A Research Paper By Bart van Grinsven, Life Coach, Business Coach, SPAIN
Visualization in Coaching
Once you have identified what is important to you, what truly matters, and what changes that might entail, the next step is to make it happen.
Because it is challenging to do so without having some image in mind, a technique that is often used in coaching is visualization.
All the artificial things surrounding us were once imagined by someone first before they were actually created. The computer I am writing this paper on is the fruit of the imagination of Steve Jobs. The desk I am working at sprouted from the mind of a designer, who then had it made.
Same for the clothes you are wearing, the house you are living in, the restaurants and theatre play you can attend.
Everything around us was imagined, visualized, and then created.
In this research paper, I explore what makes visualization such a powerful technique to help our clients achieve the goals they set for themselves and how it creates a pathway of possibilities towards those goals and dreams.
The human mind is an incredibly powerful organ. Ever since prehistoric times, humans have tried to tap into its seemingly infinite powers, connecting with the divine, altering the conscious state of being, and trying to dive even deeper into the realms of our imagination.
Books such as Think and Grow Rich by Napoleon Hill or The Secret by Rhonda Byrne talk extensively about the power of visualization.
But it is only recently that neuroscience, with the help of more advanced imaging equipment and the possibility to process massive data sets, has started to unveil the mechanics behind the practice of positive thinking and visualization which previously were surrounded by mystery and seemed to be more a matter of belief than science.
This research now shows there is a logical explanation that can be reproduced and explained in a controlled scientific setup.
What Is Visualization?
The American Psychological Association defines it as “the process of creating a visual image in one’s mind or mentally rehearsing a planned movement in order to learn skills or enhance performance”.
It is a technique that can be used to vividly live an experience that lies in the future, and it helps to internalize this event before it actually takes place.
So how does this work then?
Most of our behavior is a result of a reaction to past experiences. When a particular event happens, we store it in our minds and link a specific behavior to it.
Because our mind is wired to avoid risk, which is a suitable survival mechanism in a hostile natural environment, it tends to emphasize the negative, the dangerous. Scientific research has shown that we need to counter every negative thought with at least three positive thoughts to rebalance the negative thinking. So it takes a lot of positive thinking to counter the negative thinking.
When a particular event takes place, it will trigger the pattern that is stored in your subconscious, and you will react accordingly. Every time this happens, the process which follows a specific neural pathway will reenforce itself like a muscle that is being trained over and over again.
This is the reason why it is so hard to change habits, but this process also shapes the way we think and greatly influences the stories we tell ourselves. And it plays an enormous role in shaping our identity as our identity is the sum of our thoughts and behaviors.
Our brain loves energy efficiency and routines, but if those routines are sabotaging us or if we want a different outcome, we sometimes need to tell ourselves a different story. This is where visualization comes into play.
The great thing is that our mind cannot tell the difference between reality and our imagination, which we can use to our benefit.
How Do You Visualize?
Visualization in itself is not a complicated process; it basically consists of a few simple steps you need to follow—the key to successfully visualizing lies in the level of detail and the repetition.
Step 1: Close your eyes, breathe in and out a few times, and concentrate on your breath to ground yourself.
Step 2: Imagine the scene or situation you want to be in or want to happen. Is it some performance you wish to execute at your best possible level, a lifestyle you always dreamed of, a professional accomplishment you want to achieve? Do this as vividly as possible, using all of your senses. Feel the place where you are. What does it smell like? What are the sounds? What does it look like to be there? What movements do you make? How does it make you feel? Go deep into this fantasy, so you activate your neural system (remember your brain doesn’t know the difference between reality and the imagined situation).
Step 3: Once you have drawn this complete picture (or video) in your mind, repeat it as often as you can in as much detail as possible.
Step 4: Do the actual work. The repeated visualization is the push that will convince your inner self that the thing that you so much desire will happen. This will support you massively in recognizing the steps you need to take to get there and executing on a high level and is a motivator and a great confidence builder at the same time.
When searching around, you will find different varieties of the above-described process, but they all have these steps more or less in common.
What Are the Mechanics Behind the Visualization Process?
In everyday life, the information that your senses pick up enters your brain via the occipital lobe and your visual cortex. This affects your parietal lobe, the part of your brain that gives you the sense of who you are, where you are in space, and how you view yourself in the world emotionally and physically. This influences your sense of self, and consequently, your thoughts and actions change. This process takes place in the prefrontal cortex.
