Visual Learning

Closing your eyes and “seeing” yourself performing a trick or doing a lap on the track before actually doing it helps you perform at a higher level. We talked to Brit Wilsdorf, a sports psychologist at the German Olympic Center in Berlin, to find out more about visual learning and self imagination and their importance for athletes in training.

Brit, why is it so important to visualize a series of movements in your mind before executing them and what happens to your brain during this visualization?
Visualization training has many positive aspects. On the one hand, it can be used to learn movements, but it can also be used as motivation. It can help influence thoughts, regulate tension and promote concentration. Visualization can also help to prepare rehabilitation processes or competition preparation (when one does not have the possibility to perform the movement at that moment).

Central nervous activation takes place via imagination training, for example, the motor cortex in the brain is activated when you imagine a movement and not only when you actively perform the movement. Some studies show that a combination of real training and mental imagination training significantly improves movement learning and for that matter, strength gains because visualization also supports intramuscular coordination and central nervous activation.

When you include different sensory modalities, the sensory influence, movement experience and auditory experience can be stored more in-depth and can lead to a movement experience being automated faster.

So I can sit at home and watch manoeuvres, store them visually, go on vacation and then recall the movement?
The effectiveness is higher if you also actively perform the movement, but you also have a learning effect if you only visualize it. So yes, you can learn movements and also have an increase in strength, just through visualization, but it also requires prior experience and training.

What is the best approach to visual learning?
It doesn’t matter whether it’s complex movements in kitesurfing, gymnastics or figure skating: The first thing is to train your imagination, for example, by looking at an object and then trying to picture it as vividly as possible with your eyes closed. In other words, to train this imaginative ability. The second step is to write down the movement, what would this movement look like? Visualise every step and then compare it with video sequences and feedback from trainers to make sure that there are no mistakes in the movement. Finally, you compress the movement into nodes. You pick out the most important points in the movement sequence where the movement changes and anchor these reference points in your memory. This works even better if it is backed up with a rhythm, with short formulas, for example, front, left, hop, fast.

What does compress to nodes mean exactly, are these the cruxes of a movement?
Yes, a very short compression that fits the timeline of movement execution. This can also help guide self-talk. For example, if there is a high level of nervousness or fear of falling, then your attention is no longer on the movement. Nodes can provide orientation and help to bring the focus back to the movement.

What is the benefit of learning this rhythm?
Learning a movement is a very complex action. Symbolic markings or rhythms can help to imagine the movement in the actual execution time and then to train it to become repetitive. In this way, the movements can be recalled faster and you’ll get into a good rhythm of movement.

So you have a better grip on external factors when you have internalized the movement?
You could say that, yes. A gymnast in the gym can practice their movements 1000 times. But in kiting, you can’t practice all situations to the point where they are completely automated, because you don’t have the possibility to create the natural conditions as you would like to. Through visualization training, you can work on automatically recalling certain movements faster. In this way, the imagination can help to execute the movement safer in extreme situations and to deal with negative scenarios in a better way.

Goal visualization like that can be incredibly motivating. As a sports psychologist sitting next to it, you often notice an incredible power, energy, a tingling sensation where the athlete’s posture changes.

When you refer to negative scenarios, do you mean falls?
Yes, you can also visualize how to handle failures. Of course, the first goal is: how exactly can I do it so that the outcome goes well, but you can also train for how to handle if the bar slips out of my hand, or if I notice about of panic coming on, or another kiter crosses and I have to react spontaneously. You can be prepared for all of that. Play through scenarios that might come up. How would I handle these situations well? Maybe that’s even more important in kitesurfing than in other sports because you can’t influence everything, you can’t train for all of these eventualities beforehand. If I’ve already gone through in visualization 40 or 50 times on how I would react if I lost the board in the wave, then I’ll remember that if I get into the situation I know what to do and can rewind the appropriate film for it. It’s always about having a conscious script that you act on. But to get back to the positive, the most important thing for a good movement is to develop the right feeling for it.

Developing the right feeling for it, explain to us what that means?
If I manage a really good manoeuvre, a really good turn, how would that feel? What would I feel, what would I hear? Then you can slip more into it and fulfil that vision. What would I be like if I could kite at a higher level? What would my facial expression be like, what would my posture be like if I was looking at myself from the outside? Then try to bring that vision to life over and over again, that’s visualization training and can boost efficiency and self-confidence.

If you know you have a difficult manoeuvre ahead of you in a certain wind force, then you can visualize the feeling: How do I stand on the board, how does it feel in my feet when I feel the board? How does it feel when I am free in my mind, am I able to react quickly? What kind of mindset and activation do I need, what kind of concentration do I need to be top-performing at that moment. That has a lot to do with creativity, inner peace, with daring.

I have met athletes who have said: “My Olympic victory was no surprise to me. In my mind, I’ve been an Olympic champion a thousand times, I knew I had it in me. I’ve already felt myself crossing the line first.” Or athletes who said: “I knew I could do the course because in my mind I’ve done it a thousand times.” This ‘I know it, I can do it’ mindset can help a lot! Even with a new kite trick that you want to learn.