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Visualization: How Champions Prepare to Win

Apr 2, 2024

Excellence.  Greatness.  Peak Performance.  How does an athlete, a businessperson, or a professional in any field achieve those goals?  Recently, I watched a video on X (@BambarkarPrasad) that featured Olympic Gold Medalist Michael Phelps and Hall of Fame coach Bob Bowman.  On the video, Bowman’s voice-over speaks to the focus Phelps achieved during competition, which athlete and coach alike attribute to a consistent practice of visualization.

With 23 Gold Medals, Phelp’s competitive record is legendary.  Bowman is one of the most successful coaches in sports history.  You can find the duo on X and YouTube, where they talk about the importance of daily dedication and discipline—and Phelps’ practice of visualizing all possible scenarios of a competition, the good and the bad.  Bowman says that Phelps has a plan in place to deal with any obstacles that might arise and distract him from the ultimate goal—to win.

For Phelps, the initial target is to produce the best possible performance at each practice session–and the practice after that and the one the day after that.  It’s critical to focus on the process, pursuing one’s personal best each day while reminding yourself continually of the ultimate vision.

Bowman notes that before a race, Michael Phelps would use techniques to get into a calm, relaxed state and mentally rehearse for hours each day in the pool.  He would see himself swimming and winning, creating vivid details—the sensations created by the feel of the water, the sounds and scents.  Phelps visualized being in the pool and also seeing himself from the outside as if he were a spectator in the stands.  He rehearsed strategies for overcoming potential obstacles.  And when Phelps’ goggles unexpectedly filled with water during the 200-meter butterfly final at the 2008 Olympics, he was able to maintain focus, rely “on my strokes”—and win!

According to Bowman as reported by Carmine Gallo for Forbes, mental rehearsal is a well-established technique to achieve peak performance. “The brain cannot distinguish between something that’s vividly imagined and something that’s real.”  He adds that, “If you can form a strong mental picture and visualize yourself doing it, your brain will immediately find ways to get you there.”

Like Phelps, Tiger Woods has also described visualization as crucial preparation.  He visualizes each shot, sees the ball in flight and where it will land.  He also uses visualization to prepare for scenarios such as dealing with windy conditions.  Clearly, visualization is not about wishful thinking or expecting the universe to deliver whatever you want with no effort.  It is about discipline, determination and a consistent mental practice that allows you to both dream and execute.

Readers may wish to check out Bob Bowman’s book, “The Golden Rules,” Finding World Class Excellence in Your Life and Work.