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Coach's Column with Eric Orton

Posted by: Shannon Boffeli |April 27, 2010 5:29 PM

This week we hear from Eric Orton of Eric is an elite-level coach who trains some of the top MTB racers in the U.S. Eric is the former Director of Fitness at the University of Colorado Health Sciences Center, a certified Functional Training Specialist, a Certified Sports Hypnotist, and holds coaching certifications from both USA Triathlon and USA Cycling.

Question: I often race against this one other girl. We are both closely matched but she seems to come out on top at most of our races. Now, when she passes me in a race I can't help getting demoralized and thinking that she is going to beat me again. How can I stay positive and more focused in this situation?

Answer: I love this question because it gives me the opportunity to talk about one of the easiest and most powerful forms of performance enhancement: visualization.  We have all heard of visualization and have probably at some point watched Olympic skiers preparing for their run down the hill doing visualization.  Their head is bobbing back and forth, going in crazy circles, all with their eyes closed.  They are visualizing every corner, bump, turn, and "seeing” exactly how they want to perform.

This is not often talked about in endurance sports and I would go even further and say it can and should be used in any type of desired outcome, sporting or in life.  This is because to achieve goals, you have to see yourself doing so.  To improve, or in your case, be able to bridge a gap in your race and over take your competitor, you have to be able to clearly picture what you need to do, how you need to react, and how you will perform in a certain race situation.  And this includes how you deal with your pre-race mental talk, now that your rival has that mental edge.

There is overwhelming scientific and anecdotal evidence which demonstrates the undeniable fact that visualization can improve your sports performances - there are numerous scientific studies which have shown its effectiveness.

I'd like to share one classic example of the power of visualization with you. During the Vietnam War, there was a Colonel who was captured and incarcerated in a POW camp for seven years - five and a half of which were spent in solitary confinement. Prior to the war, this Colonel was a golfer with a handicap of four.  To keep himself from going crazy in prison, every day he would visualize playing a round of golf. He would play each shot, and each hole in his mind, and every day he'd play a different golf course.

When he was finally released and returned to the USA, shortly afterward he was invited to play in a celebrity Pro-Am tournament, and despite being underweight and suffering from malnutrition from his ordeal, he hit a round of 76 ... right on his handicap, despite not having held a golf club for over seven years!

Visualization works because it has a measurable, physiological effect on our body. In fact, neurologically, your body can't tell the difference between a 'real' experience, and a vividly imagined one. You consciously know one experience is real and the other is imagined, but at the cellular level, your body can't tell the difference.  So you can literally practice bridging that gap in a race scenario, in a chair!  You can practice how you WANT to respond when she accelerates and tries to make a break.

Because there is a muscular response to visualized activity, it makes it possible to 'program in' desired racing scenarios and even emotional responses prior to your race when you know she will be toeing the line with you. In other words you can 'program in' to your body at a cellular level, a 'muscle memory' of how you want your body and mind to perform come race day.

Visualization is not hard and there is really no way to do it wrong, you can just get better at it.  Effective visualization takes patience, consistency, and great attention to detail.  I instruct my athletes to sit in a comfortable chair, close their eyes and create a "movie” in their mind’s eye.  This movie starts at your pre-race warm-up or whenever you feel is necessary to deal with your negative self-talk.  (You can even make a movie for your training sessions.)  As your eyes remain closed, with your mind’s eye, see yourself at the race acting, performing, AND thinking in a positive manner.  Make it as real as possible and detailed as possible. Hear the gears change as you attack.  Feel the lactate build in your legs as you respond and overcome her attack.  Experience your breathing, see yourself bridging the gap, and create the success you want in this movie.  Again, start from pre-race, all the way to the finish line, seeing every part of the race that results in your desired outcome.  As you are doing this, notice the feeling you get inside yourself, of what it feels like to perform well and to achieve everything you want.  As you get comfortable with this feeling, attach a mantra to this feeling and repeat these words whenever you need to be effective in training, racing and in future visualization sessions.  It is very important to always use the SAME mantra because your body can now respond in real life to this emotional feeling that took place during visualization.

This technique is very powerful, so make it fun so you look forward to doing it.  You now have the ability to create whatever outcome you desire.  I will end with another true story.  I was coaching an Olympic Distance triathlete trying to qualify for the World Championships and during her visualization movie, I specifically told her to see her goal time on the clock as she crossed the finished line.  She performed this "movie” in her mind for a week leading up to her race.  On race day she qualified for Worlds with the exact time she saw in her visualization sessions.





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