My grandfather recently pulled out an old gem from his archive of artifacts collected throughout his seventy-four years of life. Though I am no longer an athlete, he thought the following manuscript may be useful to me; if not for anything else, “it could be the subject of a blog post,” he said. Nonetheless, he handed me a draft copy of An Introduction to Mental Training for the Competitive Athlete, by Donald M. Ronan. Ronan worked with my grandfather as a guidance counselor at West Islip High School in New York. He was an All-American football player at Syracuse University, drafted by the NY Giants in the 1950s. Due to his death in the late 1980s, his book was never published.
Contrary to my current “retired college-athlete” status and my negative attitude toward self-help books, I found several aspects of Ronan’s writing to be useful, particularly in terms of how mental training applies to everyday experiences. Ronan establishes himself as a down-to-earth writer by offering his views on psychology early on. He writes, “many theories in psychology can neither be proved nor disproved…if something works for you…use it. If it doesn’t work…discard it.” As someone who spent four years at Northwestern studying psychology, I’d have to agree with the guy.
The main topic of Ronan’s writing concerns cybernetics, which is the science concerned with all matters of communication and control within axiomatic systems (systems based on precise probabilities) with special reference to self-controlling or adaptive systems. In simpler terms, cybernetics concerns the neural pathways of the brain. Every time we experience an event, we create new neural pathways into the grey matter of our brain, or if this is a repeated experience, we strengthen the neural pathways already programmed into our brain. Is there a practical method of replaying the successful experiences rather than the failure ones, thus strengthening the neural pathways, and in turn making them become reflex actions? The answer is yes.
Remember when you were a kid and your parents, and perhaps kindergarten teacher, encouraged you to “use your imagination”? Their advice actually comes in handy during our adult years. If we can successfully visualize favorable outcomes for ourselves, we can build upon existing neural pathways, and in turn reach our goals in life. According to Ronan, the best time to practice visualization is during the time that one is in his alpha state. Otherwise known as a meditative state, the alpha state occurs when we experience a feeling of well-being and have a sharpened awareness of our thoughts and sensations; brainwave activity that is most conductive for mental picturing. We are generally in our alpha state just before falling asleep.
Ronan articulates three simple steps for optimal visualization in the alpha state: relaxation, concentration, and mental picturing. Overall, the power of self-image psychology lies within visualization: you can perform consistently in a manner that is compatible with the way you see yourself. Perhaps when you are lying down to go to sleep at night, you will remind yourself to visualize the person you want to be the following day. You will replay your recent successes, and pay little attention to your failures, in turn strengthening the neural connections that are most useful to your prosperity.
As Ronan would agree, once an experience, an idea, or a belief about ourselves is incorporated into the mind, we will act and perform like the sort of person/athlete we picture ourselves to be. So why not choose to see yourself in a positive light rather than a negative one? Think about it.
Photos retrieved from liveandlovework.com & optimushealth.com