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Imagery: The Eye Movie that Helps you Play Better, Swifter, Smarter

If you play sports of any kind, if you’re interested in being a faster runner or a happier golfer, this column is for you.

It’s about the art of imagery — also known as “visualization,” formerly known as “hocus-pocus” — and how to use it to achieve success on the slopes, in the boardroom, or even in the bedroom.

If you watched the Sochi Olympics this year, you know that imagery is what outstanding athletes use to prepare themselves for competition. They relax, go inside, focus on the mental movie they create, and “whooossh!” … they’re off to the races.

Imaging is what happens when Olympic bobsledder Lyndon Rush is in the Munich airport, on his way to Sochi, sitting with his eyes closed. He lets go of tension — sensing, smelling, breathing every detail of the Olympic track as he’s done hundreds of times before; every curve, every muscle, moving him to victory in record time.

It’s what half-pipe skier Noah Bowman does over and over in his mind in preparation for landing a switch alley-oop double 900. That’s an insane trick that starts with a backward takeoff and involves two-and-a-half rotations and two inverted flips. You can see the advantages of practicing it in your mind.

“You have to smell it. You have to hear it. You have to feel it, everything,” explained Olympian Emily Cook, five time national aerial skiing champion, to New York Times reporter Christopher Carey.

She’s one of 10 zillion athletes who works with a sport psychologist — the U.S. Olympic team brought nine with them to Sochi — because it’s been common knowledge among the elite for years that mental training is even more important than physical training when it comes to digging deep and doing better. This is how we know the mind and the body are connected, but I digress.

Back to the amazing Cook, explaining how she does what she does:

“I would say into the recorder: ‘I’m standing at the top of the hill. I can feel the wind on the back of my neck. I can hear the crowd … ‘ kind of going through all those different senses and then actually going through what I wanted to do for the perfect jump. ‘I turn down the in-run. I stand up. I engage my core … ‘ I go through every little step of how I want that jump to turn out.”

And so can you. That’s what you need to know. Mental training — imaging, relaxation, overcoming fear — is the secret weapon that isn’t a secret anymore. Imaging is for everyone, whether you want to improve your time in a 10K race or perfect a deadly serve.

Interested? Of course! I imagine you’d like a little more information:

THE GOAL IS FLOW. Imaging is a mental-training tool that helps put you into the Flow. Flow is a sublime state, achievable by anyone, in which you are completely in the moment, free of thought, free of fear, when your body and your mind are so much in sync, you lose your sense of time and experience peak performance. The founding father of Flow is Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi (call him “Mike”). Go forth and Google.

THE ENEMY IS FEAR. Negative thinking is to sport success what rancid butter is to brownies. It spoils everything. That’s why so many Olympic athletes go to sport psychologists, to learn and practice letting go of self-doubt and anxiety. You can, too. Cook’s coach taught her to picture herself bursting a big red balloon with a pin whenever she felt fear or negative thinking. You can do it yourself, once you know how, says sports psychologist Dr. JoAnn Dahlkoetter in her sales pitch on YouTube. Her demo of a sports visualization session is fascinating.

HERE AND NOW IS YOUR FOCUS. Learning to focus on the Here and Now is the gateway drug for all mind-altering experiences and is a huge help in any sport. When your mind shifts to the past or floats into the future, you must learn to relax and refocus on this moment. Your breath is the way. For this, we do yoga.

Marilynn Preston — healthy lifestyle coach and Emmy-winning producer — is the creator of Energy Express, the longest-running syndicated fitness column in the country. Visit her website, marilynnpreston.com.

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