Chelsea: Do your dancers like to close their eyes and visualize their routine before taking the stage? Does it really help or is it just a popular thing dancers like to do? Hi, it’s Dr. Chelsea. This is the Passion for Dance podcast where we talk about mindset, motivation, and resilience in dance while building a community of positive dance educators who are all here to do the same.
Today, I want to talk about visualization because it is really popular. Walk into any convention center or backstage at any arena, and you will see dancers with their earbuds in or stereo sitting next to the team, heads bowed, thinking through their routine. But did you know that visualization (or imagery, as it’s sometimes called) is not just about picturing yourself doing the dance. There is research that helps explain why it works and why it’s worth your time, but it’s also not as simple as just picturing yourself. You can probably get a lot more out of it, so I’m going to explain what visualization is and share nine benefits of using it to improve your skills.
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Welcome to the Passion for Dance podcast. I’m Dr. Chelsea, a former professional dancer and a dance team coach turned sport psychologist. This podcast focuses on four main pillars: motivation, resilience, mindset, and community. Each week, you’ll learn actionable strategies, mindsets, and tips to teach your dancers more than good technique. This is a podcast where we can all make a lasting impact and share our passion for dance. Let’s do this!
What is Imagery – 1:37
Chelsea: So, what is imagery? Imagery involves creating or recreating an experience in your mind. It’s the process of creatively generating an image in your mind that has the intention of enhancing your performance, improving your motivation or even your mood. And I want to clarify at the top here that I actually prefer the term imagery to visualization because it’s not just about using your visual sense. You want to include all of your senses for a more powerful result. When your image includes vision, auditory, sensory information, even olfactory and tactile senses, it’s connecting more regions of the brain and generating a stronger result. So, imagery and visualization mean the same thing for the most part and can be used interchangeably, but I usually stick with imagery.
When to Use Imagery – 2:30
So, when do you use imagery? As I mentioned, you’ve probably seen teams who huddle up in a circle, hold hands with their heads bowed listening to the music, and when I see that, I assume they’re visualizing that routine, they're creating that imagery. That’s one good use of imagery, but you don't have to wait until competition or wait until you have a complete routine for it to have a benefit. You can also use imagery before, during, and after practice. You can use it outside of practice in your own time. You can use it before and after competitions. One powerful way to use it is during injury rehab.
Why to Use Imagery – 3:10
So, why do we use imagery? There are two main functions of imagery: to improve motivation and thoughts. When you want to improve motivation with your dancers, imagery is one powerful tool in your coach’s toolbox. You can do it during the hard practices leading up to your first competition or when you're afraid they may burnout and you notice motivation is fading. You can have your team visualize specific goals and goal-oriented behavior like winning at a specific event or accomplishing a specific skill. If practices are getting intense and difficult, take a five-minute break and ask your athletes to close their eyes and imagine what it would be like when they accomplish their goal. Picture a perfect landing of that skill that’s been plaguing them or picture running up to receive the trophy they’ve been dreaming about. Picture that feeling when you come offstage and everybody knows it hit, and you're hugging and jumping up and down. Try to imagine that after moment that you're really working for.
Imagery is also motivational when used to help boost confidence. You can use it to get psyched up or to picture yourself performing at your personal best. Alternately, imagery is a great tool for cognitive skills like focus. You can visualize the perfect execution of a specific skill, or you can run whole routines. Usually, we just imagine an entire routine, but it can actually be very helpful to just repetitively image a specific skill with quality execution. Imagery allows an athlete to increase body awareness and boost confidence around a skill, making a successful skill attempt much more likely.
How to Creating a Strong Image – 4:54
So, how do you actually go about creating a strong image? There are two perspectives you can take when you’re visualizing: internal or external. So, internal is when, in the image, you are inside yourself. You are seeing what you normally see. You feel yourself execute the skill. You can focus on the kinesthetic sense of performing the skill, and you experience it from your point of view as the dancer. You can also take an external perspective like watching yourself in a movie. So, which is better? Well, it depends.
Most research supports a stronger neurological connection with an internal perspective where you are in your own body, visualizing what it feels like from that point of view. However, if an athlete naturally takes an external perspective and struggles to hold onto the imagery from an internal perspective, forcing doesn't help. If external imagery comes naturally for you or your dancers, you can stick with it, but I encourage you to try thinking about it from that internal point of view.
Imagery works best if you ensure the image is both vivid and you can maintain control. When you ask your athletes to sit down and visualize a skill like a toe touch or a leap, you want that image to be as clear as possible. You want it to be realistic. So, be as detailed as possible. What are you wearing? Where are you? What do you see? What do you hear, all the way down to the beads of sweat on your forehead. The more vivid the picture, the better it will work. That means visualization takes a little time. Even something as simple as a jump visual or a single turn doesn't happen right away. You have to take a minute to set the stage in your head before you visualize, and it will be so much more effective.
Visualization Must be in Your Control – 6:44
Along with being vivid, visualizations have to be in your control. This takes practice, and some people struggle to really be in charge of what they're picturing. It’s like they're creativity and their mind runs away with it. So, this is where concentration comes in as well, and it’s a good practice skill if your dancers need work on focus. You have to be able to hold onto the image and not let anything negative happen. If you're not careful and not in control, your visualization of the routine might take a wrong turn and you end up imaging something wrong or a big mistake. You want to make sure you're in control of the timing and sequence of your visualization.
