Special Addition: Mental Imagery
Chances are you’ve heard of mental imagery or “visualization” yet never gave it a whole lot of though. Mental imagery can be thought of as a “secret weapon” in your quest for more explosive power. One of the key components of many mass marketed vertical jump programs is a very high volume of sub-maximal jumps. By having you practice over and over and over again, you’ll eventually jump higher and hopefully find the technique that allows you to do this.
This volume of repetitive jumping not only borders on overtraining, but as you know by now, it obviously neglects other aspects of improving power such as limit strength, rate of force development training, and true reactive strength training.
So what does this have to do with mental imagery? Well, instead of repeating endless jump after jump on the basketball court 7 days a week for hours a time, you’re going to practice the technical aspects of your jump in your mind 3-5 times a week. Now don’t worry, it’s not going to take much if any time to do this and is really not part of the “program” so to speak just a bonus addition that will really help you out.
To understand how mental imagery works, realize that EMG studies show that the muscle activity when you think about something is exactly the same as when you actually do it. The main difference is that the amplitude of the EMG signals are lower with imagery then they are with the actual tasks. For our purpose, this means that with imagery your muscles are learning the same recruitment and firing patterns that you’ll need without the endless stress of jump after jump after jump like other programs. Specifically, you are going to break down and repeat all of the different components of the movements it takes to dunk a basketball or to jump out of the gym. Don’t worry, you’ll still be practicing this on the court as well because research and experience tell us that the combination of mental imagery and actual practice has the best cost/benefit ratio. Performing endless jumps leads to overtraining but without practice you never get a chance to perform what you visualize. By combining the two, real life and imagery, you save wear and tear on the joints and muscles and actually teach your mind and muscles to optimally work together.
Want evidence that this works? Consider a study done on basketball players shooting foul shots. The study took one group of players and for 2 weeks had them practice shooting foul shots every single day. The 2nd group was not allowed to touch a basketball but instead, they were required to get together for 30 minutes everyday and practice shooting foul shots in their mind. At the conclusion of the study both groups had their free throw percentage evaluated. The 2nd group, the group who hadn’t even touched a basketball but who had just gone through the shooting motions in their mind, actually did better then the first group at the end of the study!
Another experiment consisted of 2 groups, a control group and an imagery group. Both groups were told to complete specific golf skills like making putts, drives, etc. At the end of the study it was concluded that the imagery group performed better because they had higher goals and expectations of themselves.
It is well-known amongst top amateur and professional athletes that the best of the best are usually avid imagery practitioners, even if they don’t realize it. I’m sure you’ve all heard stories of how the top athletes like to get alone by themselves prior to a big game. Whether someone is off listening to music, shopping, or taking a scenic drive, they’re still practicing imagery and it pays off with spectacular performance. I’m also sure, most of you, whether you realized it or not, have also had success with imagery. Have you ever had something you were preparing for be it a sport, a test, a project, or anything where you thought and visualized the moment ahead of time for days on end? In your mind you visualized all the scenarios. You saw it, heard, it felt it, and lived it beforehand. You knew exactly how you would respond, what you would do, say, and how your body would perform. And then, when it actually happened and you responded just how you imagined you would it felt good didn’t it? And the best thing is, you just KNEW exactly how it was going to turn out because in your mind you had already achieved it! Now I can promise you doing mental imagery a few times isn’t going to put 6 inches on your vertical leap by itself! But I also promise you, that if you try it out and practice it - over time you will be able to harness the power of your mind and put it to work on your body.
I’ll now give you a personal experience I’ve had using mental imagery as it relates to basketball. Several years ago I was learning to dunk and even though I had more then enough physical skills and could jump plenty high to do so, I was still very inconsistent. The main problem I had was my footwork as I approached the basket. I was very short and had small hands so in order to throw down a dunk, my take-off had to be absolutely perfect. I had to approach the basket with great speed and, since I’m a bilateral jumper, I had to do a near perfect mini-jump stop which was a challenge because of the speed I was moving at as I approached the basket. Sometimes I’d get too high on my jump-stop and waste my momentum. Sometimes I wouldn’t stop fast enough. Sometimes I’d attempt to stop too quickly and shuffle my feet in the process. Sometimes I’d take off to close to the basket, other times I took off too far. Other times I’d get everything right and then lose the ball. I struggled with this for weeks and months on end. Occasionally I’d get it right and throw down a dunk but I was very inconsistent. Finally, I started to constantly think and evaluate my approach. I would take several minutes per day to visualize the perfect approach in my mind. This can be a lot more difficult then it sounds. Oftentimes, we see ourselves from the outside looking in, like a movie. It’s paramount that you visualize as if you’re performing the movement in real life, in first person. In addition, if there is a glitch in our physical performance it is hard for the mind to do away with that glitch and visualize the performance the way it should be. Often it can be beneficial to take ourselves away from the main activity for a while in order to eliminate the physical glitch. It often helps if we can view ourselves in another person’s body. So, in my case, rather then visualizing my own approach I’d first visualize the approach of someone else, someone whose approach I wanted mine to look like. I’d then convert this mental picture into my own approach.
During this span of time there were a couple of times where I’d be out playing some ball and I’d be faced with the opportunity to try a dunk. If I couldn’t see it right in my mind beforehand I’d pass at the opportunity. It’s always better to end on a positive performance then a negative. My goal was throwing down a dunk. To attempt a dunk and fail because of my footwork would have just re-set this glitch in my mind. Finally, when I knew I had it instinctual and perfect in my mind I got out on the court, warmed up, and proceeded to throw down dunk after dunk after dunk without a flaw in my approach or footwork! Now for the imagery work details!
Frequency – 3-5 times a week
Duration – generally about 5-10 minutes or 15-30 repetitions of the actual dunking motion
Methods – Optimally, you will find a quiet place where you can completely relax and clear your mind. Take several deep breaths and create the surroundings – the gym, the floor, the basketball, the basket, and yourself. Strive to make the image as vivid as possible. Add sounds and smells along with the basic components of sight and feel.
Initially, you may want to visualize in slow motion to get used to imagery, but you want to work up to real time imagery as fast as possible. As mentioned before, the EMG patterns are the same, so unless you plan to actually dunk a basketball in slow motion, you need to visualize in real time.