As Nathali Ledwell from Mindmovies explains in one of her videos, your subconscious mind can process up to 40 million bits of data per second! Your brain filters all the incoming information from the external world via the Reticular Activating System (RAS) and sends this to our conscious awareness, which can only process 40 bits of data per second.
Like a river following the path of the least resistance, your mind also follows those neural pathways it has followed many times before. This results in your habits, (limiting) beliefs, values, etc., popping up every time, resulting in the same predictable behavior.
Therefore, if you want to have a different outcome, you need to alter your thinking pattern. And here is where visualization can help you a lot.
As mentioned before, your brain cannot distinguish an imagined or real experience from each other, so by repeatedly envisioning the desired outcome, performance, or event in great detail, you can fool it into believing that that is the path to follow. This will eventually alter your neural pathways and result in different thinking, beliefs, and behavior.
Visualization as a Self-Confidence Builder
Self-confidence is an essential trait if you want to achieve your goals. It helps you stay focused in the face of adversity and give the best of yourself every day.
Sports psychologist Dr. Nate Zinsser explains in his book The Confident Mind an excellent technique that allows you to build confidence by repeatedly reminding yourself of your successes, so when you are confronted with things not going as planned and your self-doubt shows up, you have a Mental Bank Account to refer to that reminds you of all the significant accomplishments that you have achieved so far.
We are most encouraged to learn from our mistakes, and whilst this is not a bad thing, it creates the exact opposite effect of what we want to achieve, which is to improve and not make the same mistake again.
This happens because, in our minds, we focus on the negative outcome. We do not want the adverse effect to happen again, but because of all of the attention going there, and because our brain doesn’t judge whether something is good or bad, it is precisely what will happen. We then train our brains for the negative, undesired outcome instead of the positive, desired outcome.
It is like being asked not to think of a pink elephant. What do you think of it then? Exactly. A pink elephant.
The tool to use for your benefit is your Mental Bank Account, filled with the vivid experiences of successes and achievements; you can tap into those moments when you need it the most. All of this is explained in detail in Dr. Nate Zinsser’s book.
Again, the process behind it is repeated and conscious visualization sharing the neural pathways that support your goal by creating vivid positive memories.
Examples of People Using Visualization
Some of the most accomplished people in this world have attributed a large part of their success to visualization.
Michael Phelps, who won 28 medals across 5 Olympic games, used it to go through every possible outcome for years. When the moment came, he was mentally prepared to deliver his best performance when swimming in front of millions of viewers watching him.
Arnold Schwarzenegger owes a large part of his accomplishments to his years of practicing visualization. Before he became the well-known athlete and actor he now is, he spend years vividly imagining how he was going to be Mr universe. He imagined the arena, the crowd, the atmosphere; he already lived the experience in all its details before it actually happened. Inside he owned the title already. Later he did the same for his acting career and his political career.
When Jim Carrey was still a struggling actor, he used to drive up Mulholland Drive to visualize his success. He even wrote himself a 10-million-dollar cheque at the beginning of the nineties for “acting services rendered” dated Thanksgiving 1995, which he carried around in his wallet. He received that amount for this role in the film Dumb and Dumber that exact same year.
How and Why Visualization Works
There is now a great consensus on how and why visualization works, as it is massively backed by science.
This paper only covers a few ways in which to apply visualization in coaching. Nor does it go into detail on the extensive research that has been done around the topic.
The intention was merely to provide an insight into how it works and why it works.
And of course, visualization only does not do the job. You need to consistently perform the actual work, moving forward a little every day. But just like you see car advertisements everywhere when you need a new car, your mind will subconsciously recognize the opportunities and create the routines and behavior that will lead you towards your desired goal if repeated long enough. It will help you to further engrain the skills, behaviors, and habits you need to achieve what matters to you. It will give you the necessary calm and focus you need when the time comes to deliver, because you have been at that place or performing a certain skill hundreds of times, making it feel familiar.
Just as negative thoughts provoke a negative outcome, positive can-do thoughts create the neural pathways for the desired effect to happen. You slowly become who you want to be by re-programming your mind and there is nothing woo-woo about this; it is the power of our imagination.
Use it to your and your client’s advantage and help them achieve great things that matter.
Why Woo-Woo Works: Dr. David R. Hamilton in Conversation with Dr. Joe Dispenza
Nathalie Ledwell – Mindmovies
Neuroscience of visualization by Jen Anna
The Confident Mind – A Battle-Tested Guide to Unshakeable Performance by DR Nate Zinsser