Reaching Full Potential Through Visualization
By Dan Brodsky-Chenfeld
Visualization is the ability to create clear, detailed and accurate images in your mind of something that you want to reproduce as physical reality. In essence, quality visualization is much like a very well-trained imagination. People who practice this skill create complete, precise and specific images. They see the image and feel the movement and even the emotion so vividly that it almost seems as if they are actually doing it.
This article is adapted from Dan Brodsky-Chenfeld’s book “Above All Else: A World Champion Skydiver’s Story of Survival and What It Taught Him About Fear, Adversity, and Success.” In the book, Brodsky-Chenfeld uses his experiences to teach the lessons he’s learned as a competitor, coach, business owner, father and husband to help others achieve their dreams, overcome obstacles and reach their peak performance. It is available at Amazon and other booksellers worldwide.
Reaching Full Potential
Although I was already visualizing frequently and thoroughly, I had no idea how crucial it was until I was in my 12th year of competition. At the time, my team, Arizona Airspeed, had just won back-to-back 4-way formation skydiving world championships. Then the team decided to try its hand at 8-way. As a 4-way competitor, I was fast, precise and confident in my abilities, and I was sure this would carry over to 8-way. I was wrong.
When visualizing for 4-way, I could close my eyes and see myself and the rest of the team in perfect detail. I could see myself doing the moves correctly, as well as the technically perfect choreography of the entire team. I could see the jump from above (the videographer’s angle), from my own eyes and even from any teammates’ point of view. I was able to run it in slow motion or at fast speed with the same precision. I didn’t need to slow down and relax. I could immediately create the images at any moment even while involved in other activities. I didn’t even need to close my eyes. I could see the correct pictures as if they were superimposed over what I was actually looking at. And it paid off.
Eight-way was exponentially busier and noisier than 4-way. All of this activity made it very difficult to create the same clear images in my head that I had in 4-Way. When we started training 8-way, I basically stunk. I was making mistakes that could only come from a novice competitor. My flying was soft and my anticipation dull. During the video reviews of the jumps I was embarrassed.
Then one day as we were riding to altitude for an 8-way, it struck me: When I was visualizing the jump, I wasn’t actually seeing anything. There weren’t even eight people on the screen in my mind. There was just me, fumbling through a mass of bodies. I couldn’t even see what the formation looked like. I suddenly realized that I had no visualization skills for 8-way. If I couldn’t see—or even imagine—what a good jump was going to look like, the odds weren’t very good that it was actually going to happen. And if it did, it would be due to nothing but pure luck. I certainly couldn’t make much of a contribution to a good effort if I didn’t know what one looked like.
Our team had two weeks off. During that time, I spent two hours a day (eight 15-minute sessions) dedicated to visualization training. I didn’t have to learn the skill of visualizing, I had extensive experience in practicing the skill with 4-way. I just had to apply that skill to a different event.
I looked at video and photographs of the formations from above and then practiced creating the same still photos in my head. I switched the “camera angle” to my point of view and practiced creating the image that I would see while in the same formation. Once I was able to see these still photos, I added movement and began working on producing the picture of what the team looked like when transitioning from one formation to another. I had to slow it way down so that I had time to paint the picture in my mind.
At first, it was difficult and took quite a bit of time for each picture, but once I had accurately created the picture the first time, it became much easier. With frequent, consistent training, I quickly learned the skill of producing the 8-way images in my mind.
On our first jump back, I was again visualizing the jump we were about to do while on the ride to altitude. I could see everything perfectly. I knew exactly how the jump was supposed to go, what I had to do to make it go that way and that I could make it go that way. I could see every detail of every person during every transition to every formation. It had a calming effect. The images were so clear that it felt like I had done them hundreds of times before. I knew from experience that if I could visualize the jump this clearly, all I had to do was calm myself down and let it happen. The rest would be automatic. My confidence soared.
We exited the airplane and the jump went just as planned, just as I had seen it in my head. It was amazing. I had visualized a performance level in 8-way before actually ever performing up to that level. During our two weeks off my athletic potential didn’t change. I was the same athlete with the same skills and abilities. I already had the potential to be a good 8-way competitor. The visualization training helped me reach my full potential in a fraction of the time it would have taken otherwise. It happened in my head first, and my physical reality followed in line.
Training Your Visualization Skills
People with highly advanced visualization skills can create through visualization the same experience in their mind as that of the actual physical activity. Our minds don’t recognize much difference between full sensory visualization and actual physical training. Time spent practicing our skills through visualization can be equally as beneficial as the real thing.
