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  • Writer's pictureCoach Knickerbocker

Mental Skills Part 4: Visualization, Imagery, and Your Subconscious

--Henry Ford

First, the mind thinks in visual pictures. If I say the word lemon, you don't see the word in your mind you see the object of a lemon. Same as if I said horse, or car. This visual focus does not just occur in the conscious mind, it also occurs in the subconscious.

Let's take our lemon example again. If I said to you imagine a lemon right down to the smallest detail, the bright yellow color, the shape of it, feel the weight of it in your hand. Now, in your mind, take a knife and cut a slice of the lemon, and put it in your mouth. Do you feel that puckery feeling in your mouth? Are your salivary glands working?

That's the power of the subconscious mind. It is telling your body how to react to the lemon slice being in your mouth. It does not realize that there isn't a lemon slice in your mouth. Cool huh?

How powerful do you think your neurological system is? Would you believe me if I told you that when you imagine yourself rowing your nerve cells react as if you were actually rowing?

Yes, studies have shown that nerve cells and muscle cells required for a specific exercise will fire in exactly the same sequence when one imagines doing that exercise. The firing is obviously not on the level of moving the muscle but the signal is sent from the subconscious to the motor center of the brain and then to the nerve cells.

Studies have also been done on injured athletes where they have visualized participating in their sport during their recovery and have accelerated their return to the field as well as their performance post injury. Some athletes even use imagery, also known as mental rehearsal, to increase their competitive performance without injury.

The subconscious mind does not discern between what is real and what is not. It thinks everything is real, imagined, or not. The subconscious mind also does not know time. There is only now, there is no past, there is no future. So see it in your mind's eye and the subconscious believes it is happening and it is happening now.

But, and this is a big but, what the subconscious does need, is for you to actually be engaged on a belief level during the psychological practice of mentally rehearsing. You must be using the techniques with a mindset of belief and emotional intention. Meaning, to just do the exercise and to not actually put yourself there in terms of your emotional commitment and belief results in an empty exercise. Much the same as if you were practicing in the boat and not actually trying to make changes or exert any effort.

Why are these specific techniques important for you as an athlete?

What exactly is the difference between visualization and imagery?

Are the two interchangeable?

Visualization and imagery are certainly a sister act when it comes to mental training. They function similarly but do have a few differences.

Why practice Visualization and Imagery?

1. It sets you up to positively manage all of the other techniques I've been writing about. In other words, when it comes to mental training, visualization/imagery helps with pre-racing and pre- practice routines, it lowers performance arousal levels (or can raise them if necessary), it enables you to have a positive mindset and to practice positive self-talk, and it assists you in reaching your goals.

2. It provides you with a substantially more effective tool than simply rowing by itself. If you are serious about raising your game and reaching your next competitive level, or even just trying to master a particular technical aspect of the stroke, then imagery and visualization are required skills to master.

3. If you are still not convinced then consider the level of athlete that is using mental rehearsal on a regular basis. These are elite Olympic level athletes across all sports.

The reason is because once you get right down to it what separates athletes at this level is not going to be equipment, or access to coaching, or even fitness, it's going to be their mental headset a.k.a. mindset that will set them apart. If it's part of their training, why shouldn't it be part of yours?



Visualization is just seeing the thing in your mind's eye and taking yourself through a scenario. It's easy to do, requires no equipment, and is extremely powerful.

To begin a session of visualizing, Put yourself in a quiet place where you will not be interrupted. Start by taking some deep breaths and relaxing into your body. Try to let any thoughts you have drift away and begin to imagine whatever it is you're working on.

For our purposes we'll visualize a seat race. Yep, that's right, a seat race. Because why not.

Imagine yourself in the boat, in your seat. You imagine the body in front of you, see it clearly and let yourself commit to the scene in your mind. Imagine the boat around you, the oar(s) in your hands. Look down at your hands and really see the oar. Imagine the other boat off to your side, imagine the coach's launch in the distance. You get the idea.

Once you've got all of the pieces and you are intentionally translating the pictures in your mind to actual experience in your body, you would imagine racing and winning the seat race. You always want to make sure that the visualization is a positive one. Since we are playing with the subconscious it's not a good idea to introduce catching a crab or anything negative happening.

The practice would be to repeat the visualization of this same scene regularly. My suggestion would be every day, 2x a day, for a week before the actual race if it's possible, but do what you can.


The way that imagery is different from visualization is that it employs the use of the senses, and can be either internal or external.

Internal imagery is when you imagine yourself inside yourself doing the thing.

External imagery is when you see yourself doing the thing.

Lastly, as I said, imagery uses all of the senses where visualization does not.

Using a slightly different example let's say that you have been having trouble with catching crabs and now it's become a mental issue. Everytime you get into the boat all you're thinking about is not catching a crab and sure enough what happens...yet another crab is caught.

First thing I would tell you to do is to replace the self-talk of "don't catch a crab, don't catch a crab." with a mantra like this, "I am confident a proficient rower. I can feel when the oar is in the right position."

Next I would suggest using imagery to imagine everything about the oar, the oar in your hands, and the feeling of the sleeve clicking into place in the oarlock. Get as detailed on the sensory level as you possibly can. Use your sight (seeing your hands rotate the handle), your hearing (hearing the sleeve click into place), your touch, maybe even your sense of smell if you happen to row somewhere with a particular smell.

Side note: I used to row past a bakery very early in the morning when the bread was being baked and boy what a smell that was, but I digress.


Both visualization and imagery can be guided by using a tape of your own voice or asking a coach or coxswain to guide you through a session while you record them to use for future sessions. I know of coxswains that will walk their rowers through a session of visualization before racing in order to solidify the racing plan in the rower's minds. Part of my practice is providing guided visualization recordings for my clients.

Bottom line is that these techniques work! They work well especially if you actually PRACTICE them. Just like the actual rowing, if you don't practice these mental skills you will not enjoy the benefits of them.

Ultimately you have nothing to lose by incorporating mental skills training into your program, so there's no reason not to. In fact, mental skills training can not only change your rowing, it can change your life. But that's a story for another time.

Now go mentally rehearse and become a better rower!

Row hard, row well, compete, have fun!

Coach Knickerbocker

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