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Visualization: Allen Iverson’s Secret Weapon

Throughout his time in the NBA Allen Iverson was known for many things, both good and bad. He was a true warrior on the court, who played with 100% effort at all times, gave his body up for the team, and was never afraid of the big moment.

On the other hand, he had an infamously bad attitude towards practice. He would repeatedly be late, or skip practice. Many touted him as lazy, and lacking a true superstar’s work ethic.

Still, even without the same craftsman mentality as players like Michael Jordan and Kobe Bryant, he played at an elite level for more than a decade.

How did Allen Iverson become so great without loving to practice?

According the Larry Platt’s biography about Allen Iverson, Only the Strong Survive, Allen mastered visualization. This is a technique often used by sports psychologists to help increase player’s confidence, reduce pregame anxiety, and help players get out of slumps. Many of the best athletes, including Michael Jordan, Kobe Bryant, Tiger Woods, and Lance Armstrong, use visualization to help overcome mental blocks, focus on specific goals, and help fight nervousness. Here is a great story about Allen Iverson from Only the Strong Survive:

“Kozlowski was a staunch believer in psychocybernetics. He’d preach the value of visualization long before such mental gymnastics were in vogue. He had Allen read the book Psycho-Cybernetics, by Maxwell Maltz, a plastic surgeon who maintained that, even after reconstructive nose surgery, many patients would still see their old nose when they looked in the mirror; such was the power of the brain’s imagery. Kozlowski would tell Iverson to tie his shoe while continuing to carry on a conversation with him. Iverson would be speaking to him, looking up at him, while kneeling and tying his shoe. “See that,” Kozlowski said. “See how you didn’t have to look at yourself tying your shoe? See how you didn’t even have to think about it? I want you to play like you just tied your shoelaces–automatically. The way you do that is by having an image in your mind of what you do before you do it.”

“Allen took psychocybernetics to a new level,” Kozlowski recalls. Today, Iverson doesn’t like to talk about how he does what he does on the basketball court. “I just do it,” he says. Partially, like any artist, he is wary of overanalyzing his gift. But it could also be that he’s known since high school that the real explanation defies easy answers, that the answer is, at heart, both beneath and above the level of language, and connected, on some level, to his psyche. In other words, missed in all the hand-wringing about his lackadaisical practice habits in the NBA is the possibility that so much of his work is cerebral. Unlike, say, Jordan, who was a craftsman, someone who would take hundreds of jumpshots a day, Iverson imagines the possibility and then acts it out.”

“Let me tell you about Allen’s workouts,” says Terry Royster, his bodyguard from 1997 until early 2002. “All the time I have been with him, I never seen him lift a weight or stand there and shoot jumper after jumper. Instead, we’ll be on our way to the game and he’ll be quiet as hell. Finally, he’ll say, ‘You know how I usually cross my man over and take it into the lane and pull up? Well, tonight I’m gonna cross him over and then take a step back and fade away. I’m gonna kill ‘em with it all night long.’ And damned if he didn’t do just that. See, that’s his workout, when he’s just sitting there, thinking. That’s him working on his game.”

The phenomenon of visualization has also been studied via research experiments. Australian Psychologist Alan Richardson conducted an experiment in which he took a group of basketball players, and randomly divided them in 3 groups. Richardson tested their ability to shoot free throws on the first and 20th day of the study.

  • The first group practiced shooting free throws for 20 minutes every day for  the 20 days.
  • The second group did not visualize or practice shooting free throws. They only shot free throws on the testing days (1st and 20th day).
  • The third group visualized making free throws for 20 minutes every day for the 20 days.

The group that practiced shooting daily improved 24 percent. The second group, unsurprisingly, did not improve. The third group, which had physically practiced no more than the second, did twenty-three percent better, which was almost as well as the first group!

This is surprising. Without even touching a basketball, the visualization group still improved! This, along with the thousands of elite athletes that use visualization, is proof of the effectiveness of visualization.

In fact, there may not be a more powerful tool for mental training. Nearly every sports psychologist uses it with their athletes, with great results.

How to Utilize Visualization in Your Training

The advantage of using visualization is that it can be used anywhere, at any time.  There are many different that you can begin using visualization today, including:

  • Use visualization to mentally prepare before a game. Visualize your opponents, how and where you’re going to attack, and see yourself making great plays on offense and defense. This can be used on the bus or car ride to the game or while waiting for the game to start.
  • Use visualization after a game to mentally assess what you did wrong. Did you make a bad defensive play? If so, visualize yourself in the same situation, but make the correct play.
  • Use visualization after a game to mentally assess what you did right. Visualize all of the great plays you made during the game. This will help you remember which moves worked, what you did right on offense and defense, and help increase your confidence.
  • Use visualization when relaxing or before bed, especially during the days prior to a game. This kind of mental practice and repetition can help improve your game and increase  confidence.

The key to visualization is to try and engage all of your senses. In his paper about the experiment, published in Research Quarterly, Richardson wrote that the most effective visualization occurs when the visualizer feels and sees what he is doing. In other words, the visualizers in the experiment “felt” the ball in their hands and “heard” it bounce, in addition to “seeing” it go through the hoop.

When you want to visualize, sit or lay down in a comfortable position. Close your eyes and picture the court, field, or track that your sport is played on. Visualize the crowd, the opponents, and your teammates. You should hear the crowd cheer when you make a great play and your coach calling out orders from the sideline.  Feel your body moving and the ball touching your hands or feet. Create the emotions of success after you make a great play.

The more realistic your visualization is, the more it will help you. However, visualization should never replace real practice and drills. Instead, it should be used as a supplement to a high quality training program.

If thousands of elite athletes are using visualization to improve their game, why shouldn’t you?