November 25th, 2014

Health N' Sports: Mental Health

Staff Report

Health N' Sports: Mental Health
Photo from Norton Sports Health

MENTAL PRACTICE makes perfect

Call it visualization. Call it guided imagery. Call it mental rehearsal. Call it meditation. It is the power of positive thinking. You can pick a term — the fact is more and more research is showing that mental “practice” is just as important as physical practice when it comes to achieving goals. Learn more from the experts from Norton Sports Health.

The process of creating a mental image or intention of what you want to happen or do can be a powerful technique to “intend” an outcome of a game, race or training session. It can also calm nerves and help you focus before an event. Science may be just catching up with what people all over the world have known for years. Many elite athletes have been using visualization techniques routinely for decades. Muhammad Ali used mental practices such as affirmations (“I am the greatest,” for example), visualization and mental rehearsal to enhance his performance in the boxing ring. Jack Nicklaus, world-champion golfer, said: “I never hit a shot, not even in practice, without having a very sharp in-focus picture of it in my head.” How does it work? Brain studies show that thoughts produce the same mental instructions as actions. So, thinking in detail about making a touchdown is as effective in preparing to make that kick as actually getting out on the turf and practicing.

One study looked at brain scans of weightlifters and found the patterns activated when a weightlifter lifted hundreds of pounds were similarly activated when the weightlifter just imagined lifting. Some cases showed that mental practice was almost as effective as physical practice, and that doing both is more effective than doing one or the other.

“Visual imagery in athletics involves seeing yourself from inside your body looking out, as if you were actually performing your sport,” said Tad Seifert, M.D., neurologist with Norton Neurology Services and director of Norton Healthcare’s Sports Concussion Program. “Researchers believe the reason visual imagery works is through the creation of neural patterns in your brain that are the same as if you had actually performed the action.

By combining an imagery program with physical conditioning and quality practice time, you’ll be better prepared when you head out for competition on the field, court or course.” Mental imagery also can be used to improve motivation.

Studies show that if you imagine practicing a specific thing, such as a soccer play, you are likely to put in more time physically practicing it than someone who does not do the “mental work” beforehand. In addition, those who put in the mental work had more realistic expectations of themselves, set higher goals and were more likely to stick to their training program. “Practicing mental imagery can better prepare you for optimal performance in your sport,” Dr. Seifert said.

Try this exercise

Just before bedtime or soon after waking in the morning, start by sitting with a straight spine. Establish a very specific goal. Let’s use the example of beating your personal best time in a 100-meter sprint. Imagine yourself after the race, after you have achieved your goal. Imagine the scene in as much detail as possible — the weather conditions, what the track feels like, what the air smells like, the sounds of the crowd, competitors, teammates and any other background noises. Use as many of your senses as you can.

Visualize what you are wearing, whether you are sweating or out of breath. Who is with you? What emotions are you feeling? Eliminate any doubts if they come into your mind. End with an affirmation, such  as “I am strong,” “I am ready,” or “I am fast.” Repeat the exercise often.

The Norton Sports Health team of highly trained sports medicine specialists include orthopedists, neurologists, physiatrists and primary care physicians who work together with trainers, physical therapists, nurses, nutritionists and other care providers to design customized programs that return patients to optimal performance and fitness following a sports-related injury. Learn more at


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