Mind over matter: The benefits of visualization in adaptive sports

Mind over matter: The benefits of visualization in adaptive sports Mental skills coach Eric Turnbaugh leads a visualization class during the 2017 Leaders Summit at Fort Belvoir (Photo by Whitney Delbridge Nichels).

By Whitney Delbridge Nichels, Warrior Care and Transition


FORT BELVOIR, Va. - When an athlete steps onto his or her respective playing field, they've usually gone through all the physical rigors to train their bodies to perform.

But how does an athlete train the mind for that big moment? That's where mental skills coach Eric Turnbaugh comes in.

Turnbaugh has spent the last two years working with Army athletes on visualization - or "mental mapping" - techniques.

"The same neurons are firing whether you're imagining something or actually doing it," said Turnbaugh, who holds a doctorate in Psychology. "The point is to provide mental practice to supplement physical practice or as a second option when physical practice is not possible."

Using cycling as an example, Turnbaugh says he will ride a competition course ahead of time and film it using a Go Pro camera. He then shows the video to those competing in cycling events and asks them to make mental and physical notes of everything they see - from the terrain to the bike's speed.

"Course memorization is huge, "Turnbaugh said. "The more an athlete knows a course, they know what intensity they need and what to expect. You can trick your brain into thinking you've done it or at least gotten more experience with it."

For some athletes, it takes time to understand the key benefits of mental training in such a physical environment. Turnbaugh says he took a different approach when he started showing up to practices and clinics leading up to Army Trials and Warrior Games.

"I pumped people's tires, helped them check their wheels," he said. "And that opened up a door of trust to learn more about what I was actually there for."

Now friends with many athletes who seek out his services for various events, Turnbaugh says he will continue to help out wherever he can while providing the mental skills the athletes need to bring home the gold.

During the 2017 Leaders Summit at Fort Belvoir, Turnbaugh brought the technique to a mixed class of Warrior Transition Battalions leaders and staff from around the country - many of whom were not athletes.

It gave participants a chance to see just what goes into preparing to compete in adaptive sports.

"It was great. You're visualizing the clicking of the brakes, the changing gears…there are all these stimulants," said class participant Tondala Gass.

As a social worker at the Fort Belvoir WTB, Gass says she can appreciate the "mental mapping" approach.

"Even if you're doing it physically, you're still using your mind. So you have to prepare it, whether you're doing sports or working towards recovery," Gass said.

Turnbaugh hopes to equip as many Army athletes with that same knowledge as possible.

"You only get out of it what you put into it," he said. "But it's all about preparation when it comes to your mind and body. Knowing as much as you can ahead of time is crucial."