We all know that one of the most valuable tools in our mental training arsenal is visualization, the mental exercise of picturing ourselves succeeding. Visualize pushing through those final miles to your PR marathon to nab that PR. Visualize that OTQ time on the finishing clock with your arms raised in triumph to nab that OTQ. Visualize the top spot on the podium if you want to win. If we visualize ourselves succeeding we’re one step closer to achieving our big goals.
Or are we?
No! Recent research in psychology suggests the opposite is true. When we visualize ourselves achieving our goals we actually demotivate ourselves to achieve them. Visualizing success triggers similar relaxation physiological responses as if we actually achieved the goal which saps us of our energy and drive to go for it.
This is true even if we need to achieve the goal. The researchers discovered that dehydrated research subjects became less motivated to find water after they visualized themselves drinking a glass of ice water! In addition, the researchers tracked visualizers and nonvisualizers for a week and the visualizers achieved less and felt far less energetic than the nonvisualizers.
So should we quit visualizing? No, we should just do it in a more critical way. Instead of visualizing achieving goals, we should visualize ourselves actively engaged in the race (and prerace) and realistic obstacles we might face on our path to goal achievement and what we would do to overcome them. For example, in a marathon situation we might visualize ourselves having to hit the restroom or missing a water stop and how we would handle those situations. Based on this research it appears we run into trouble when we picture ourselves succeeding and reveling in that success without actually doing it.
Lastly, there is one time when visualizing success might help you achieve your goals – to combat anxiety. If you’re standing on the starting line and feeling anxious, visualizing achieving your goal should relax you. So save visualizing your goal time on the finishing clock for the starting line.
What do you think? Does this research bear out in your experience?