This week, Mikaela Shiffrin, 18, became the youngest woman to win the slalom competition in the Olympic Games. She did so, despite almost falling during her second run. According to U.S. Ski team coach Rolan Pfeiffer, a key to Shiffrin’s success is that she is “present and focused for every training session.” From early on, Mikaela seemed to focus on improvement rather than outcome.
“I remember as a little girl in Vail, it would be a powder day and my parents would say, ‘Let’s go free ski in the back bowls.’ And I’d say: ‘No, I want to stay on the racecourse and train. I’m working on my pole plants.’ I wanted to get better at something every day.”
Shiffrin, like many of her Olympic teammates, uses visualization as a part of her training and competition. Shiffrin says that she typically visualizes a course twice: “once after inspection and once shortly before the race.” She also said that she visualizes how she will deal with press conferences — increasing her preparedness and helping her not feel as much pressure as a rookie at the Olympics.
“I envisioned your questions,” she said to reporters. “I wrote down the answers in my notebook. I’ve envisioned this moment for quite a while. I’ve envisioned myself on the top step of the podium and on the third step of the podium. I’ve envisioned myself crashing, and I know what mistake I’ve made in my head.”
Shiffrin raises a good point about using visualization: not just seeing the dream outcome. Although it’s important to stay with primarily positive images, it is vital to use mental rehearsal to plan for challenging conditions. Mental rehearsal can work as a form of contingency planning — helping you anticipate difficult moments in your race (or in your weight loss program or any other goal you are working towards) and then seeing how you will respond. Rehearsing an effective response to a trigger (environmental or internal) is a core skill in changing behavior patterns. Daniel Coyle describes this as the balanced-positive approach.
The balanced-positive approach helps you avoid the pitfalls of positivity — namely, that you get surprised and demoralized by failure — and replaces it with a preparation that matches the reality of the world and also leaves you ready for performance. Good things and bad things will happen, and you can’t control either. But you can prepare.
One of the first athletes I worked with was Sean O’Neill who was determined to make the Olympic team in table tennis. “I am on the team going to Barcelona,” Sean would write daily in his training log. Along with positive self-talk, Sean used positive imagery. But he also frequently rehearsed how he would handle unexpected situations (e.g., poor lighting, if his serve wasn’t working well). Sean spent close to an hour a day on his mental rehearsal training. (He represented the U.S. in the first two Olympics in which table tennis was contested — 1988 & 1992.)
Some tips for visualization. First, it’s not just visual. But whether you call it visualization, imagery, or mental rehearsal, it is better to use all your senses in the process. Imagine yourself getting ready to run your race and what you see, smell, hear, and feel. Imagine feeling your heartrate increasing and that you need to go to the bathroom again. Now, rehearse talking to yourself about how that this is completely expected, and that you know it is your body becoming excited (rather than stressed). You can then use imagery for key moments in your race (or your exercise program, or your big presentation), seeing yourself execute well. If the image isn’t clear, don’t worry. That comes with practice. And if the image is negative, that’s okay too. Just manage it as you would a tricky moment to navigate. How quickly can you get back to your focus? Your center? And to the joy of being able to give it your all?