by PFI Instructor and 2 X US National Record Holder John Hullverson
Searching for a really powerful tool to improve your freediving? Then try adding the practice of visualization to your workout regimen or pre-dive routine.
Visualization in an athletic sense is the act of imagining or mentally rehearsing your performance before you actually do it. Your goal is to create in your mind, with as much detail as possible, the perfect dive or performance, to build mental “muscle memory,” so that when you actually perform your dive, your body and mind have already “been there—done that” and it’s easier for you to “repeat” that perfect performance.
Visualization has been used to enhance athletic performance for decades. It’s a practice employed in some form by most elite athletes and multiple studies have shown how effective it really is. One scientific study in the journal Neuropsychologia, for example, showed that individuals could increase their actual muscle strength by simply, yet methodically, imagining themselves flexing their muscles with perfect form! “We conclude that the mental training employed by this study enhances the [brain’s] cortical output signal, which drives the muscles to a higher activation level and increases strength.” You can access the study here.
Another study published in the European Journal of Applied Physiology and Occupational Physiology using groups of volleyball players found that the group that used visualization techniques increased their scores significantly when compared to groups that did not. The reason appears to be that the act of imagining a performance trains the neural pathways and prepares them to “repeat” the process when the time comes to actually perform: “Thus the same autonomic channels seemed to be used during the actual activity and during the mental imagery of this activity…Mental rehearsing induced a specific pattern of autonomic response, [and] may help in the construction of schema which can be reproduced, without thinking, in actual practice.” You can ready that study here.
I try to make visualization part of my daily training routine when I’m preparing for a competition and I also use it whenever I’m preparing for a dive that will be a new personal best (PB) for me. When using the technique as part of my training routine, I perform two “virtual” dives—the first one while breathing normally and the second in real time on breath hold. During the first “dive” I proceed slowly. I imagine, in as much detail as possible and using all my senses, every aspect of the dive —how the water feels on my face, how the air smells, how the sun feels on my back, how the pressure feels as I descend, and so on. I imagine myself executing perfect technique every bit of the way, from breathe up, to entry, through kick cycles, sink phase, tag grab, bottom turn, ascent, recovery breathing and all the way through the high fives I’ll get after that successful performance white card is awarded. The key to this visualization is perfect technique, because I’m training my mind and creating the neural pathways that will make it so much easier for my body to act and react in that same way when it comes time for the real thing. The second dive I do is a real time dive where I reconfirm the dive I just did, but add the element of actual breath hold.
In addition to visualization as part of my routine training, I also perform a visualization on dive day about an hour or so before my dive. This time I also perform two virtual dives. The first one is a “perfect dive” where everything goes exactly as I would hope. During the second one though, I throw in a couple problems for me to mentally troubleshoot during the dive. Perhaps I get a pressure contraction sooner or stronger than expected. Or maybe I get my lanyard caught on the bottom plate, or maybe in the spearfishing realm, the fish I just shot has holed up in a rock at the bottom. In each of those situations, I mentally rehearse exactly what I would do in that situation, starting with the calm reaffirmation “Don’t Panic.” I then simply imagine how I will solve the problem and still complete a successful and safe dive.
Visualization works. It’s relatively quick, it’s simple, and can be a relaxing start to your workouts or even the last thing you do before bed. In any case, the keys are to make it as vivid as possible and to imagine yourself executing perfect technique. You’ll be helping yourself to succeed when it’s time for the real thing—imagine that!