I Just Don't See Things In My Mind
April 23, 2021
I don't seem to be able to visualize, at least not in the way that other people seem to describe it, and not in the way that a million videos from high-performance consultants seem to describe on YouTube. When I close my eyes and try to visualize myself throwing a shot, I see almost nothing. I hear nothing. I smell nothing. I can't seem to do this kind of mental practice. This leaves me with some central questions:
- Can I develop this skill?
- Should I do something else instead?
- Is there something like visualization that I can already do that would help me in the same way that visualizing would? If yes, then I could effectively think of that as "visualizing", using the word as a metaphor.
What It's Like For Me
When I try to visualize myself throwing a shot, I notice a few things:
- I can't see much in my mind. At best, I see the suggestion of basic shapes with no color and almost no definition. It's like I see the idea of swinging my arm, rather than an arm swinging in space.
- What I "see" seems to come in discontinuous bits and pieces. If I try to "see" my approach, I see a pushaway and an arm swing and a release, but all three from different angles with what feel like jump cuts from a questionable thriller film.
- I seem to find it easier to "see" pins flying around, but again it feels more like the idea of how the pins fly around. I know basic patterns of pin splashes and I see something that suggests that pattern without clearly seeing pins fly. For example, I can see something like the head pin spinning around, flying over the corner pin, bouncing off the side wall, and barely pulling the corner pin down by its neck... but again it's very faint and I can only see it happen at high speed and for a very brief moment.
- When I try to visualize hitting a target, I tend to "see" this from the same point of view as a camera pointed over my right shoulder, instead of how I would see it from my own eyes. When I try to visualize my body's form, I tend to "see" this from the side, again as a camera angle would show it. I don't seem to be able to "see" anything from an inside-my-own-eyes point of view.
There's probably more if I really sit and think about it, but I presume that you get the idea by now.
Just me? Is there any hope? Does it matter? Am I broken? Is everything OK?
What Happened Recently
This past week I tried visualizing throwing a perfect game, mostly because I wanted to try something and see what might happen. I had 10 minutes free. I had just finished meditating, so I thought it might help to try to visualize when my mind was already in a (presumably) calmer and more open state.
I sat, I closed my eyes, and I tried picture myself throwing a strike. Just like I describe above, I could conjure up the idea of various parts of my approach and release, but I couldn't really see much in my mind. I spent time attending to various parts:
- My pre-shot routine of wiping down the ball with my towel and draping the towel over the scoring system's screen.
- Finding my starting spot on the approach. Taking a breath.
- Pushaway: circular, smooth, and under control.
- Balancing over the left foot, then taking two more evenly-spaced, balanced steps.
- Sliding at the line and releasing the ball with strong rotation off my middle finger.
- The ball going in the right direction. I couldn't see the ball roll over my spot, but I could see the idea of the ball taking the correct path over the middle and into the left pocket.
- Pins splashing. Strike.
- Reacting positively to the shot.
It didn't feel vivid and it didn't feel smooth. It was like watching a jerkily-edited video clip switching cameras frequently on a screen with the brightness turned down almost to zero. It didn't seem like it mattered at all. I wondered for a moment whether I was just finding another way to think through a mental checklist.
Even so, it was just an experiment, so I just kept going. Two strikes. Three strikes. Four strikes.
Gradually I just let it go. I let myself attend to all the same parts of the shot. The only real effort I put into this was not skipping any parts: wipe oil off the ball, put the inside of my left foot on the 25 board, take a breath... and I tried to do all this with roughly the same timing that I'd do it in real life. Even after four "shots" I didn't notice any improvement in the visuals. I "saw" the same vague movements in my field of vision. And I just kept doing it, because... what else am I going to do?
After the eighth strikes, I noticed a spontaneously more-demonstrative reaction in my mind. The first pump felt a bit stronger. Unexpected.
After the ninth strike, I actually noticed some physiological arousal in my body. I got warmer. I felt it in my arms and legs. Apparently something was actually happening. And even better than this, I didn't feel nervous energy, but just some physical warmth and a hint of mental determination. No pressure, no anxiety, just... excitement? Is this what visualization is supposed to be doing for me?
I actually imagined myself stepping back to take some extra time before the tenth frame. I even imagined noticing somebody pull out their phone to record my tenth frame. I think I even chuckled at the idea. Somebody cared enough to record this moment for me. How nice!
I imagined the tenth strike. I was staying calm. I imagined the eleventh strike. Now I started to feel some nervous energy. I took some extra time and a few extra breaths for the last shot. I think I might even have taken a beat to savor the moment. Hilarious! This is all in my mind. It's not like I'm going to imagine missing!
I imagined the twelfth strike. I imagined celebrating. What I imagined seemed much more reserved than what I think I will actually do when I finally shoot that first perfect game. I expect there to be some screaming when it happens for realz.
And then it was over. And then I noticed that I'd felt some of the genuine physical sensations and some of the emotions that I expect to feel when I finally start a game on 9 strikes in front of other people. And then I noticed that it didn't feel as nerve-wracking as I would expect it to have felt. I tried not to analyze it too much. It was over.
I was left with the vague feeling that whatever I did "worked" in some way. Even though I didn't experience the vivid images that other people claim to experience, something happened that felt slightly real. This seems like something I'd like to do again.
What Happens Now?
In spite of this recent positive experience, I'm left with the same basic questions.
- Can I develop the vivid images that other people say they experience?
- Should I try? Does it matter?
- Should I worry that this kind of abstract imagining might push me back into the kind of mental checklist approach that has previously led me to try too hard to direct my body?
- On the contrary, might this kind of imagining help me bypass the thinking aspect of those mental checklists and connect more directly with the feeling side of things?
I don't know. I can keep practising like this, but:
- if I can develop more-vivid images in my mind, I'd rather focus on that first and
- if this kind of abstract imagining is going to lead me back to thinking about trying to direct my body, that would be a disaster for my performance
I have looked for books, videos, and articles, and I haven't found much that goes beyond "Here's why visualization is great! You should do it!" (Thanks. I know.) Do I need better books, videos, and articles? Has anyone produced them? I don't need you to sell me on trying to visualize; I need to understand either how to do it better or how to think of it differently. Do I just need to work directly with a sports psychologist? What the hell do I do now?
You nice folks out there fit into three categories: you can't visualize (you are like me), you figured out how to visualize (you were like me), or you never had trouble visualizing (you can just do this thing that I can't yet do). I'm mostly interested in talking to people in the first two of these categories, although I still love you folks in the third one.
- If you figured out how to see vivid images in your mind when you visualize, how did you develop that ability?
- If you (still) don't see vivid images in your mind, what do you do instead? Do you do something similar to visualizing? How much do you believe it has helped you?
I don't want to sit here and force myself to try to make something happen that's not likely to happen. I also don't want to talk myself out of doing what might help me just because I believe that I could possibly learn to do something better.