Visualization: a powerful tool, learned the hard way

During my second year of university football I tore my ACL. It was a painful setback, physically; what I didn’t realize was the hardest part of the rehab was going to be mental. My body responded but I still had a fear of simple things like running and jumping. The mental block left me paralyzed as soon as I hit the field.

What proved to be the catalyst in getting back on the field actually had nothing to do with being anywhere near it – it was time spent on my own, with just my thoughts. I learned the practice of deep visualization. This behaviour started to transcend sport, and now, years after I’ve stepped foot on a field, remains an important tool.

Visualization is common in sport. You see numerous examples of professional athletes  on the sidelines, visualizing the anticipated flow of the game. They’re envisioning themselves making plays and conversely, what their opponents are apt to do. I took this approach in my rehab process, only it started with even more simple things like running or jumping. These basic movements needed to be relearned as second nature as I had gone months without practicing – I was like a baby giraffe. As I got comfortable performing these basic movement for real, the visualization extended to more reactive experiences, like what it will be like when I’m playing against and opponent and I don’t control all the variables. This was the toughest hurdle because I needed to be able to react without thinking, however, I couldn’t do that because all of my focus and energy was on preserving this surgically repaired knee, even after it was completely healthy.

This was an immersive experience – I would get lost in my thoughts for hours at a time, playing out every permutation of every possible play. These sessions started bleeding into other areas of my life. I would visualize the presentation I had to give (known variable – I know what I’m going to say) and like the rehab process, started visualizing anticipated questions (unknown variables – I don’t know what people are going to ask).

This extended to other areas in my personal and professional life. Simple things like a quick meeting with colleagues – I spend a few minutes beforehand, visualizing the objective of the meeting, what I want to communicate and what I anticipate from my peers. This keeps me focused on the objective and ready to engage in productive conversation. This does not mean I always have all the answers, or am inflexible to go down rabbit holes of emergent thoughts/ideas. No one likes a know-it-all and some of the best ideas comes from tangents.

I’ve found this to be an effective tool in areas where there is a specific objective but can be over utilized. It can often undermine serendipitous encounters or break the flow of a fluid conversation with no agenda. Some of the greatest outcomes are born out of chance encounters, and the best way to get the most of a chance encounter is to let go and go with the flow. The key is a balance of anticipation without rigidity.

An example of me failing at this: I tried to visualize a date before it unfolded, and that ended poorly. I believe the back-channel feedback I got from a mutual friend was: “he seemed like he was interviewing me”. I had played out the date prior to picking her up, envisioning all the things I wanted to learn about her (a well intentioned objective!), but rather than let those emerge from conversation, I started going through a series of questions. Needless to say we did not have a second date; although I’m sure she nailed her next job interview…

It is clearly not a one-size-fits-all practice, and should be applied to situations judiciously and with a level of personal nuance. I have found this to be helpful for me as I go through the daily flow of life. I spend some time before I go to bed, visualizing the day ahead, the objective outcomes and the anticipated challenges. I do the same when I wake up, and again before any specific events i.e. a presentation or important meeting. This is all part of the internalization process and I’ve found that doing this actually gives me more flexibility for unknown variables because the known variables are almost second nature.

I hope this resonates with some, and I would encourage anyone who doesn’t practice this to give it a try.

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