Apr 22, 2014

Seeing Is Believing: For Athletes, Picturing Success Is a Winner

Doug English outside his home in Austin. Photo by Miguel Gutierrez

Doug English outside his home in Austin. Photo by Miguel Gutierrez. 

By Ali Killian
For Reporting Texas

Sometimes athletes aren’t daydreaming in class.

They’re practicing.

For years, elite athletes have claimed that visualization improves their athletic performances. They concentrate on imagining everything about their technique — mentally running through their every movement as if they were in the middle of play — as part of their training routines.

Sports psychologists agree that the technique can lead to improved performance, but the neurological basis for visualization is less clear, though a University of Texas professor is interested in sorting out the science.

Former University of Texas All-American and Detroit Lions defensive tackle Doug English is a longtime proponent of the technique.

English, a 1976 UT graduate who played in the National Football League from 1975 until 1985, said he used visualization to fine tune his skills. Though he started using the technique in high school, English first learned about the specifics of visualization during a presentation administered in his early N.F.L. years.

English recalled one play he particularly had trouble breaking up in the N.F.L. — the influence trap. He said offenses used this play to “trap” and prevent him from reaching the ball carrier.

“That’s when I dusted off the old visualization playbook and really began to visualize that play,” he said.

English said he imagined and rehearsed his reactions to each block.

“In my mind’s eye I went over that over and over and over and over,” English said. “And when we would get into the next game, they ran that thing and this guy wasn’t expecting me; I would knock the crap out of him. That’s when I really became a homer for visualization, when it solved that little problem for me.”

Sports psychologists say English’s experience isn’t unusual.

According to Tim Zeddies, an Austin sports psychologist, studies have found that visualization promotes positive thinking, which aids performance.

“The kind of visualization I teach is conscious and intentional,” Zeddies said in an email. “Basically, we’re attempting to utilize images and thoughts as a means of enhancing performance.”

Visualization is not merely daydreaming. According to an article Zeddies wrote for the September issue of Austin Fit Magazine, visualization is similar to a self-fulfilling prophecy.

“We can think something without believing it, but only if we are able to react to our thoughts in a certain way,” Zeddies wrote. “Just because I think something does not make that thought true objectively, unless of course I believe that thought so much that my subsequent actions end up living it out, which is sometimes referred to as a self-fulfilling prophecy.”

English compared visualization to a language — the dialect of the subconscious.

He said the language has three characteristics: It speaks in first-person present tense, it thinks in pictures and “it doesn’t hear negatives.”

The College Football and Texas Sports Hall of Fame inductee said the athlete must imagine a detailed scene — exactly what he or she wants to do — from his or her own point of view. He said visualizing a mistake is like teaching the subconscious to make that mistake.

Zeddies agreed.

“When we delve into what’s going on, it often is the case that these athletes are, in fact, already impacted by visualization, but the problem is that their visualizations are negative and performance-impairing,” Zeddies wrote in an email.

A study published in the Oxford Journals in 2000 found that imagining a motor action, such as extending an arm to block a shot, activates the same areas of the brain as does actually performing the movement.

Munro Cullum, a clinical neuropsychologist and the chief of the division of psychology at UT Southwestern, said other than this overlapping of neural pathways, not much is known about the physical process of visualization.

“Although we know more about the visual system than any other brain circuit, the visualization part is a little less clear,” Cullum said.

This shortage of objective data led Michael Mauk, a UT-Austin professor of neuroscience and former University of New Orleans baseball player, to speculate on the brain’s function in visualization. Pulling from existing neuroscience findings, Mauk theorized that visualization helps to train the cerebellum, the part of the brain responsible for coordinating motor control and motor learning.

In laboratory experiments, scientists have identified “a particular input that’s activated when mistakes happen” that’s called an error decider, Mauk said. “The activation of that input causes learning in the cerebellum, so that next time your prediction is different. We know a lot about that for parts of the cerebellum where those errors are driven by things that are easy to study in the laboratory — for example, reaching for something and bonking your hand.”

Mauk said neuroscientists believe that in visualization, error deciders similarly learn the correct way to react to certain situations, such as how to hit a baseball in a specific part of the strike zone. Then, they use this information to coordinate movements by making predictions about future actions.

Mauk guessed that because the visualizers are trying to correct cognitively defined errors, as opposed to those that are physically defined, such as hitting your hand, the inputs are difficult to study in a lab. Cognitively defined errors are mistakes only because we think they are, such as hitting a tennis shot into the net instead of over it.

The lack of an objective definition makes those errors harder to isolate, Mauk said. If the brain receives an error input, the scientists may not be sure what exactly caused it — was the error the technique of the hit or was it the power?

“We know nothing about that part of the cerebellum,” Mauk said. “What we think we know is that it operates by the same set of rules. In other words, if it got an error, it would know what to do with it; it would cause learning, and that learning would make things better next time. But we don’t know anything about when those inputs would be made active.”

“With no data and no experiment to support it, we imagine things like that,” Mauk said. “Connecting this to neuroscience in any way is very speculative.”

Though lacking neurological validation, the testimonies of many elite athletes and sports psychologists attest to widespread confidence in visualization.

“It’s kind of like prayer,” English said. “I don’t really know how prayer works; I know it’s not begging. But when people pray, and they pray effectively, stuff happens.”