Why Does Visualization Work?

Why did I agree to it?

She’d said she needed a hitting partner; just show up, she said, hit for a few hours a day and I’d have the rest of the day to hang at the beach. The South of France sounded really good from where I was sitting, in a cube in San Jose, California. I was a lousy engineer so quitting wasn’t hard.

I had practiced well. The red clay courts of the Menton Tennis Club helped me find a groove by Thursday. She had kept to a hitting regimen for three weeks that had tuned her strokes and was like a human ball machine. My shots landed deeper and bounced higher each passing day.

But play a tournament? Hitting was one thing; keeping score for real prize money was entirely different. No. I wasn’t ready. She was out of her mind to insist.

I had stumbled through registration with my secondary school French and the man at the desk took some money from the wad I held out to him.

First round match was Monday at 10:30am.

Sunday night, I stared at the ceiling of my room for a long time, the phrase running through my head: I’m going to get crushed. My breathing was shallow and my stomach was clenched. I repeated my sentence over and over until it lost all meaning. I’m going to get crushed. So what? I was anonymous here. I would lose two golden sets and walk out of the front gates of the Monte Carlo Country Club chased by waves of French laughter and never come back.

I would be OK.

My mind went to the courts at the MCCC; I stood on the baseline. What if the other guy was a grinder? I felt the grip of the racket, the torque of the ball on the strings, the dust rising from the courts as I slid into the shot. Shot patterns started to appear, actual plays that I would use. I won the points in my head, I felt them in my body.

The figure faded and a long, stringy form replaced him, dressed in white. This guy had a huge serve and crowded the net. I blocked my return at his feet, chased him off the net with a lob and moved him around the backcourt point after point.

More showed up; I figured out how to beat them all. I wasn’t going to get crushed, I thought as I fell asleep.

My opponent that day looked about sixteen; a polite punk with legs like pipe cleaners. By the looks of him, he could run all day. He didn’t have to. Two and a half hours later, I’d lost in three sets.

But for a set and a half, I crushed him.

I had seen every ball as a rerun; the movie I had watched last night on the ceiling of my room. I knew where the ball would land and was waiting for it every time. I was confident, on balance and playing with intention.

What happened?

Reflecting on that match twenty years later, I know that my mental rehearsal on the night before that match was the key to my performance. The question I still ask is: why did that work? Why does mental imagery or visualization work?

For the next few posts, I’ll explore the theories and academic research that try to explain the neurobiology and psychology of visualization. Then I’ll expand it to understand why visualization leads to an increase in intrinsic motivation.

If you agree/disagree with my comments or have a great source of information that will help in my research, please let me know directly or in the comments.

It just can’t work like magic. Can it?

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One thought on “Why Does Visualization Work?

  1. Malcolm says:

    I’m excited to see the next few posts.

    I’m also curious that “neuroplasticity” is included as a tag when it isn’t anywhere in the body of the article. Smells of good things to come!

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