Is visualisation relevant for young people attending the GP?

Saturday mornings are probably my favourite part of the week. It’s the best (i.e. most enjoyable) kind of predictability. An integral part of this is listening to the Coodabeen Champions – an irreverent radio show about the Australian Football League (AFL) that I suspect anyone not familiar with the game would find quite perplexing.

Last Saturday the team interviewed Dr Rudi Webster, a West Indian doctor who did pioneering work in the field of sports psychology, including within the AFL – and has written about it in his book. It wasn’t a long interview – and I haven’t read his book –  but Dr Webster did speak about how he used visualisation as a central tool to help players perform and reach their goals.

Sports psychology is now an accepted and important part of enabling professional (and even not so professional) athletes perform at their peak – perhaps as important as physical conditioning. I’ve often heard footy players explain that a central part of their pre-game preparation is visualising the game and their performance.

However, outside of sports I wonder if its role and potential is recognised and understood in the community (at least outside academia). Maybe this is because the term ‘visualisation’ is misunderstood and misused, more likely to suggest that change or goals are simply about getting into the right mindset, rather than influenced by a complex and fluid set of factors (e.g. just think positive and you’ll be happy! –  anyone remember the cult-like hype around The Secret?). So I think a lot of people are quite understandably skeptical and suspicious (how can anything so simple be truly effective?).

The interesting – and quite awesome – thing is that there seems to be quite a bit of evidence to suggest that visualisation is a valid tool for helping you to optimising performance and reaching goals (perhaps in much the same way as research has shown meditation to be a very powerful tool to regulate emotion). In fact visualisation has been shown to improve everything from motor function after a stroke, surgery technique in surgeons, and increasing physical activity. The theory, I believe, is that visualisation causes the same neural pathways in the brain to activate as if the event is physically taking place.

And not all visualisation is the same. A study by Pham and Taylor (1999) found that visualising the process (rather than just the outcome) required to achieve the goal of getting a good grade at college led to better performance, as well as significantly decreasing anxiety.

How does this relate to my PhD? Well, I’m not sure yet. And I suspect this may be more about a selfish personal interest of helping me progress my own research (i.e. be more productive), at least in the immediate term. That, in itself, is not such a bad thing, right?!

That said, it does make me wonder how it is relevant to young people seeing their GP. Would visualisation – particularly in terms of processes – be helpful for young people to overcome barriers to speak to their GP about sensitive issues? (Indeed, and vice-versa!). Would it facilitate the changing of unhealthy behaviours, particularly those that seem so overwhelming they don’t know where to start?