Is Visualization a Flawed Tool?

Visualization is touted to archers as part of a formula to create success. The most common pattern is for archers to visualize a perfect shot just before they raise their bow to shoot. The argument goes like this: it is easier to reproduce an activity immediately after having successfully performed that activity. Since the effect wears off fairly quickly, the previous shot doesn’t always qualify as such an event and, since the subconscious mind, responsible for abilities like shooting arrows, cannot distinguish well between reality and that which is vividly imagined, the pre-shot visualization supplies such an “event” to duplicate.

Most archers who embrace this technique usually stop thinking about it there, which is a good thing as being an archer-athlete is about performing, not thinking, but maybe coaches need to think about this a bit more.

The Limits of Visualizations
This visualization technique is widespread: golfers visualize their shots before they step up to the ball, basketballers visualize a successful free throw, sometimes accompanied by a physical rehearsal, before shooting them, and archers visualize perfect shots before shooting them. But is this the only use of this technique?

dead center arrowWhat these examples have in common is that they are visualizations of something the athlete is perfectly capable of and has done repeatedly. They are not visualizing something never done before. Often, athletes can use memories of recent activities as patterns for those visualizations. Since the more accurate and vivid a visualization is, the more effective they seem to be, a visualization set in context with all of the sights and sounds appropriate to the current venue is of more value. So, a memory of a recent perfectly shot arrow supplies a perfect source of information for those visualizations. Similarly, a previously shot free throw, or a golf shot on the same hole on the previous day of a golf tournament may supply the detail needed for a more “vivid” visualization of the task coming up.

But what happens when the task has never been done before? In that case visualization becomes very much less effective. Visualizing oneself on the medal stand at the Olympics may actually help one get there, but it would have to be repeated many, many times for it to have any effect as it is not something one has done or will be doing shortly. The visualization examples above are in the context of a “short feedback loop,” meaning the effectiveness of the visualization in helping make a good shot is tested in short order and the practitioner can get a sense of whether it helped or not. For a far off goal, visualizations may help one stay on a path to that goal, but they serve as little more than an affirmation at that point.

For example, if one is practiced at long distance shooting and then the target is moved out to a farther distance, one unpracticed, what value has visualization? I think it has little value, except that it might help execute a good shot, even though the success of that shot may be due to many other factors. If that distance is one you do not have a sight setting for, not only is your body position different, but your sight picture is different, and your trust in your sight setting nonexistent.

A practice of philosophers and scientists is to push their thinking to an extreme, to see what can be learned from such a situation, so in this case, what if we were to push the target back until it exceeds the cast of the archer’s bow? In other words, even shooting at a perfect ballistic angle, the arrows shot from that bow at that draw length will fall short of the target. What use is a visualization then? Obviously, it will have no effect whatsoever upon hitting such a target.

So, as a process, visualization seems to work best as a tool to help repeat something the athlete is perfectly capable of doing. But when applied to completely new situations, its effectiveness is far less and there are situations in which it has zero effectiveness.

Do Visualizations Really Work for Archers?
One must take into account that not everyone is capable of making such visualizations. Psychologists have estimated that maybe one in every five individuals may be incapable of making such visualizations (the golfer Tiger Woods appears to be one of them). Having a mental rehearsal, though, seems to be effective enough that when visualizations aren’t effective, athletes find other ways to rehearse. Tiger Woods uses a rehearsal of how a golf shot will feel, as opposed to how it looks, apparently.

So, for the four in five who can perform a visualization process without their minds wandering, is this process effective? The answer has to be a definite “maybe.” In so many things “mental,” much depends upon the athlete trusting his/her process. So, for visualizations to be effective for an archer, they must be taught how to do them, they must practice doing them, and then they need to have a test of whether or not it works for them (otherwise they will just “judge” the process, which is a fairly unreliable skill). This investigative process is not unlike the testing of a new piece of equipment or a new movement in a shot sequence.

The testing probably has to be something like the effect upon practice round scores. A fair test would probably require several practice rounds shot with a process goal of having a high percentage (85-90-95%) of the shots made with a visualization incorporated. After each end, the archer determines how many shots were made with a visualization and reinforces the goal by re-reading it (it is written on the tally sheet used to keep track of the shots in each end that are performed correctly). Then the average score of, say, three practice ends shot with visualizations could be compared with the average of the three previous practice rounds shot prior (presumed to be without visualizations).

There are many things that can trip up such a test. For one, if significant time and energy were spent in learning and “training in” the visualization habit, then the archer shooting the practice rounds with the visualizations is a more highly-trained athlete than her former self. And there is the Hawthorne Effect, which indicates that when anything new is introduced a bump in performance is achieved that disappears shortly thereafter. Possibly, one could ask their archer to try to shoot practice rounds without the visualizations (using the same process goal process) to get comparative scores but I have not tried this and I am not sure one wants an athlete to participate in “negative practice,” practice that deliberately does something “wrong” or different from what is desired.

What is needed is for enough archers and coaches to undertake such “tests” and report back on the results. Then we might be able to come to a definitive position on the question.

This is not hoary old knowledge passed down from the ancients but something “discovered” in the past few decades. We don’t know everything and finding out such things, especially in the realm of “mental skills” is especially difficult. For the time being, if one of my seriously competitive students was confident in his/her visualization process, I would leave it at that as confidence is something I put great stock in)“why” anyone does so is a question that cannot yet be answered).

Possibly the ideal experimental subject are my people, aka “over the hill” archers, especially those who are somewhat accomplished. Asking some of these folks to try to shoot practice rounds with and without visualizations (using process goal protocols) might supply very valuable information and would be unlikely to derail ambitions of accomplishment. Any takers out there?




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