This is why I think when dancers only visualize an entire routine, many of them probably can't actually hold onto that image for a two-minute dance. They need practice holding a vivid image in their control. So, start with a single turn or a turn sequence or four eight counts that you’ve just cleaned, right? Take those smaller chunks to practice a vivid and in-control visualization before you jump into an entire routine.
How Does Imagery Work? – 7:54
So, for those maybe a little interested in the science, how does this work? Well, there is more than one theory that explains why imagery works and improves performance and confidence, but one theory is that imagery enhances performance because it allows us to anticipate and rehearse our responses to specific environments so that we know what to do when it happens. It helps the dancer understand the movement patterns in their body and allows for rehearsal. So, if your imagery is at a specific venue (we all have that venue, right, where you compete there every year and you get that butterfly and adrenaline dump as soon as you get there), if you visualize yourself in that arena, you know where the judges sit, you know what the lighting is like, you know what your costume feels like, you’re practicing and rehearsing that specific environment and controlling how you want to act when you're there. That practice adds up.
Another possible way that imagery works is because it just helps all the other mental skills, and, again, it’s more than just picturing yourself dancing. So, especially when you get the other senses involved, it can have a positive impact on the other mental skills because it makes things easier like confidence, motivation, concentration, and goal setting.
Why to Think Through Your Routine Before a Performance – 9:14
So, why do you think through your routine before a performance? If you do that, I encourage you to think about why. What’s the goal? It may be something that you have simply always done but don't really consider why. Once you narrow in on why you visualize a routine, talk to your dancers about it. It can make such a difference for your dancers if they know why they are doing something and what they are supposed to do. Don’t assume that they understand the value of visualization or even how to do it.
So, if I haven't yet convinced you that you should try this, as you consider why you're using imagery, here are ten benefits of using imagery as a dancer.
Nine Benefits of Using Imagery as a Dancer – 9:54
- Imagery helps learning and practicing new skills. I have seen improvements in skills over months of visualization, especially when it’s tied to actual practice. So, it doesn't replace practicing the skill, but you will learn it faster if you are physically doing it and visualizing it. So, especially skills that might be really hard to do repetitively because maybe they're a little more dangerous or they are too physically taxing to do that many times in a row, using both visualization and physical practice will help you learn faster.
- Imagery improves performance. Again, because of maybe the rehearsal aspects of it or feeling more comfortable.
- Imagery can help stress management and relaxation. You can use visualization to calm your system down. Imagine yourself in a relaxing place in your favorite location wearing whatever you would be wearing when you need to be relaxed. What music is playing? Setting that tone can help with stress management and relaxation.
- Imagery can help enhance confidence. Again, if you can imagine yourself achieving the thing you want to achieve and really see yourself doing it, you can start to believe it.
- Imagery can help develop plans or strategies. Again, kind of walking through different scenarios and imagining yourself successful in each of these different scenarios.
- Imagery can help with injury rehab. This is one where I’ve seen a lot of power. Where if a dancer is in the middle of rehab after a serious injury and they aren't able to dance yet, maybe not at all or at least not to their previous abilities, but being able to visualize themselves dancing again can help kind of keep the why in mind, keep you pushing forward. But it can also really help with the injury rehab itself, like thinking and imaging through your physical therapy techniques, practicing those things, and keeping your mind on track, helping you through what could be a very long rehabilitation.
- Imagery helps improve concentration and attention because it helps you practice focus. We have to practice the skill of focusing, and I think we don't always have that with dancers where they have a chance to really practice that intense two-minute focus. It’s harder than we think.
- Imagery can help with goal setting and achievement. Again, picturing that end result like, “I want that no-regrets feeling when I come off the floor. I know what that feels like, and I want that.” Visualizing that moment can help you do the work in practice because you remember how important that is.
- Lastly, Imagery can change your mood and your emotional state. If you want to intentionally bring in a positive mood, you want to shift the energy in the room, you can visualize something that will change that mood state, and it doesn't have to be dance. Kind of like relaxing where I say, “Where would you want to be? What state do you want to be in? What are you wearing?” Where are you happiest? What place are you happiest, and think through that, and create this whole image about where you are when you’re happiest, and you can see a shift in your mood.
The bottom line is this: we know that imagery does have a neurological reason for its success. When you imagine a skill or a routine, the neural pathways that are activated are the same neural pathways involved in actually performing the skill. It’s really incredible. Imaging is actually rehearsing the same neural pathways, making those pathways more efficient, more automatic, and easier to utilize during an actual physical performance. So, when you imagine a skill, the effect on the brain is the same as performing the skill. Why wouldn't you want more practice like that?
So, I hope you take this and give it a try! If you're interested in these kinds of mental skills and more, there are visualization scripts and much more inside the dance coach membership Relevé. You can send me an email or a DM. I’d love to talk to you about it, see how you're using imagery, answer any questions that come up for you. And I‘ll ask now. How has imagery impacted you or your dancers’ performance? Get in touch and let me know! I’d love to talk about it.
Thanks for being with me today. Keep sharing your passion for dance with the world!
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