Before a single event has begun, a single point awarded, a single shot contested, the competitors have already lived these Olympics. They’ve felt their hand raised, swelled with pride as the national anthem played, felt the medal hang and tug at their neck.
While the collection of athletes assembled in Rio de Janeiro this month are among the most fit and gifted physical specimens on the planet, they also have spent years honing their mental game. For many athletes, regardless of sport, that means relying on visualization techniques taught by sports psychologists and performance coaches.
“When I get there, I’ve already pictured what’s going to happen a million times,” said swimmer Missy Franklin, who won four gold medals at the London Games, “so I don’t actually have to think about it.”
Over the past three decades, visualization — also referred to as imagery or mental rehearsal — has grown in the sports arena and is now commonplace in many Olympic disciplines. Diver Troy Dumais, a four-time Olympian, said athletes can use the techniques to zero in on the specific moment and task awaiting them. They might concentrate on their breathing as they block out the crowd, the television cameras and the stakes. Then it’s just the diver standing above the water, separated by only a series of artful twists and flips.
“It’s like a painting,” says Dumais, who just missed qualifying for the Rio Games. “A painter doesn’t know the overall finished painting. They have an idea. If they can see it, form it and make it happen, that imagery work is what makes it happen. It’s the same thing with diving. If you can see yourself hitting a dive, the chances of you hitting a dive increase greatly.”
The science increasingly reveals the impact mental training and visualization can have on performance. Richard Suinn is an esteemed sports psychologist who first began working with Olympic athletes in 1972 and has been a proponent of visualization techniques for years. He studied downhill skiers and found that when he asked them to simply imagine skiing, the brain sent electrical signals comparable to when the athlete was actually skiing, and the muscles reacted similarly as well. Other studies have found that visualization exercises also trigger responses from the autonomic nervous system, and there’s been plenty of research to show the practical impact these techniques have on performance.
One study, conducted by Guang Yue, an exercise physiologist at the Cleveland Clinic Foundation, asked volunteers to imagine flexing their biceps as hard as possible. After a few weeks of simply visualizing weight training, the subjects showed a 13.5 percent increase in strength. A study out of the University of Chicago asked participants to visualize shooting free throws for a month. They improved their shooting by 23 percent. And a French study found that long jumpers who visualized their jumps and went through the actual motion of the jump performed better 45 percent of the time.
So it’s not surprising that mental exercises have come to play such a big role Olympic training. Most U.S. Olympic athletes have regular access to sports psychologists and many of the American teams employ them as regularly as coaches or trainers. In Rio, the U.S. Olympic Committee will have eight sports psychologists on-hand to help its 555-person team maximize its potential.
For some athletes, the visualization exercise can be as simple as imagining an intended action. Many sports psychologists encourage the athlete to immerse themselves mentally in the desired outcome, imagining the action but also the surrounding sounds, tastes and smells.
Karen Cogan, a senior sports psychologist for the USOC, says the acrobatic sports, such as diving and gymnastics, especially lean on visualization techniques to master particular movements and routines. “A lot of people in acrobat sports feel like they have to see it and feel it before they can do it,” she said.
“Sometimes we get super nervous,” gymnast Donnell Whittenburg explained. “You tend to forget some of the stuff in your routine. So if you go over it and get more calm, then you just raise your hand and go do it.”
Fencer Mariel Zagunis, a two-time gold medalist who’s preparing for her fourth Olympics, said she’ll especially take advantage of downtime spent on airplanes, where “you’re alone,” she said, “you’re confined and you have time to kill.” She already knows the pool of likely Olympic opponents and has studied enough film to know their strengths, weaknesses and tendencies. So Zagunis will close her eyes and try to think through every possible scenario on the strip.
In saber fencing, she explains, “points happen literally in split seconds, and tides can change and turn very, very quickly. So part of visualization is preparing yourself for every situation, so when it shows itself, you’re ready for it.”
Harrison, a 26-year-old judoka, is even more detailed in her visualization exercises. Months and years before the Rio Games have even arrived, Harrison made sure to dedicate 10 minutes before falling asleep each night to mentally walking through entire days of Olympic competition. “Waking up, weighing in, packing my bag, getting on the bus, listening to certain music,” she said.
She’ll visualize each match, all the way to the finals.
“I picture myself bombing the girl in the final and standing on top of the podium and watching the flag go up and feeling the gold medal go around my neck and hugging my coach,” she said. “I visualize all of that every night.”
For Harrison, it’s a tested blueprint. She followed the same pattern at the London Games four years ago and became the first American to ever win Olympic gold in judo.
“When I woke up that day in London, my body knew: ‘It’s time. This is it.’ Like I’ve been there a thousand times,” she said.
By the time she was actually on the podium, Harrison felt a sense of déjà vu. It was a moment she’d imagined “thousands and thousands of times in my mind. On that day, it just feels right, it feels like it was meant to be.”
John Denney, a performance coach based in South Florida, says that visualization techniques are especially helpful in sports that start and stop with regularity — he mentioned golf, tennis and volleyball as examples — giving the athlete downtime to think and re-direct mental energy. Golfers routinely rely on psychologists or mental and performance coaches to maximize their mental game. Denney encourages athletes to use visualization to help with short-term goals — the next shot, for examples — and more distant ones.
“In either case, seeing the end result is extremely important,” he said.
Golfer Lexi Thompson began working with Denney two years ago. After competing in the Solheim Cup last September, Thompson met with Denney to reset her goals and visualization targets. The Olympics became her new focal point. The two talk regularly, and Thompson relies daily on some form of mental rehearsal for challenges big and small.
“Just seeing myself succeed,” the 21-year old golfer said, “it makes a huge difference.”