The power of the human mind has been a subject of study for a long time. The remarkable ways in which a certain type of mental conditioning can help an individual or a collective are well documented. But much of what can be accomplished by using the brain remains an enigma. Questions about the best ways to leverage the mind still remain.

Nevertheless, one of the easiest and most effective ways to succeed in all types of scenarios, particularly in challenging ones, is visualization.

Visualization is the exercise of picturing a certain situation as accurately as possible. It partly is based on the principle of attraction and possibility, in that the more familiar a situation is to you, the more likely it is that it will happen again, and the higher the chances are of you succeeding in that situation.

How Michael Phelps Used Visualization to Break Records

In his remarkable book “The Power of Habit,” author Charles Duhigg details how visualization provided Michael Phelps, the greatest swimmer of all time, with a significant edge over his competitors. Duhigg explains how Phelps’s coach, Bob Bowman, focused on the mental side of training and constantly prompted him to visualize himself performing, thus elevating his capabilities: 

“When Phelps was a teenager, for instance, at the end of each practice, Bowman would tell him to go home and ‘watch the videotape[…] The videotape wasn’t real. Rather, it was a mental visualization of the perfect race. Each night before falling asleep and each morning after waking up, Phelps would imagine himself jumping off the blocks and, in slow motion, swimming flawlessly[…] He would lie in bed with his eyes shut and watch the entire competition, the smallest details, again and again, until he knew each second by heart[…]

[E]ventually, all Bowman had to do before a race was whisper, ‘get the videotape ready,’ and Phelps would settle down and crush the competition.”

Duhigg goes on to detail how storing a variety of scenarios in his head  –  featuring different and occasionally adverse conditions  – was what allowed Phelps to win a gold medal in otherwise unfamiliar and stressful situations. The author narrates how Phelps managed to overcome adversity to win one of his gold medals  at the 2008 Beijing Olympics. As soon as he hit the water after making the initial leap, his goggles started leaking, completely blurring his vision. Phelps, however, was familiar with this difficulty and knew how to deal with it, even though he had never physically experienced it. It was all in his mind. 

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“For most swimmers, losing your sight in the middle of an Olympic final would be cause for panic. Phelps was calm[…] Bowman had once made Phelps swim in a Michigan pool in the dark, believing that he needed to be ready for any surprise. Some of the videotapes in Phelps’s mind had featured problems like this. He had mentally rehearsed how he would respond to a goggle failure. 

As he started his last lap, Phelps estimated how many strokes the final push would require. Midway through the lap he began to increase his effort, a final eruption that had become one of his main techniques in overwhelming opponents. At eighteen strokes, he started anticipating the wall… Nineteen strokes, then twenty. It felt like he needed one more. That’s what the videotape in his head said. He made a twenty-first, huge stroke, glided with his arm outstretched, and touched the wall. When he ripped off his goggles and looked up at the scoreboard, it said ‘WR’  (world record)  next to his name. He’d won another gold.”

In Beijing, Phelps would eventually set an all-time record for most gold medals in a single Olympic event  by winning eight.

The power of visualization is also supported scientifically by neuroplasticity, the ability of the human brain to create and strengthen new connections between neurons. 

As sports performance expert Dr. Chris Sankovich explains in this interview for STACK, “by mentally rehearsing for an event, you can prime your muscle memory. When you see yourself doing something successfully, you strengthen neural connections in the brain, which allows for faster reactions.”

The key to effectively leveraging the power of visualization is to imagine scenarios and situations in a way that is as close to reality as possible. The more realistic a thought is, the more clearly the mind will identify the different elements present in a potentially dangerous or stressful situation, and the more trained it will become to deal with them.

U.S. Air Force Capt. Cody Vandegriff, a pilot assigned to the 27th Fighter Squadron, examines a map at Langley Air Force Base, Va., Nov. 19, 2015. Pilots must successfully complete survival, evasion, resistance, and escape refresher training every three years to stay current with an array of survival skills. (U.S. Air Force photo by Airman 1st Class Derek Seifert)

Visualization as a Tool for Survival

Visualization is also used by elite soldiers like Navy SEALs and Green Berets. One form of visualization training is Emergency Conditioning.

