Visualization is fundamental to success in any sport for all athletes. Whether the sport is golf, baseball, football, soccer, hockey, basketball or any one of the Olympic sports; the process of visualizing requires a thorough grasp of how strong mental skills improve performance. For example, hitting a baseball has been described as being one, if not, the hardest things to do when you consider that the distance from the back of home plate to the front of the rubber on the pitcher’s mound is 60’6”, and the pitcher is throwing the baseball at you somewhere between 75 and 100 mph, with most around 90 mph. While you contemplate this, once the baseball leaves the pitchers hand, he does not actually know where the ball will wind up although he is throwing at the catcher’s mitt; his target. The batter stands at home plate and must pick up the ball as soon as he sees it leave the pitchers hand. At this point the batter’s ability to hit the baseball comes down to how well he visualizes the ball coming at him at a very fast speed, closing in on the batter at say 90 mph which equals 132 feet per second and takes only 0.458 seconds to reach home plate.
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In that span of time, the batter must pick up the baseball leaving the pitcher’s hand, and follow it as it comes towards home plate, and swing his bat making connection for a hit. Major leaguers have an average bat speed of 70 to 85 mph and an exit speed; the speed at which the ball leaves the bat, of little more than a 100 mph. The old axiom “you can’t hit what you can’t see” is very real. However, it is not that a ball player can’t actually see the ball coming at him, rather it is that has difficulty in picking up the baseball in a way that he can actually visualize where the ball is headed in order to determine if his swing will connect with the ball.
Visualization is one of the essential mental skills, along with goal setting, motivation, imagery, focus and concentration that comprise mental toughness. Hanson (2006) defines mental toughness as the ability to consistently play at or near your best regardless of circumstances based on perspective and mental skills. Perspective is the way an athlete looks at his game, situation, and preparation which affects his attitude. And attitude will affect the athlete’s ability to visualize. A method that has been used effectively in baseball to overcome visualization issues at the plate involves the following steps:
- Pre-game preparation: practice hitting the baseball at various speeds, with different pitches, concentrating on swing mechanics
- Approach the game with positive self-talk, and a hitting strategy
- Envision hitting the ball through imagery; visualizing the ball leaving the pitchers hand and the bat meeting the ball for a clean hit
- Focus on the pitcher, clearing the mind of distractions
- Concentration, close your mind to everything accept hitting the baseball
- Stand firmly at the plate with the confidence of an effortless swing
- Breathe deeply and calmly
Although the game varies in context, this process of visualization in baseball can be applied to sports such as golf. With slight modification, this positive approach to hitting through visualization is very similar to a proven approach I developed and particularly applicable to golf: Envision, Plan, Execute, Attain, and is synonymous with the approach Dr. David Cook (2009) advocates: “See it, Feel it, Trust it”. But what happens when interference occurs and you find yourself not able to see the proverbial trees from the forest. When visualization is interrupted by a lack of awareness of a situation that actually prevents you from seeing or being aware of the situation.
Mummert and Furley (2007) described these phenomena as the inattentional blindness paradigm; an inability to perceive something that is within one’s direct perceptual field because one is attending to something else. The term was coined by psychologists Mack and Rock (1998) who showed that, under a number of different conditions, if a person was not overtly concentrating on a specific task at hand; such as focusing on where to hit a golf ball, or concentrating on hitting a baseball, they would became distracted by a situation or something in their line of sight, which caused them to actually be blind to what may be occurring right before their eyes. That is, a person performing a task fails to see what should have been plainly visible, and later cannot explain the lapse in vision focus or concentration.
For the golfer this could be tree movement, birds flying overhead, spectator disturbance, another golfer in their peripheral line of sight, or simply a leaf blowing across the golfer’s line of sight during his downward swing. For the baseball player, it could be a loose baseball on the field, the crowd, a player moving, or catching sight of a relief pitcher warming up in the bull pen. Whatever the cause, according to Mummert and Furley (2007), research has indicated that the inattentional blindness paradigm cannot actually be prevented, however it can be prepared for. A mental skills regime involving strengthening exercises to improve visualization, imagining, focus and concentration is highly recommended. One intervention strategy to accomplish this encompasses Dr. Cook’s See it, Feel it, Trust it process established through my Four-Step process: Envision, Plan, Execute, Attain supports a positive approach in dealing with the inattentional blindness paradigm.
Cook, D., L. (2009). Seven days in utopia: golf’s sacred journey. Grand Rapids, Michigan. Zondervan.
Hanson, T (2006). Focused baseball: using sport psychology to improve baseball performance. In Joaquin Dosil, (Ed.) The sport psychologist’s handbook: A guide to sport-specific performance enhancement. West Sussex, England: John Wiley & Sons, Ltd.
Mack, A., & Rock, I. (1998). Inattentional Blindness. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.
Mummert, D. & Furley, P. (2007). “I Spy with My Little Eye”: Breadth of attention, inattentional blindness, and tactical decision making in team sports. Journal of Sport and Exercise Psychology, 29, 368-381. (EBSCOhost Accession Number: AN 25301933).
Gerald S. “Sandy” Graham is a full-time Psy.D Student (Doctoral) in Sport & Performance Psychology offering Performance Coaching & Mental Skills Training. He is a member of the American Psychology Association (APA) Sport, Exercise and Performance Psychology APA Division 47, the Association for Applied Sport Psychology (AASP), and the USGA.