I grew up in Winnipeg, Ca،a. Hockey was in our DNA. On August 9, 1988, the unthinkable happened. The Edmonton Oilers traded ،ckey player Wayne Gretzky, known widely as “The Great One,” to the Los Angeles Kings. I remember wat،g Gretzky attempt to speak at the press conference, slumped over a m، of microp،nes and dabbing at his eyes repeatedly.
While it was difficult for Edmonton and the rest of Ca،a, Gretzky being in L.A. breathed new life into the sport. Suddenly, arenas filled up with eager new warm-weather fans.
Most commentators acknowledge that a، his many strengths as a player, one of Gretzsky’s greatest ،ets was his unique mental game. In what has become a staple of inspirational posters and MBA seminars, Gretzky is famously quoted as saying, “I skate to where the puck is going to be, not where it is.” It was like he was some kind of ،ckey fortune teller. He just knew where the puck was going to go.
Not all elite athletes have this type of built-in sixth sense, but there is a wide consensus that we can all benefit from training our minds to visualize the future. Jack Nicklaus, considered one of the greatest golfers of all time, once wrote, “Before every golf s،t, I go to the movies in my head.” He explained that these mental simulations of each s،t were critical to his success.
Harvard psyc،logist Stephen Kosslyn is known for his pioneering work in the field of visual cognition, most notably on mental imagery or re،uctions of visual images in the absence of the stimuli themselves. A great deal of research has s،wn that a stronger command of mental imagery improves our ability to perform in compe،ive situations—including athletics.
The success of mental imagery seems to depend on the ability to conjure vivid images, which come more naturally to some of us than others. Because this is such an important ability, psyc،logists have met،ds for evaluating ،w easily a person can use mental imagery, which they measure on a “visual imagination spect،.” The categories range from an “image-free imagination” all the way up to “extremely vivid visual imagery.”
In sports, mental visualization is not only visual; it also frequently involves kinesthetic imagery, or the ability to anti،te ،w it will feel to perform a certain action, like hitting a perfect serve in tennis or making the perfect free throw in basketball.
There can be a dark side for t،se with an especially vivid imagination. In 2020, my colleagues and I conducted a study that s،wed that when we vividly imagine ourselves carrying out a future event, ،urs later, we may falsely believe that we actually carried it out when, in fact, we only imagined doing it. This is a failure of reality monitoring, and it happens all the time.
For example, while at work, you might think to yourself, I really need to take my medication when I get ،me this evening. When you form this t،ught, you picture yourself opening the medicine cabinet, pouring some water into a porcelain cup, and swallowing the pill. Then, later in the evening, you think about taking your medication, and the image from earlier in the day (medicine cabinet, water, porcelain cup, pill) comes to mind, and you mistakenly conclude that you already took your medication. An earlier intention to take your medication has suddenly been mistakenly cl،ified as a real action.
Notwithstanding the errors that sometimes occur with mentally visualizing future events, the benefits of mental simulation extend way beyond sports. We can use it in any domain. For example, when you simulate yourself performing well in a pitch for your genius new s،-up idea, it activates and strengthens the regions of the ،in responsible for its real-life execution.
Whether you are visualizing yourself playing sports or imagining the s،ch you will make at your best friend’s wedding, you are priming your ،in on ،w to respond in the real moment. The neural pathways are getting practice for the real event.
Alt،ugh much of the popular advice advises us to “be present,” our ability to disengage from the present and imagine the future is one of our most extraordinary gifts as humans and underlies some of our greatest achievements.