During a recent mental performance workshop with a group of leaders in the FDNY, a critical discussion surfaced about teaching the mental skill of imagery to firefighters as part of the Leadership Under Fire program that the FDNY is implementing. As the discussion progressed, one of the experienced firefighters in the room stated, “We already do this. This is a part of the training we already have. We are trained to visualize the building, the floor plan, how many people are inside, and any other information we have about the scene when we are on our way and before we arrive. This is nothing new!” The conversation continued with several others in the room echoing this sentiment that visualizing the scene of the fire is something that is already included as part of the existing training program. Jason Brezler, the founder of the Leadership Under Fire program and an expert consultant at SportStrata, then made an extremely important point. He said simply, “Just because we are doing this already, doesn’t mean we can’t do it better.”
With that the conversation shifted to the ways that the current imagery training could be improved. One thing we know about imagery is that it is an effective way to practice when it is not possible to do so physically. Many people refer to this as mental rehearsal, and the idea is to imagine yourself performing the tasks you will be executing in as much sensory detail as possible. Neuroscientific evidence reveals that the brain fires in a nearly identical pattern during the use of vivid imagery and physical practice! The firefighters concluded that instead of only using visualization to picture the scene on their way to a fire, vivid imagery could be utilized to stay sharp on their days off, and to practice for dangerous situations that are rarely encountered in the field. By mentally rehearsing what they would need to do ahead of time in a variety of situations, they can be better prepared for action in an actual emergency.
Here are a couple of important tips to remember when using imagery:
1. Use all your senses if you can. Take the time to imagine the details of what you would see, hear, smell, feel, and taste while performing. The more detail the better!
2. Imagery is most effective when you imagine the situation from your own perspective, but if you are having difficulty doing so, try picturing someone else performing the task well or imagine watching yourself perform the task from an external perspective, like watching yourself perform on TV.
3. Imagery, like all mental skills, requires practice! Just like when you are training the muscles in your body, the first couple reps may feel awkward and difficult, but with time and practice, imagery can become a powerful source of relaxation and confidence.
A critical fact to understand about mental performance coaching is that mental skills develop naturally in experienced performers in all arenas. Everyone sets goals and uses self-talk, and many people use deep breathing and imagery without any formal training in those skills. One of the keys to effective mental performance training is to build upon your existing mental skills and expedite the improvement and effectiveness of their use. Just as physical strength and conditioning coaches refine and tweak the techniques and skills you use in the gym; mental performance coaches can do the same with your mental skills and techniques. Mental performance coaching allows performers to become experts of mental performance far more quickly than experience alone. Performers learn how to maximize the effectiveness of their natural mental skills and combine them into a routine that promotes the highest level of task execution. With practice, that routine becomes automatic so that execution remains consistent, even under the extreme pressure often faced by first responders.