- Associated Press - Saturday, August 22, 2015

CHARLESTON, S.C. (AP) - Football placekickers, baseball pitchers and basketball players have something in common besides being athletes: major league pressure, often for many to witness.

You can see the strain in the eyes in the placekicker who must nail a field goal for his team to win in the final minute of a game, the relief pitcher who must get a final out with the bases loaded in the ninth inning and the basketball player on the foul line who must sink his or her free throws seconds before the buzzer sounds.

All those situations are as mental as they are physical.

Athletes have been using the practice of visualization for decades to ease anxiety. In fact, the exercise is becoming more formalized and practiced by entire teams.

But athletes aren’t the only ones who can use visualization, and various forms of it to deflect pressure and win their non-athletic game.

Extensive research has shown that when someone visualizes an action, neurons in their brain fire in a fashion similar to when they are physically doing the task. Visualization techniques not only ease anxiety but improve motor skills, moods and provide an increase sense of confidence.

Dr. Lloyd “Chip” Taylor, a clinical psychologist with an expertise in pediatrics, says visualization can take many forms, including those specific to a task and those related directly to the anxiety of a situation.

“I see a ton of kids who are experiencing difficulties with chronic illness, trouble with academics or behavior difficulties. I employ polysensory guided imagery to help them deal with something coming up or to reduce their level of anxiety,” says Taylor, who is an associate professor of psychology at The Citadel.

Anxiety, he says, is not necessarily a bad thing.

He points to the Yerkes-Dodson law, developed by psychologists Robert Yerkes and John Dillingham Dodson in 1908, which dictates that performance increases with physiological or mental arousal, but only to a point.

If anxiety goes beyond a certain point, performance decreases.

Taylor says he teaches students how to tap into all of their senses - sight, sound, touch, hearing and tasting - to identify triggers of excessive anxiety and use guided imagery and other relaxation methods to relax them.

Guided imagery, he says, helps people “reset your thermostat to have an appropriate level of anxiety,” and can be used beyond the classroom.

“When I’m talking to folks who have job interviews, I’m not talking to them about how they can imagine a good job interview. That’s what some people do. Rather, I use imagery primarily as a tool to educate folks about the fact that they can control their anxiety, reduce stress and perform better if they have utilized those skills.”

Task specific can be useful, as well, as Taylor knows as a former high school placekicker.

“When I was placekicking, I would spend lots of time visualizing what that kick would look like: the snap, the perfect foot position, the ball going through the uprights,” he says.

“I would visualize as much as practice kicking. You visualize perfection and your muscle will fire to a small degree in the same spot. You’re thinking about imagining a perfect scenario and that becomes important to routine.”

More proof that visualization practice is spreading throughout the sports world came after this summer’s American soccer hero, Carli Lloyd, reveals that she tapped into the power of visualization in her regular training.

“It sounds pretty funny, but over the years and definitely over the last four years, I’ve taken that visualization part to another level,” Lloyd told the Philadelphia Inquirer before the team traveled to the finals.

“I’ve basically visualized so many different things on the field, making these big plays, scoring goals.”

Donnell Boucher, assistant athletic director and strength coach at The Citadel, started studying visualization techniques after reading the biography of Phil Jackson, a successful NBA basketball coach considered the “Zen Master” of the game. It also followed Boucher witnessing how yoga has improved performances for athletes since it was introduced seven years ago.

Within the last year, he has added visualization practices for the football team.

Physical abilities and talent will only take you so far, especially when you get to highest competitive level in your niche,” says Boucher, adding that winning often comes down to the mental and emotional part of the game.

He relates that in post-game interviews with coaches of losing teams, they’ll say their teams “were not mentally prepared for the game.”

“If they are constantly saying that, what are they doing to address the mental preparation of the athletes of their team?”

Boucher says athletes are increasing becoming familiar with the formula, E+R=O, or an event plus your response to it equals the outcome.

“You sometimes can’t control events, but you do have control over your response and how you respond to those events will determine the outcome,” says Boucher.

“Too often we let our emotions get hold of our response, and our emotions steer the response in a negative way, which leads to an outcome we might not want.”

Boucher holds the visualization sessions after 90-minute strength and condition workouts. The sessions usually involve turning down lights, getting players into a relaxed position, playing “sounds of nature” on the sound system and leading them through various scenarios.

“This is not something you can just play off of YouTube. You have to tailor it to young adults and pull them into it the right way. You can’t do something that’s strange. People don’t grow up doing this, so if you put the wrong person in that context, you’ll lose people quickly.”

Boucher is using three versions of visualization with the football team: recall, rehearsal and “interrogative self-talk.”

With recall, he guides them through a past experience that was positive. Rehearsal involves anticipating an event.

“Rehearsal could come before a game and we’d rehearse that it’s 60 minutes before kickoff, what we’re wearing and guide them through the start, walking them through a process to take them there.

Interrogative self-talk, he adds, would be asking themselves what were the sacrifices it took for them to be prepared to make an upcoming play.

“I think that we’re going to continue to dig into this and that the players are going to get into this more and more,” says Boucher. “This is going to be something to give us an edge.”

Pitchers have been experimenting with visualization for years, though they may not call it that.

Tim Norton, pitching coach for the Charleston RiverDogs, prefers to call it “mental reps.”

“As far as the word ‘visualization,’ we don’t mention it a whole bunch,” says Norton. “The more mental reps, visually, you can get, it makes you feel like you’ve done it before.”

Examples of visualization that takes place at Riley Park is for pitchers to practice by throwing no ball.

“We go through it in our mind, instead of always throwing because we can’t always throw. Our arms would get worn out. So we at least get mental reps and visualizing and feeling what we are going to do come game time,” says Norton.

“We do some drills with sticks (instead of balls) prior to throwing, which not only helps you get loose but puts you in the right mind frame to visualize what you want to do so you pick up the ball with a purpose,” says Norton.

Pitchers visualize all day long. That can be good or bad depending on what you’re visualizing. If I visualize myself walking a guy with the bases loaded in the World Series, it’s not very good. But if I’m visualizing making pitch, down and away perfect for strike three, then I’m going to have a lot better chance at succeeding.”

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Information from: The Post and Courier, https://www.postandcourier.com

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