“For me, mental stress is everything.” said Phoenix Suns’ 12-time NBA All-Star guard and two-time Olympic Gold Medalist, Chris Paul. One way to deal with mental stress is visualization and mental imagery. Visualization for basketball is the process of using all your senses to help with learning and developing new hooper skills and strategies, as well as mentally imagining success.
This process involves creating the whole or part of a basketball event in your mind. Imagery is used by virtually all Olympic athletes as a critical part of their training regimen. “It’s the ones that are mentally more in tune, that at the end of the day usually get the upper edge.” said LeBron James.
Luckily, this mental skill can be learned and improved upon the same way you’d do for a physical skill. So the more you practice it, the better you will become at the actual task. Just like physical practice, mental practice requires structure and discipline in order to reap the full benefits.
But the work is worth it! “When I was younger, I was always stressed before games.” said WNBA All-Star forward Angel McCoughtry. “I always had that fear of: ‘Oh my god, there’s a game, I hope I do well. Are we going to mess up? Are we going to win?’ and that just didn’t help me. It was only stressing me out. So now before games what I do is I meditate. I take just a couple minutes to breathe, close my eyes, and think of good thoughts that will happen in the game.”
WNBA veteran and Champion Jantel Lavender has used meditation throughout her time in the league, too. “As much as you practice in the gym, you need to make sure you give your mind time. It’s a grueling, rigorous job and what I mean by that is you can have an extreme high one day and an extreme low. And you have to be able to kind of balance that…I would tell young players just to get mentally strong. You have to meditate. You have to talk to somebody who’s been there: Get a mentor.” she recommended.
Today, we’ll do a deep dive into what basketball visualization is, how to do it, when to use it, and how to get the most from it to improve your game.
All the way back in 1983, Drs. Deborah Feltz and Daniel Landers, sports psychology researchers, confirmed the benefits of using imagery for performance enhancement. Their findings showed that imagery is one of the most powerful performance weapons available in our mental arsenal. Mastery of this skill will increase your probability of success in basketball. As Los Angeles Sparks star forward Chiney Ogwumike said, “If you can see it, you can do it.”
Imagery works to enhance performance by sharpening the mental blueprint and strengthening the muscle memory for the physical goal at hand. The brain does not always differentiate between real and vividly imagined experiences because the same systems in the brain are used for both types of experience.
For example, imagine there’s a teacher standing in front of a blackboard, and they make their hand into a claw and draw it down the blackboard to make that terrible screeching sound. Are you reacting right now as if that really did happen? While there is no blackboard, there is our imagination – and that in and of itself is huge. Another example is when you have a nightmare about being chased. You’re safely at home in bed, but you likely wake up frightened, and breathing quickly with your heart pounding.
Both examples show how things that are all in your mind can make you experience the physical sensations that would actually accompany those situations.
Dr. Jenna Rosen, Director of Mental Health and Wellness for the New Orleans Pelicans explained that if you’ve ever lost something in the past, you’ve actually already used mental imagery without even realizing it. For example, think about a time when you misplaced something. You probably tried to think back to the last time and place that you had it. Mentally retracing your steps: seeing yourself and talking yourself through each step to try to find it. That’s mental imagery!
Mental imagery is a form of deliberate and directed daydreaming in simulation. Imagery is such a powerful tool because when you create mental imagery the same area of your brain lights up with activity as when you’re actually experiencing something. If you can imagine it, your body will accept it, and believe it.
“I think I started using it probably in 8th grade, when sports became a little more serious for me,” said Minnesota Lynx sharp shooter Kayla McBride. “What I wanted to do, where I wanted to go high school, where I wanted to go to college, having these dreams. But also visualizing all the work that it was going to take. I had always had this internal feeling, this image of me making a game winning shot and I didn’t know where it was going to be. I just remember that there were yellow jerseys against us. And we happened to be playing the Indiana Fever my first year in the WNBA, 2014, and there were 3 seconds left on the clock.”
In that moment, Kayla hit the game winning three from the left side with 1.8 seconds left on the clock. “I just remember thinking man this is exactly where I’m supposed to be, exactly what’s supposed to happen. I kind of go back to that moment a lot, and constantly remind myself to trust myself, trust my instincts, trust my mind, trust my heart, trust everything that I’ve been through – all the things that you go through for those types of moments.”
Visualization has many benefits, including reducing stress and worry, enhancing confidence, and assisting with the proper execution of sport-specific demands. Specifically it can also help you:
When a person imagines themselves succeeding on court, they activate similar areas of the brain that also become active when they are actually engaging in the task. This is known in sport psychology as “functional equivalence,” essentially demonstrating that we can ‘trick’ the lower order dimensions of our mind into feeling that we are completing a task without actually physically doing so.
