The Science of THOUGHT: New Research with Compelling Applications

In the competitive ski and snowboard world, from an early age we are taught two things about our mental game:

  1. Think positive!
  2. Use visualization to imagine the course.

So we tell ourselves “I got this!” as we imagine ourselves ripping down the perfect line.  What we tend to forget is that this tools WORK, and they work even better when we use them in SPECIFIC and MEANINGFUL ways.

A new study was recently conducted that looked at the effect of the use of imagery and motivational self-talk on response time in martial arts athletes.  The results were quite telling:

  • Participants who used only IMAGERY improved their response time by 9.1%
  • Participants who used only SELF-TALK improved their response time by 9.4%
  • Participants who used BOTH imagery and self-talk improved their response time by 11%
  • Participants who DID NOT use either technique actually worsened their response time by 9.7%

11% improved response time – pretty incredible.  Sign me up! But HOW do we make our self-talk and imagery specific and meaningful enough to make a difference?  Here are some thoughts:

  • CUE WORDS – Focus the brain on ONE thing, whether that is a movement (“pull!” or “forward”), a feeling (“power”), an emotion (“confidence”), or a state of mind (“present”) – focusing on ONE thing quiets the mind and zones in focus on what we want to accomplish here and now, and cues the brain to DO what we are telling it to do!
  • IMAGERY FOR OVERCOMING OBSTACLES – Imagery isn’t just about seeing yourself on course, or about memorizing the gates; it can be used in many more specific ways, tailored to accomplish a certain goal:
    • See/feel a specific movement slowed down (like learning a new trick or technique)
    • See/feel yourself overcoming a fear of a particular movement/venue/condition (see yourself powerfully on your outside ski in icy conditions – see yourself stand at the top of the jump, take a deep breath, commit to it and land – see yourself dominate a course where you previously fell last year)
    • See/feel power in a recovering injury – see healing, strength, energy, going to the injured body part.  Envision yourself back on snow feeling confident on the injured part, feeling strong and powerful.

“Over and over in my mind, every day, maybe a thousand times a day, I see myself being the best. After awhile, the body just responds to that. You step into a situation and the body feels like it’s already done that, it’s already been the best, so it’s just going out there and doing it again.” ~USA track and field Olympic bronze medalist

The science shows that this stuff WORKS – start practicing it during the off-season so that when the snow starts falling, you are READY!

“You are creating the sights and sounds and smells, the atmosphere, the sensation, and the nerves, right down to the early morning wake-up call and that feeling in your stomach. It helps your body to get used to performing under pressure.” – Jonny Wilkinson, Rugby 

For more information about imagery, self-talk, of the science behind it all, contact Stephanie Zavilla at

Hanshaw, G., & Sukal, M. (2016). Effect of self-talk and imagery on the response time of trained martial artists Sport, Exercise, and Performance Psychology, 5(3), 259-265. Adapted from:

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