Emergency Conditioning, also known as “battle proofing” or “battle inoculation,” is a way for soldiers to become mentally ready for combat scenarios by envisioning them beforehand. The more complex and vivid the conditioning is, the better the soldier will perform when that situation occurs in real life. 

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Visualization helps build mental toughness in survival or prisoner scenarios. Mykel Hawke, a survival expert, former Green Beret, and author of the indispensable “Hawke’s Special Forces Survival Handbook says that in order to make it out alive, one must be “mentally prepared for the harsh realities of surviving.” Committing to survival at all costs is a form of visualization that can retool the mind. “When you have nothing,” Hawke writes, “this commitment is all you have, and, more times than not, this can actually be enough.”

Committing to survival is a crucial piece of pushing — mentally and physically — through the most extreme scenarios. Elite soldiers use a trick called a trigger. A trigger is something important or dear to oneself that is visualized in extreme situations, say, the image of holding one’s infant child for the first time, or seeing the whole team come back from a tour safely. The trigger can be “pulled” in times of duress to help unleash reserves of both mental and physical strength.

In an article on Military Times, former Navy SEAL Cade Courtley had this to say about using triggers: 

“When I was going through BUD/S, my trigger was seeing myself walking across the stage at graduation and looking out at family and friends as I was handed my certificate of completion — that image made me endure. But once I got to a SEAL team and took on the incredible responsibility of leading men into life-threatening situations, my trigger was the image of all my men returning from a mission unharmed. I was not going to attend any of my guys’ funerals — not on my watch — and that made me pull my trigger and do whatever needed to be done to keep my men alive.

Your trigger could be an aspirational one — i.e., thinking that nothing is going to rob you of your life before you achieve your goal. It’s as powerful as a protective trigger, such as saving the life of a loved one or protecting a member of your team. Both work, as long as you take the time to make this an extremely vivid visualization. Let it burn into the files of your mind. You must be able to say, ‘I will live and endure anything for this.’

This image or visualized goal is now your trigger. You will use this most important memory file as the ultimate motivation to get you through anything life throws at you. But to maintain the effectiveness of your trigger, you should save it for only the direst situations.”

Visualization and triggers work together with Situational Awareness.

Situational Awareness is the practice of absorbing information from the immediate environment, assessing that information for any red flags, and determining a live-action plan for responding to possible threats.

CORONADO, Calif. Basic Underwater Demolition/SEAL (BUD/S) candidates participate in strength and conditioning training with logs at Naval Special Warfare (NSW) Center in Coronado, Calif., May 18, 2020. (U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 1st Class Anthony W. Walker/Released)

More than Just Mental 

It turns out that visualization not only yields mental results; it can also enhance physical performance, as its benefits can resemble those attributed to exercise. In a 2004 study calledFrom mental power to muscle power — gaining strength by using the mind,” two groups of eight people were assigned to perform mental contractions of their little finger and elbow, respectively, over a 12-week period, for 15 minutes a day, five days a week. The results were startling: 

“At the end of training, the ABD (little finger abduction) group had increased their finger abduction strength by 35 percent and the ELB (elbow) group augmented their elbow flexion strength by 13.5 percent.” 

Not only did the muscles of these people grow, but the brain structures associated with the control of those muscles increased as well: “The improvement in muscle strength for trained groups was accompanied by significant increases in electroencephalogram-derived cortical potential, a measure previously shown to be directly related to control of voluntary muscle contractions.” 

As far-fetched as it might seem, yes, imaginary exercise does in fact seem to yield real results.

It is no secret that both professional athletes and military personnel have to maintain peak physical condition in order to succeed. But mastering these mental skills and resources is equally important. Otherwise, the body-mind connection will experience a significant imbalance, and the body, as powerful as it might be, won’t know how to react when exposed to unknown elements. 

Visualization is an example of how we can harness the power of the mind to gain an edge over the competition. Just like an athletic body will provide significant advantages, an extraordinarily well-trained mind can be the decisive factor. In sports, that can mean an extra millisecond to win the gold medal. In military operations, it can make the difference between life or death.