Have you ever watched Ski Sunday and laughed at the bizarre image of a lycra-suited downhill skier waiting at the start, eyes tightly closed, furiously focusing on the course to come, mentally skiing the route as if his life depended on it? Many elite athletes routinely use visualisation techniques as part of training and competition. In fact almost all sports incorporate it to some degree as the results are so positive. Divers mentally rehearse each dive, TT riders can visualise the gear changes and braking points for every yard of the 37 mile Isle of Man circuit, sprinters run through every footfall of a 9.7 second 100m in their head, breaking the beam in front of their rivals every time, canoe slalomists visualise every gate, turn and paddle stroke. It is therefore no surprise that the technique can bring benefits to each phase of eventing.
So what exactly is visualisation and how do you do it? In brief terms visualisation is the process or creating a mental image of the way you want something to happen or feel. It has been found the muscles, as well as the unconscious mind, cannot distinguish between visualised activity and real activity. You can use this technique as a competitor to ‘intend’ the outcome of a round or simply to create a positive mental image of how you will successfully accomplish something to give you confidence and a feeling of calmness. By imagining a scenario, step by step, and in detail you should be able to trick your brain into accepting that it will happen the way you have visualised.
Let’s take a show-jumping round (equally you could use a cross-country round or a dressage test). You’ve walked the course and maybe seen some people riding it. Now close your eyes and imagine yourself cantering into the ring. Plan where you will circle while waiting for the bell. Feel that your horse is cantering in that elusive perfect jumping canter – powerful underneath you yet fluid and smooth. Visualise your approach to the first fence – you are riding a straight approach, you can see a perfect stride to it, your horse collects, jumps, clears it and lands on the right leg. You are already sitting up in the saddle looking at the next fence riding a perfect turn, keeping your leg on, flexing the inside rein a little and preparing him to make another clear jump. Ride the whole round like this until you’ve jumped the last fence of a perfect clear round and patted the horse. Now run through it again!
When you saw yourself performing what did you see? Was it like watching yourself on a TV screen or were you seeing the round from the saddle? Maybe you saw bits from both perspectives? The first one is called external visualisation but the second technique, internal visualisation, is the one that most sportsmen use as it has been found to be much more effective in implanting the positive images in the brain. External visualisation can still be useful – divers and gymnasts often use it to plan how their moves appear to the judges and the audience. In our sport it would be most beneficial in, for example, putting yourself in the judges car to picture how your 75%-scoring dressage test will look from the judge’s perspective. Dressage tests also benefit from internal visualisation – if you set-up and feel the way you’ll ride all the turns and transitions in your test perfectly in your head beforehand then your body should be primed to reproduce that preparation and feel in the test.
The ideal opportunity to put visualisation into practice is when you’ve walked a course the day before an event. How often do you hear people saying ‘I hardly slept for worrying about the coffin at fence 14’? Turn that negative into a positive and visualise exactly how you will ride each of the fences you’ve walked to produce a confident clear round. Ride that perfect round in your head three or four times before bed and you should wake up eager to reproduce your mental round at the event. Even if you walk the course on the day try to find 5 minutes to sit somewhere quiet and visualise before your dressage test, show-jumping and XC rounds.
Because the brain is so receptive to visualisation it is important to make sure you never visualise negative outcomes. The skier at the top of the giant slalom isn’t picturing clipping the third slalom gate with his ski and turning himself into a human snowball. Similarly you must not picture your horse running out at the corner or stopping at the first show-jump. It will happen! Take extra care to visualise positive outcomes and events and how you will perform when everything goes right and you ride at your absolute best. Remember how that round felt when you jumped the best round of your life and every stride worked out perfectly? Hang on to that mental feel, replay it and store it to use when visualing the outcome of a future event.
It may sound like hocus pocus or mind games but there is some solid research behind the technique. Most high-level athletes in most sports encompass visualisation in their training programmes. We all know how vital confidence is to the outcome of a competition. In a world where performance and success is measured in fractions of points and the line between gaining a placing or none might be as little as 0.2 marks (and we’ve all been on the wrong side of that one!), then practicing effective visualisation might be the way to gain that slim margin.