Katrina Young performs a dive at the 2019 USA Diving Senior National Championships on May 25, 2019 in Indianapolis, Ind.
Olympic diver Katrina Young hasn’t been able to go to her home pool on the Florida State campus in two months, but that hasn’t stopped her from practicing her dives.
Young has used imagery and visualization as part of her training since she was a young athlete and her aunt and uncle, both weightlifters, introduced her to the concept of seeing in her mind what she wanted to happen with her dives. With sports all over the world hitting the brakes because of the coronavirus pandemic, she’s been using that technique to keep the feeling of a regular practice day and stay as sharp as possible.
“I think it makes a major impact for me while we’re out of the water right now,” said Young, who finished 13th in the 10-meter in her 2016 Olympic debut. “I’ve been utilizing it in a practice scenario, so not how I’d use it in a normal season when I’m in the pool all the time.
“Now (in my mind) I’m walking into the pool and seeing the lifeguards, seeing the coaches, seeing the FSU divers and just feeling at home there and going through a practice in my head. Hearing the coaches giving me corrections and thinking about what I’d feel when I’m trying to make those corrections and going through those. When you don’t physically have a pool it’s really helped.”
Karen Cogan is one of the United States Olympic & Paralympic Committee’s seven sports psychologists, and she prefers the term imagery over visualization. The mental exercise of not only seeing one’s routine or race or bout play out in one’s head but also hearing the sounds of the arena, smelling the characteristic scents and feeling the movements of the competition can be a powerful tool in the athlete’s arsenal, she said.
“You’re integrating all that into an image so when athletes close their eyes, in their minds’ eyes they’re seeing the whole situation unfolding in front of them,” Cogan said. “By using all the senses it’s more realistic and more effective in helping them prepare.”
The technique has been around since well before Cogan began her training in the mid 1980s, she said. Where in some cases it can be used with a narrow focus of helping to master a particular move or trick, Cogan said there’s really no limit to the ways in which athletes can use imagery to help them achieve their goals.
“You’re only limited by your own creativity,” said Cogan, a college gymnast herself at UCLA. “In some imagery scripts we don’t even do the sport at all. It’s all about walking into the arena, taking in the surroundings, feeling the emotions and the energy, feeling more charged than usual, feeling the butterflies and the sweaty palms and the heart racing and all those emotional reactions an athlete has before they go out to compete. The more real the image is the more they can feel the nerves and learn how to work with those nerves in a controlled situation before taking that into competition.”
When Cogan works with an athlete to incorporate imagery, she said, they typically sit down together and talk over what the athlete is trying to do, where something might be missing, how imagery can be useful and how to incorporate it in their training. If they want, Cogan said, she’ll develop a personal audio file for the athlete that provides cues and talks him or her through the images they’ve discussed.
Lately, Cogan said, she’s had more athletes requesting scripts similar to what Young’s been doing where they’re envisioning not stepping into the Olympic arena, as would normally be the case right now, but simply going through the practices and training sessions many are prevented from experiencing because of the pandemic.
“It’s a little different from how I’ve been doing it in the past,” Cogan said. “I did a script for a triathlete where we don’t know when the next event is going to be or where, so usually for this athlete we look at a specific event, what things are going to look like, what the course is going to look like — and now we don’t have that. This athlete hasn’t able to get in the pool to train, so our focus has been on what it feels like to get in the water, to feel the pressure of the water around you, to feel your arm pull through the water and the strength and momentum building.”
When Young broke her leg diving at the age of 16 and faced a long road back to the sport physically and mentally, visualization was a big help.
With Cogan’s assistance, she said, she’s been able to refine the technique to help her experience her competitions in her head. So she will walk through an entire competition, from the time she walks into the pool and smells the chlorine, to hearing her name called and feeling the nerves, to emerging from the water to the cheers of the crowd and hearing the judges’ scores.
“(Cogan) really knows me well and so she helps me screen out the thoughts that are not helpful and keep the ones that are, then I can focus on the cues and thoughts that are effective for me,” said Young, who won bronze medals in the synchronized 10-meter and mixed team events at the 2019 world championships. “I tend to overthink things, so it’s great for me to be able to talk to her and be authentic about the emotions I feel and how much pressure I put on myself and how important different competitions are to me. As we talk through that she helps me decide what cues in my mind I should remember and come back to utilize in my visualization then ultimately in the competition.”