4 Steps Escaping The Trap of Harmful Visualisation

I once placed a bet to hit a 100kg (225#) snatch before a friend of mine. On the line, was money, respect and a slice of dignity (that's enough said about the forfeit for the meanwhile).

I soon hit 97.5kg and was riding high. Over the next month or two, I built up to a 115kg overhead squat, 120kg snatch high pull and repeatedly got under the bar only to lose it both in front of me and behind me or due to soft elbows.

In short, I had every physical quality necessary to hit the weight, but I couldn't actually do it. It was frustrating, which led me to inconsistency in training and focus which led to me losing the "race", which led to a borderline act of indecent exposure (now, that's really enough said).

Here’s the thing I failed to realise at the time:

The point of failure was not during the lift (where I was placing all my attention), but in the moments leading up to it (which I ignored). When walking up to the bar, I would be watching a constant repeat of the lift failing. Not only would I "watch" the failed lift, I could almost feel the miss. I could hear the bar dropping. I could feel my back struggling to maintain rigidity... all before I had even taken a single step towards the barbell.

So when I took a step towards the red and yellow plates, I felt dejected and certain of a miss. I even remember the colours of red and yellow as my "failure point". Everything in that bar was connected to failure.

Here's the difference between my former self and someone who would have hit that lift with exactly the same physical attributes: I had primed my subconscious for failure with nothing more than my imagination. The better athlete would have been able to watch the bar being put straight over his head in a perfect movement. The better athlete would have been able to feel the knurling of the bar, the strength in their posterior chain, the feeling of a strong lockout and the emotions of strength, confidence and certainty.

The better athlete would have used his imagination to win whilst I was using mine to lose. Whether I knew it or not, I was “visualising”…just in the wrong direction.

You may know you visualise already. You may have even tried to change it, but feel yourself getting pulled back into a failure loop.

How to Use Your Imagination To Win

Before I get started, there's an important point I need to make. The term "visualisation" needs to be replaced with "imagination" in your vocabulary. There's a few reasons here, but the main one is that visualisation suggests only the visual. What we really want to do is build up a complete sensory experience of a perfect lift. That includes sight, yes, but also sound, touch (a big one), and even smell and taste.

Also, I'm going to use the snatch example, but this applies to every kind of skill in functional fitness.

Step 1. Get the replacement part

Recall from memory a time when you have snatched perfectly, maybe your last PR, maybe in competition. If you don't have a memory to hand, go out there and create one. This doesn't need to be a PR or even a perfect lift, but just a lift which feels great.

Step 2. Intensify the memory

Spend 2 minutes a day recalling and replaying the lift as a full sensory experience. Feel the snap under the bar, the strong lockout, the speed of the successful lift. Then magnify the feeling. Feel your confidence rise as you mentally hit successful lift after successful lift.

Even if the lift isn’t perfect, we can use your imagination to improve the lift, to cancel out faults and replace your inner movie with the optimal movement pattern.

Step 3. Create a trigger which will stimulate that feeling

What sometimes happens is that we get to the gym and struggle to emulate this use of our imagination so we need to blend reality and imagination. Use a cue which will always be there. I like to use the feeling of a hookgrip on the bar. Others I have coached use the sight of their lifters on the platform, the tape on their fingers, their belt on their waist or the feeling of a single breath. Ideally, you want something which will always be there and will be unchanging.

Then, when you're intensifying the memory, start each rep with that trigger. Feel it. That way you will be able to flip into that way of thinking when you need to.

As soon as you lose focus, come back to the trigger.

Step 4. Implement.

Simple as that, begin practising. Just like when you began squatting, things will be shaky initially. You will find it hard. Stick at it though and seek virtuosity. Begin in training and dedicate every lift to developing this technique.

P.s. You want a hand building out this process? For the first three people who email tom@alphamovement.co with the subject line "IMAGINATION" and giving me a compelling reason to help you out, I will jump on a 15 minute call to help you implement this technique to your own training and competition.

Tom FoxleyComment