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Travails of a Non-Swimmer

The Visualization Conundrum

Do you visualize to improve performance in sports?

I am sure you do. When asked the same question, I would emphatically say yes. Of course I visualize. Everyone does, right?

In sports psychology, mental imagery or visualization is now part and parcel of achieving peak performance. Many seem to agree on the power of visualization. There is an abundance of materials on visualization techniques for athletes.

I’m far from being an athlete, but hey, I’m a digital artist. I visualize every day! I have to else I wouldn’t be able to produce anything.

So when I read about visualization to improve muscle memory in swimming, I thought I’d give it a try in and out of the pool.

I planned on visualizing myself going across a 25m pool and back, effortlessly, minus the bad habits of my weaker side. I would visualize myself not pushing down on my lead arm when breathing to my right.

It was actually more difficult than I thought.

Athletic vs Artistic Visualization

I’ll show you what can I visualize with relative ease. Here are a Neoclassical dining room and living room. They don’t exist in real life. They are rooms I envisioned in my head, and then created from scratch, in digital format.

A virtual dining room

A virtual dining room

The corresponding living room

The corresponding living room

One hot summer day, I dreamed of staying at a cool, blue hotel in the Mediterranean, surrounded by Delacroix paintings. The virtual room I created:

A blue Med hotel

A blue Med hotel

View of the sea

View of the sea

I love Art Deco and I really, really miss New York City with all its Art Deco details. So one day I decided to create an Art Deco-inspired hotel room. I envisioned the entire room as well as all the little Deco details in my head. Here is my rendering of the vision:

A visualization of the bed in an Art Deco style room.

A visualization of the bed in an Art Deco style room.

View of the sitting area

View of the virtual hotel's sitting area

The other day I decided to sell some digitally altered photographs. I wanted people to visualize how they’d look like in context, so with the framed photos as the focal point I created this room:

My 3D visualization of a nature-themed yet sophisticated living room

My 3D visualization of a nature-themed yet sophisticated living room.

I can create individual products, entire rooms, houses, and yes, cities in my head. I visualize all the details and then use software to model the elements and render them in digital format. (Humans are visual creatures: images are the best way to describe what is in the head.)

Unlike photographing or modeling places that already exist, I like to imagine and start with a blank canvas. All the images above are figments of my imagination.

If I am capable of that kind of mental imagery, then surely I could visualize myself swimming well.

The problem, I would find out later, is that while I was good at visualizing and manipulating Objects or things in my head, it was quite a different story when I had to visualize my Self, my own body.

Out-of-Body Visualization

Last year I watched a fascinating TV documentary where Kohei Uchimura, a Japanese gymnast considered by some to be the greatest male gymnast of all time, was interviewed on his visualization technique.

He said something about having “a smaller self”, another Self that stood watching while his body did the routines. This Other Self was actually connected to his main self and thus was able to make observations and corrections, resulting in the ability to perfectly execute incredibly difficult routines.

I would learn later after some research that Uchimura was referring to what is called Disassociated visualization, the ability to see oneself “from afar” (or “looking from the outside”), like an out-of-body experience. This Observing Self could objectively “see” what is going on, the way a coach could see his players.

Most other athletes would do the other (and considered by some to be the more common) type of imagery: Associated visualization. Here you see from your own perspective or individual standpoint (“looking from the inside”).

A combination of both is said to be preferable, and some athletes excel at one or the other.

I suck at both.

Uncomfortable in One’s Own Skin

I basically don’t know what I’m doing when I’m in the water. I could feel myself pushing down on the lead arm, or over-rotating, or doing scissor kicks, etc. But I really couldn’t “see” what is going on. I certainly couldn’t see myself the way another person could see me.

Perhaps it has something to do with my being uncomfortable in my own skin. I’ve always taken my body for granted. In my twenties I was healthy as an ox and did 72-hour all-work-no-sleep marathons with ease. I seldom got sick. I ate like a pig and gobbled up junk food by the sackful, but during health exam I was told year after year that I was underweight. I thought I could keep being a Size 0 forever, with no particular effort on my part.

It was in my early thirties when my metabolism slowed down noticeably and I started to pack in the pounds. Now I’m easily in the Obese category. Not morbidly obese, but with an unnaturally high body fat percentage.

At last, starting this year, I started paying attention to what I ate and how (little) I exercised.

I am also aware of how much I actually dislike my own body. When it was a Size 0 and energetic I took it for granted. Now that it’s fat and lethargic I view it as an inconvenience. There really is very little, if any, to like. Very wide forehead, very flat chest, very large feet. And now, a muffin top and gigantic butt and thighs.

Mind-Body Disconnect

All my life I secretly thought of myself as retarded because there was a painfully obvious disconnection between my mind and body. As much as I wanted to, I was (and still am) incapable of doing any sport. I was (and still am) super clumsy and uncoordinated, the classic “two left feet”. So I basically ignored my body and kept it out of the picture as much as possible (and yes, I still do).

But now, if I were to visualize my Self swimming well, I’d have to learn to get in touch with my own body, to be highly aware of my own movements: breathing in and out, muscles moving, head and spine aligning, hips rotating, arms relaxing.


It might come easily to you. But not to me.

Anyone But Myself

When I close my eyes to visualize I have a hard time “seeing myself”. Instead, I see the coaches in the training DVDs. I see the elite athletes on YouTube. I see Mr. Smooth.

Anyone but myself.

I try to replace their correct form with my own form, but I cannot hold that image for even a fleeting second.

I guess I will simply have to force myself to visualize my Self. Set disciplined, regular visualization times. And then imprint good habits through constant practice.

And perhaps more importantly, stop hating my own body, and learn to work with it instead of around it.

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