Witmer’s Wisdom: The Most Powerful Training Tool That You’re Not Using

You can use visualization to get a leg up on your competition.

Joe Freund and the U24 US National Team celebrate winning a gold medal.
Athletes can benefit from using visualization to help them reach their goals. Photo: Paul Rutherford — UltiPhotos.com

Last year the pandemic forced many of us to get creative about how we do work and life. Many of my customers were no longer motivated to keep their mind and body sharp without ultimate tournaments to look forward to. I thought long and hard about what folks could do while practice were cancelled, or even in total lockdown.

I remembered a whole topic of research from my grad school days: visualization. This technique is commonly used by elite athletes. Sports like skiing, where getting in a high number of real-life reps can be a challenge, are the leaders in making use of visualization. It has proven time and time again to be especially beneficial for injured athletes who can’t do real life practice.

In working with clients one-on-one last winter, I’ve come to see once again the power of visualization as a training tool – and not just for when live practice isn’t an option.

Visualization is a powerful, but underused training tool for all athletes. If you haven’t tried it before, now is perfect to get acquainted with in the coming dark months.

What is Visualization

Visualization is a simple concept. It consists of imagining a scenario you want to practice. As my clients practice visualization over time, they can improve their ability to incorporate more detail to make the visualization feel more realistic. It becomes easier to visualize from the first-person perspective.

It is also easy for many people to do and can get better with practice. But I have also found a wide variety in how easy it is for folks to visualize. One client could really feel the low level activation in her muscles while visualizing throwing practice. Another client of mine really cannot visualize in the traditional sense, but can rely on similar techniques that are based on memory. So, if you try visualization, don’t judge yourself on how good you are at it. This is just another mental training tool that shows how different brains work differently!

Does it Really Work?

Yes. Visualization as a training tool has been studied extensively since the 1960’s.

In an early study on free throw shooting, there was found to be little difference in skill gained by physically practicing free throws versus a mental rehearsal of free throw shooting. Similar effects have been observed in dart throwing and other simple motor skills experiments.

At the Olympic level, visualization has become an essential training tool for skiers and events like luge. In these sports, the ability to do a high number of physical reps is a bit limited. And the consequences of errors can result in severe injury. Visualization is an essential tool in these scenarios. This NY Times article provides a good glimpse into what visualization for these Olympic athletes actually looks like in practice.

I find the effects in strength training to be the most compelling argument for the efficacy of visualization. In skills acquisition, it’s more intuitive to imagine how visualizing a movement would be helpful. But in strength training, there is no intuitive reason why visualizing resistance training would increase physical strength. And yet the effects are well studied and supported. From this impractical but easier to measure study on finger strength and elbow flexion, to this recent and practically applicable study on professional basketball players during the pandemic.

The efficacy of visualization is one of those agreed upon phenomena that is not making its way into general practice. The good news is that if you learn how to use visualization effectively in your ultimate training, you’ll have an advantage over those who don’t.

How Does it Work?

Visualization works almost as effectively as real life practice because the nonverbal/sports brain does not know the difference between imagination and reality.

Much of mental training is learning to use the nonverbal/sports brain for its intended purpose and giving it what it needs to perform its job better. Visualization is a way of feeding the sports brain more repetitions of what we’re asking it to do in real life.

If you’ve ever found yourself getting emotional or angry remembering an argument you’ve had, you know this is true. You can become angry even though the conversation is not happening now and the person is not there. Emotions are also in the nonverbal brain. It does not know that you are just remembering a conversation, and so it acts similarly to how it would if the conversation were happening right now.

Why Isn’t it More Popular?

But if it works so well, why don’t more people use it?

There are two reasons that athletes don’t use visualization more frequently. First, most people don’t know exactly how effective it can be. If they knew how effective it is, they absolutely would use it. The issue is, just like long-term periodized planning of strength and conditioning training, it’s challenging to understand how effective it is until you’ve actually experienced it for yourself. Even if you intellectually understand it with your logical/verbal brain, the nonverbal brain doesn’t really believe it until it experiences it.

The second reason is that athletes never really get into a daily habit where they know exactly what they are visualizing and why. This, I think, is the secret to why my premium athletes are having success. We put a some mental training habits in place that are easy to follow. So there is little resistance to doing it each day and the athlete has a clear picture of what to visualize and when.

Making the Most of Visualization

With my clients we use visualization for two main purposes. First, we can use it for skill and game IQ acquisition. This is basically giving the brain reps without physically needing to go anywhere. This works well for things like figuring out and practicing new styles of defensive positioning. Or figuring out the spacing or shape of cuts that work best for different types of throws.

The other popular use for visualization is for pregame and pre-workout routines. My clients reported it has been super helpful to get them prepared to play, which was a surprise to me as we didn’t really discuss it much.

A pregame or pre-workout routine takes advantage of visualization for emotional and arousal regulation.1 Each athlete has an optimal level of arousal for performance. This can vary from athlete to athlete, and even from offense to defense. By using visualization and practicing it before physical training sessions, athletes become more aware of their own arousal state over time. And, with practice, can better influence how well they can get themselves into their optimal arousal state. This does not guarantee that you’ll play out of your mind. But it does make playing in the zone more likely and definitely helps you to play more consistently at the higher end of your capabilities.

Try Visualization Yourself!

You can start by simply imagining a specific thing you want to do next time you’re on the field. To make it even easier, I suggest beginning with visualizing things you’ve done on the field in the past that you were happy with and want to repeat. Visualize just a few minutes every day. Do a few reps of visualization before the next time you play and see if it affects your ability to start the game strong (because you’re at a more optimal state of arousal) or to execute better on your skills (because you’ve given yourself some quality repetitions).

If you want to learn more about mental training for ultimate, come join my Level Up Your Ultimate Game group, where I provide free trainings and fill you in on what I’m learning while working with my Premium clients. If you want individualized help with your visualization and other mental training skills, please be in touch!

  1. “Arousal” is the sports science word for how excited you are. 

  1. Melissa Witmer

    Melissa Witmer is the founder of the Ultimate Athlete Project. She has been a part of the ultimate community since 1996, and is an author, content creator, and coach. Something of a citizen of the world, Melissa lives and works abroad and has instructed and connected ultimate players and coaches from all over the world.

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