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Even top coaches and sports psychologists recognise its value and encourage athletes to 'visualise' winning in an effort to enhance their performance. Of course, being super confident doesn't always work. You may recall our winter Olympic hopeful, Eddie the Eagle, who used to climb the steep steps of the ski jump with much bravado, but usually ended up leaving the scene by ambulance. His habit of visiting the local hospital the day before the event and choosing a bed didn't really help. Still, the local manufacturers of plaster of Paris were always pleased to see him.
But let's not dwell on Eddie. The good news is that visualisation can help many different kinds of people achieve their goals. For instance, psychological therapists use the technique to help change the behaviour of alcoholics, heavy smokers, and people who want to lose weight. And there's plenty of proof it works in business too. However, visions about the future come in many different forms. How do we know we're performing the right sort of visualisation?
Popular self-help books would have us believe that mentally simulating our preferred outcome will help us to achieve it. So if we imagine ourselves getting that promotion or meeting the partner of our dreams, it will make us more likely to succeed. I know this to be untrue since the partner of my dreams actually married someone else.
So the big question is this: do we visualise the future in terms of the processes that are involved in reaching a goal, or is it just the end-state of achieving it?
Lien Pham and Shelley Taylor of the University of California decided to find out. They split a group of students into two and asked one half to visualise doing well in an exam, whilst the other half visualised the steps they would take to do well in an exam - such as good old fashioned studying. The results were clear-cut. Those who visualised themselves reading and gaining the required skills and knowledge, spent longer actually studying and thus got better grades in the exams.
Researchers concluded that there were two main reasons why visualising the process worked best. The first is to do with planning. Visualising the process focused attention on the steps actually needed to reach the goal. The other was emotion. Actually 'seeing' the process happening in their head took away the anxiety of worrying whether or not it was possible. You could say that seeing was believing.
One of the reasons that simply visualising an outcome doesn't work is the planning fallacy. This is our completely normal assumption that everything will be much easier than it really is. Even after many years of bitter experience we still fall for it. Remember that patio you promised to build all those years ago? And that half decorated room you still haven't quite finished? The bottom line is we all fail to anticipate just how much of any plan can and will go wrong. But, if we think more about the process, this helps to focus the mind on potential problems and how to overcome them.
In fact, just dreaming about a goal may actually be worse than ineffective; it could reduce performance. In the US study, those who simply visualised a successful outcome were duped into studying less and were much less motivated. On the plus side, they did get to party quite a lot.
So, the moral of the story? Don't just wish and hope for what you want – actually visualise it.
And visualise not only what you want but, more importantly, how you might achieve it.
That's what our Olympians have been doing in the build-up to the London Games.
Let's hope it pays off.