they need to do, because they and my brain have been visualizing together for nearly three decades.
“The secret of change is to focus all of your energy not on fighting the old, but on building the new.” ~ Socrates