Sports Psychology and Meditation: The Power of Visualization with Coach Brian Comer

Brian Comer is a coach with Team RunRun. To learn more about him or to work with Coach Brian, check out his coaching page.

In the world that we live in, now more than ever seems like the time to view ourselves from within. To reflect, to ponder, to determine where to go from here, both individually and as a society as we try and reckon where we fit in the puzzle. In a world filled with such hurt, it may be hard to feel a sense of community right now, but our breath, our signal of being one humanity, can unite us no matter how big the distance. Cancellations of events are sweeping the globe and while this includes races, it can also be a time for many to try and re-invent themselves by taking up new hobbies, getting tasks done that may otherwise fall by the wayside, or simply to spend this time with cherished loved ones. I found that the frequency I have been practicing meditation is at an all-time high since the outbreak and the positive impact it has on sports performance will span longer than the coronavirus pandemic.

Meditation and My Experience

Meditation, while it can be tricky at first when just starting out, is a skill that can be honed with practice, much like running. I am fortunate enough to have access to Peloton and the online, on demand library they have full of meditations of various length and type, but just because you don’t have a subscription doesn’t mean you don’t have access to a source of meditation as well. Mantra is the most powerful characteristic of meditation and, especially in such uncertain times, can really serve as a source of positive affirmation than can carry over to the rest of your life (or day if you happen to meditate in the middle of the day or in the morning).

I have found the easiest time for me to incorporate meditation is at night. It seems more natural for me to turn inwards at the end of a long day while I’m at my most tired and most reflective. It is a great activity to do right before bed in order to help you fall asleep and stay asleep as my most restful nights have usually come from a pre-sleep meditation. It is no secret that quality sleep and rest has benefits that can help you feel more energetic and primed to conquer your athletic goals.

So How Does This Help Sports Performance?

This is where visualization and sports psychology start to come into play. The majority of sports performance is mental, what goes on between the ears. While nobody can deny the importance of physical performance and willing muscles to perform certain movements, it is set in motion mentally and could explain why the best of the best make it look so natural. Practicing visualization, with vivid imagery of not only your race but of that race going well, helps keep a more level mind and prevents becoming flustered when something doesn’t go how you expect it.

We can’t change what is outside of our control but what we can choose is how we react to something and that has about equal bearing when it comes to sports performance and how we can impact it for better or worse. Nobody expected our world to be in the situation that it finds itself in, but being level-headed and strong is beneficial to not only you but to those around you as well (whether that is running club teammates or your family during the here and now). Think of all the miles in solitude as training for when you find yourself in the dreaded no man’s land in the middle of a race. It can help you feel more prepared to not only embrace the feeling and continue to run strong, but also give you the courage to throw in that surge to catch the group of runners up ahead.

There are numerous pitfalls to overthinking, but first and foremost is the sense of panic that can hamper your performance. According to Seattle area sports psychologist James Chidester, it is what many sports psychologists describe as “paralysis by analysis” (Pitfalls of Overthinking, James Chidester). Three key ways to avoid overthinking are to “have just a few brief things to focus on before and during your performance like a cue statement, trust in your practice and training, and stay in the present by letting go of mistakes” (Chidester).

Your Cue Statement

A cue statement can be likened to a mantra from meditation, something brief and simple to focus on and repeat to yourself during performance. While there is a time for deep analysis, it isn’t in the moments right before competition. Just as in training periodization, cycles start off broad, implementing more breadth and becoming a time to focus on weaknesses, while as the goal race gets closer, training gets more specific and it becomes a time to focus on strengths. This can help instill trust in the process and in your training, thinking back on all the hard work you completed before the race, and can often be the cornerstone of your particular race day mantra. All the best athletes have a short memory, whether in success or failure. The need to stay present will help ground you and keep you focused and is just as important for the basketball player who turned the ball over on the last possession as it is for the runner who went out too fast. A short memory in success will also keep you hungry for more and to not settle either. Pressure, particularly pressure to do things right, is the leading cause of overthinking and can prevent you from performing at your highest level.

Getting Past the Mental Barrier

Among the most common performance barriers, the vast majority of them are mental. These can span from being under or over activated before performance to placing strict demands on performance, diminishing self-confidence to psyching yourself out before performance. It isn’t uncommon to have multiple performance barriers when it comes to the ones with more mental components as they often go hand-in-hand with one another while overtraining tends to be the leading physical performance barrier that hampers performance. One barrier I will address in particular is carrying life’s worries into sports. It is no secret that there is currently plenty to worry about given the global climate, but carrying external worries and stressors into sports performance will only lead to distraction and diminished performance. Under normal circumstances, life worries can come from something as fleeting as a work project or getting cut off in traffic. I’d argue that while we tend to get caught up in the numbers and the X’s and O’s of sports like weekly mileage and number of strength training sessions, it is equally important to include journaling and logging how we feel on a certain run or workout. 

Training Log vs. Personal Journal

There should be considerations not only for how we felt physically, but mentally and emotionally as well. Keeping a training log, from a workout standpoint, is important in telling you what training was like before a big PR or breakthrough, but keeping a journal to document how you felt, what else was going on in your life when you had that breakthrough, is important to reflect on as well. This can be kept in conjunction with your training log or kept entirely separate.  It is noteworthy though that both of these logs and journals chronicle feelings. Like how a training log can help you articulate how you felt about a workout or race, a journal can help articulate feelings about a particular life event. It is okay if all you write down is a list of words describing how you are feeling, you don’t have to write a full blown essay in order to reap benefits from this exercise. Everyone goes through pits and peaks and there is a reason why carrying life’s worries into sports is such a common performance barrier. In being holistic in our training process, a performance reflection can really help spell out a race you had, listing three things each for what went well, what you could improve on, and what mental challenges you encountered.

Developing a Winning/Champion Attitude and Mindset

When it comes to giving yourself an edge, it is imperative to go to the starting line with a winning attitude and mindset. Be honest with yourself when evaluating progress. Especially in these trying times, it is okay to feel weak or like something is missing, but in all that you do, project confidence and manage discomfort. Distance runners often are among the first that come to mind when thinking of people who bathe in discomfort, but don’t panic. Visualize success, stay positive, be present, and push on. Many are quick to give up, say something is impossible, just about 65 years ago, people were saying this about the four minute mile and climbing Mt. Everest, both of which have gone on to be a feat completed by many. The training or physiology didn’t change, human attitudes did and the indomitable, resilient spirit found in humanity reigned supreme. Remember to not panic and to own your zone. If your on the starting line of your goal race, remind yourself you belong, that the hay is in the barn, and that race day should be fun as you get to reap the benefits of all the hard work. By honing your mental imagery and toughness, self-talk and self-analysis, pain management, anxiety control, focus, body language, and resilience, it can give you that added mental boost to push further and reach greater heights in your next race. That all starts through reflection and meditation, which there is no better time to start than right now as you abide by social distancing regulations. Perhaps through that uniform breath, the marker of showing that we are among the living and the thing all humans share, it can prove to be another way to unite us in this divisive time while giving you a chance for mental exercise as well during this time. 

Brian Comer is a coach with Team RunRun. To learn more about him or to work with Coach Brian, check out his coaching page.