Elaine Doll-Dunn, Psy.D.

Whether you think you can, or think you can’t… you’re right.
Henry Ford

“It’s the last two-tenths of a mile to the finish line of the ‘15 K’; that legendary race down Spearfish Canyon. The longest continuously run race in the hills, launched by Bill Jordan and adopted by Dave Little and his cross country team; the only race in South Dakota to have been filmed by Sports Illustrated, and to give participants a distinctive orange stocking cap instead of a T-shirt. It’s my first race ever. (I ran three miles yesterday morning and then six in the afternoon to see if I could actually run nine; rookie runner). Slept little last night, afraid of who-knows-what, and have run this steady pace for tooooo long. But now the race is nearly over, I’ve summoned up a spurt of energy, and it’s all down hill. Walt Cook is in the cross-hairs of my glazed eyes. I’ve been so close several times, but he always speeds up just as I get within striking distance…”

Ok, so I never did catch him. I never did have the chance to take him out right at the finish line. Never did enjoy the look of astonishment as I sprinted past him in a blaze of incredible speed. That was in 1978, 26 years ago, but that race is forever in my head. I never run down that two-tenths stretch to the restaurant on the corner of Grant and Colorado but that I chase Walt again. I pass him in a glorious surge, then turn to smile at the finish line as he, broken spirited, staggers across behind me. The mind is an amazing thing. It is so vivid to me that I can’t just saunter down that particular stretch, my body won’t allow it. I always race it. Gotta run. Gotta catch Walt Cook.

Visualization. Picturing yourself doing something and then making it happen. It’s a powerful tool; athletes have used the technique almost since the first Olympic Games in 776 B.C. (That might be a slight exaggeration.), and the phenomenon is as effective today as it was then…maybe even more so, since we’ve polished the procedure.
You go about it like this: Sit comfortably in a chair. Close your eyes. In your imagination go through all of the movements you make to run a race. Picture yourself at the starting line pumped and excited, believing you belong there with the rest of the athletes. Hear the starting gun, feel your thighs tighten as you begin to run; then run (in your mind) any parts of the course you know well. As you near the end of the race, visualize yourself coming on strong and fast, sprint to the finish line, feel the tape across your chest, enjoy a gentle cool down jog as you savor the win. (Don’t look at Walt, he feels bad enough).

If you get other senses into the act, it amplifies the effect of this on the brain. Feel the sun on your back. Imagine sweat dripping from your forehead into your eyes. Hear the steady slap, slap of your Asics on the road. The more vivid you make the mental picture, the greater its imprint is on the brain. This isn’t daydreaming; you have to be consciously aware of every move while you picture the acts in your mind.

Our brains accept visualized pictures and burn them into muscle habits almost as much as they do from actually practicing or playing. The brain can’t tell the difference between a real and an imagined activity, so picture yourself winning big every time! Can’t hurt, might help. Sure beats telling yourself you suck…

This procedure is also very effective during a hard workout. Visualize yourself relaxed. Picture a strong, vibrant athlete running through pain; as the workout progresses and you grow tired, concentrate on gently pushing despite your fatigue. Toward the end of the workout, visualize yourself coming on fresh and powerful as if the workout were the finishing stretch of a race. “See” the finish line three yards past where you usually stop, and run through to it.

I even use this during a race. As I begin to tire during a marathon, I picture—imagine—the donuts I ate the night before stored in my thighs. I tell my legs it’s time to release the glycogens from those donuts and then I actually feel the new energy and power surge from my thighs. (I hope nobody at the finish line can read minds.)

Visualization is not limited to running. It works for all sports---tennis, golf, baseball, swimming and even speed skating. An Olympic speed skater used this method to improve his form and his time with astonishing results. The record-setting high jumper in the ’84 Olympics stood at the end of the runway, looked up to the bar, and pictured himself every step of the way. He watched himself sprint down the long arc, observed his powerful jump, watched as he raised his arms over his head, slowly turn in the air, and easily clear the bar. He repeated the whole sequence in his head again, then actualized the activity and did perfectly what he had practiced in his head. A world record, at the time I think it was 7’10”. He really did it three times; twice in his head, once on his feet. That brain! Easy to fool, and the body will follow its dictates. Amazing.

I always do a visualization exercise before I speak. I picture myself relaxed, comfortable, and loved. I picture the audience eager, responsive, and excited to hear what I have to say, and I tell myself that they like me, they want to hear me, and that I love all of them. I love that they are there, can’t wait to look directly into their eyes, and to make a room full of friends just like I would in a one-on-one situation. And mostly it really is fun, and I do have a positive experience, and hopefully so do they.

What the heck, I might just try it for my next root canal. Whaddaya think, Walt?

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