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. 

“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.