“When we visualize it, we can see it unfolding with perfection, so we are rewiring our brains to have essentially perfect muscle memory.” said Dr. Dish Basketball trainer Mike Lee.
The goal during imagery rehearsal is to use all of your senses: “see it, feel it, and enjoy it.” Be specific and vivid. “I just kind of visualize when I’m going to do. What the other team’s going to do. I swear it helps.” said WNBA Champion and Olympic Gold Medalist Stefanie Dolson.
Visualize positive performances and picture the ideal steps for achieving a successful result. Create a clear mental picture and a powerful physical feeling of what you want to accomplish.
“I try to visualize where I’m going to get my shots. Where I’m going to be on defense. And just try and see that ball go through the rim before it does.”said one of the greatest shooters in NBA history Klay Thompson.
Do this by including the:
All of which would accompany your total performance experience. The clarity and controllability of your images will improve with practice.
When you visualize, do it from the first-person point of view through your own eyes. Not from a bird’s eye view where you’re picturing everything from above. That way you’ll have achieved your basketball goal, as if it really were you.
In The Champions Mind, author Jim Afremow, shares that three key ingredients for successful imagery rehearsal are:
Let’s do a walk through together. Sit up in a chair with your back straight. Let your eyes close and become aware of your breathing. Take a few slow, deep breaths in through your nose and out through your mouth. This will help clear your mind and relax your body. Select a specific skill such as a free throw.
Begin by creating a mental picture of your environment. For example, you’re standing at the free throw line. Continue to include all of the sights and sounds. You can visualize the hoop, it’s right there in front of you. Pay particular attention to the physical sensations in your body, such as the spring in your ankles and knees, whether your breathing is heavy or relaxed, the weight of the ball in your hand, and the texture of the ball as you bounce it.
As you mentally start to go through your pre-shot routine – for instance, bouncing the ball once, taking a deep breath, and looking at the basket – inhale deeply and let the breath move through your body. You can feel the ball rolling off your fingertips. You can see the ball traveling through the air with the perfect backspin. Now fully see, feel, and enjoy executing this skill throughout each moment of the movement. Keep full attention throughout the entire activity and complete the routine by sinking the basketball with a swish.
Challenge yourself to do this exercise successfully three times in a row with full focus and a positive result. If you visualize missing the basket or if you lose focus, keep repeating the process until you can visualize yourself doing it right straight through. Completing this will further anchor your physical self to your winning performance.
Here are a few physical exercises you can do while also practicing your visualization.
You’ll need some space and a basketball. Hold the ball straight in front of you. Lift one knee up. Then bend over and touch the ground with the ball, while extending your previously lifted leg straight out behind you. Then return to your starting position. Do this slowly like a stretch. Now visualize the concept: picture yourself doing the skill well. When you do this, your second time trying the stretch is likely going to be much better. Stay focused and try to get three touches with the one leg. Then switch to the other side and get three there.
Get on the ground and place the ball in front of you. Get in a plank position. Then reach out and touch the ball with one hand. Then reach out and touch it with the other. That’s one set. Try to do five sets.
Throw the ball up in the air above your head and catch it. Do the same thing but this time clap 3 times before you catch it. OK now the same thing but this time clap 3 times and touch the ground before you catch the ball. Now do both those things and also spin before you catch the ball. Be sure to picture it in your head before you attempt to do it. OK the last one is to do all of that but to catch it behind your back. It’s not easy and will take a lot of tries. But each try you do, visualize your success at it first.
Mentally practice two to three times each week for about 10 to 15 minutes per rehearsal. Select a specific basketball skill to further develop, or work your way through different scenarios, incorporating various game-ending situations. For example: hitting the game-winning shot as the final buzzer is sounding after being down by 2 points with 8 second to go on the clock.
Mental practice sessions that are shorter in length are also beneficial. Good times to practice are any downtime in your schedule, the night before a competition, and as an element of your pre-game routine. You can also use visualization during game time outs or before taking a free throw.
Bella Alarie of the Dallas Wings told Queen Ballers Club this is a big part of her pre-game routine. “I spend time just in my own mind, thinking about what I’m going to do in the game, whether that’s playing great defense, getting rebounds, making my shots, I just go through all that in my head. And try to get myself in the right mindset. I think that’s done wonders for me.”
Now you’re ready to get started with visualization to improve your game. You might enjoy using this printable basketball journal to build your visualization habit. Up next, learn about basketball leadership and basketball mindfulness, because both can help you on your journey to being the best hooper you can be.
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