Michael Phelps has won more Olympic medals than anyone else ever. I have heard a number of stories about how he achieved this. Some people cite his natural physique, his arm span, the size of his feet, his height or the fact that he is double jointed. Some talk about his diet, his workouts, his unwavering commitment, his attitude, his bong hits (really). Some say it was his coach.
As a coach myself, sure, I want to think that his coach had a positive impact in some way. Confirmation bias somewhat aside, one thing that his coach taught him struck me as absolutely brilliant and Phelps has said many a time just how big an impact it has had on him over the years.
Michael Phelps coach, Bob Bowman, taught him how to “play the tape”.
Playing the tape is a catchy way to refer to his use of visualizations to prepare himself for races. In years past many assumed that the best (and perhaps only) way to prepare for an activity was to do it. Practice makes perfect became a truism we all believed. Don’t just sit there, get up and do it! Well, not so fast the science now says. Back in 2002 a psychologist named Alan Richardson studied how visualizing free throws compared to actually shooting them. The results were clear. Those who spent 20 minutes per day visualizing improved almost as much as those who physically practiced. We learn by doing, but we also learn by imagining doing.
Now I am not suggesting that you couch potato your way to success. Clearly the best results come when you combine the two methods. Go out and work your but off, but then, when you are not on the court, or holding your instrument, or in the office or doing anything that you want to excel at, you should learn to hold a vision of exactly how you want this pursuit to go in the future.
Another key element of visualization is relaxation. Anyone who has been in the zone, who has stepped into a FLOW state, knows that we can only drop fully into the moment when we are free from any concerns about the future or the past. Anxiety is our enemy when it comes to performing at the highest level. To this end, it is incredibly useful to practice deep relaxation while visualizing things going perfectly. But this is not only about visualizing a perfect world. Visualizations are also incredibly useful for preparing to overcome obstacles you may encounter. As Phelps once said about his visualization practice, “I do go through everything from a best-case scenario to the worst-case scenario just so I’m ready for anything that comes my way,”
Picture the high pressure situation you would like to conquer. Can you see the ideal unfolding of events? This is the first step. This is your “tape”. Once you know what is on the tape, it is great to “play the tape” before bed, upon waking, or just before your big competition, test, interview, performance, presentation etc. But once you get that down, once you have written the tape and you can play it at will, you are ready for the next step. Now, can you allow yourself to CALMLY see something going horribly wrong, but then also see yourself overcoming this obstacle and being massively successful regardless. This is the expert version of visualizations. The goal is not to leave yourself stranded with the difficulty, but to sink deep into a relaxed state and experience yourself overcoming any and all obstacles. Here is where playing the tape really becomes powerful.
Philosophers have said for years that our minds can not tell the difference between what is real and what is only inside the mind. Dreams are real until we wake up. The mind works in mysterious ways. Some have postulated that dreams are actually a way for us to practice life before it happens; to re-live events that did not go as planned and to play with possibilities that the future holds for us. This is pure speculation, but what is abundantly clear is that people who are masterful often have a clear vision of how they want things to go long before it happens. This is not about being attached to outcomes. This is about resonating with and stepping into the reality that you want to create for yourself.
Tiger Woods was taught to visualize his golf ball going exactly where he wants it to go from a very young age. Jim Carrey once wrote himself a check for 10 million dollars and carried it with him every day until he actually started making that much money. How’s that for a vision of the future? Arnold Schwarzenegger used visualization to see not only exactly how he wanted each and every muscle in his body to grow during his body building years, but also to hold a vision of himself as a movie star when his body building career was coming to an end. Each of these people learned to believe deeply that something would happen long before it actually did.
Much of what we are discussing here is about belief. As I have discussed before, belief is an incredibly potent ingredient when trying to change a habit or stimulate growth. The powerful, yet simple act of “playing the tape” will never happen if you don’t first let yourself believe that there is a possibility of being successful. So play the tape. Try it when you are in bed with your eyes closed. Let visions of your future joy and success fill your dreams and wake you from your bed. Cultivate belief in your every fiber and let these ideas, emotions and actual skills work there way into the very fabric of your body and your mind.