Training your visualization skills is very similar to training your physical skills:
Find a quiet place where you can be without distractions. Relax, calm your mind and slow down before you begin.
Have a clear picture that you want to start with. For instance, if you are an ice skater it would benefit you to have an actual photo of yourself at the moment when you are paused in preparation of attempting a particular move. Having this picture will help you to recreate the same image in your mind. It will then be easier to visualize a frame-by-frame execution of this move because you have a vivid image to start from.
It is also very useful to have watched moving images of yourself or other people performing the move you want to visualize. Watching footage of yourself or others executing the same skills will put a blueprint in your mind of the pictures that you want to paint.
Take the time you need to produce the correct picture in your mind. Start with something simple. The more complex the image, the more time it will take. This can be frustrating—be patient. If the picture in your head gets scrambled, stop, erase it, calm down and start again. Don’t try to force it.
As you begin to visualize a particular action, try it first in slow motion. As with training physical skills, your initial visualization training will require you to think through each part of a particular move as you create the image of that move in your mind. Once you are able to really see the correct technical move in your mind, repeat the process again and again.
With repetition and practice, your mind—like your body—will start to learn the particular skill on its own. It will develop its own mental muscle memory. Soon you will be able to think less because your mind is familiar with the picture and creates it effortlessly.
After training the ability to visualize particular images, you will be able to create these images in your mind with minimal preparation. You won’t need to find a quiet place or take time to slow down and relax. You will be able to flip the switch and clearly visualize what you have practiced in any place and at any time you choose to.
Repetition is the only way to turn new skills and habits into instinct. There are no short cuts. Quality visualization allows you the opportunity to dramatically increase the number of repetitions you can do. It gives you the chance to practice the perfect move 100 times in only a few minutes. If your visualization skills are well trained, the practice you do in your head can be just as valuable as actual training time.
To get the most benefit, do the visualization training alongside the physical training. Work on visualizing the same skills in the evening that you are practicing during the day. As your visualization skills improve, so will your actual performance. As your performance skills improve, so goes your visualization. By working your visualization skills in parallel with your physical training you will reach your performance goals in far less time.
Visualization Can Replace Training If It Has To
Learning to visualize requires the same commitment as learning physical skills. The benefits are every bit as valuable. Some would even argue that, at times, the skill of creating vivid, full-sensory, positive images in your mind can be just as powerful as training the physical skills themselves.
Before Airspeed, when I was a player-coach on the 4-way team Airmoves, I was seriously injured in the middle of the training year and wasn’t able to jump for months leading up to the USPA National Championships. When we arrived at the meet, I was still weak on certain jumps. The long recovery time had greatly reduced my strength, endurance and flexibility. I was still wearing support equipment to protect injuries and was 20 pounds under my fighting weight. My physical condition and currency in the air were greatly compromised.
The only thing in my favor was the extensive amount of visualization I had done. During my recovery, I was constantly looking at videos, visualizing skydives and dreaming about jumping. As the coach, I had watched every jump the team made at least 50 times. It felt like I was almost on the jumps with them. For six months, I had spent more time visualizing—much more—than I had ever done before.
How was it possible that I was ready to compete at the National Championships at all when my physical condition was marginal at best and I had barely made a jump in six months? As it turned out, the visualization proved to be worth more than the actual training could have been. In the airplane, I was able to visualize the jumps perfectly. I felt confident and ready to do any job required of me. It seemed like I had done all of these moves only yesterday, because basically I had. All the positions and moves felt familiar.
Even though all the physical evidence would dictate otherwise, when visualizing in the plane I felt like I had every reason to expect we’d have great jump and my confidence was high. The extensive visualization training I had done basically replaced the lack of any significant physical training. I don’t recommend this as a training plan, but it does demonstrate how powerful quality visualization can be.
So, whether you haven’t been able to jump for a while or you’re jumping every day, don’t underestimate how effective visualization can be to help you reach your full potential. Be sure and give visualization a valuable place in your training program.
About the Author
Dan Brodsky-Chenfeld, D-8424, is a world champion skydiver and was a founding member of Arizona Airspeed. Currently the manager of Skydive Perris in California, he is also a highly in-demand coach, author and motivational keynote speaker. More information about Brodsky-Chenfeld is available at danbrodsky-chenfeld.com.