“It’s crazy what the mind can do.”
That’s how USA National Team soccer player Carli Lloyd described the circumstances of her hat trick against Japan in the 2015 Women’s World Cup final. There is no bigger stage in soccer than a World Cup. At the 2015 championship match, Lloyd walked out onto the pitch for the start of the game with her teammates and their Japanese opponents.
Within 16 minutes Lloyd put herself into the history books.
In the 3rd minute of the game, Megan Rapinoe hit a low cross on a corner kick that Lloyd redirected into the net with the outside of her left foot. In the 5th minute, another cross off a free kick landed in the 6-yard box with Lloyd beating the Japanese defenders to the ball and burying it into the goal.
And then the coup de grace.
In the 16th minute of the match, Lloyd gathered the ball at the edge of the midfield circle on the American side of the centerline. She dribbled past a Japanese player. As she reached the centerline Lloyd noticed that Japan’s goalie was well off her line. Without hesitating, Lloyd drove a shot from 60 yards away and watched it sail just over the fingertips of the scrambling keeper.
The ball bounced off the inside of the post and into the net for a once-in-a-lifetime type goal. Lloyd’s spectacular third goal capped off her hat trick. Lloyd’s amazing performance propelled the United States to capture the gold medal in a 5-2 victory over Japan.
But here’s the thing. Lloyd’s goals had already been scored before the match even began.
At the post-match press conference, Lloyd described a workout she had in the period right before the World Cup. “It was just my headphones and me at the field…I just completely zoned out. I dreamed of, and visualized, playing in a World Cup final, and visualized scoring four goals.”
Okay, she only scored three.
All kidding aside, what Lloyd did was employ the practice of visualization. Visualization is simply creating a mental image of a future event that you will be participating in and picturing what you hope to achieve when there. By doing this you are already seeing the success in advance and imprinting it into your brain. Lloyd visualized seeing herself scoring goals in a World Cup final and so when she was there, in her brain’s eye, the goals had already been scored.
Many people scoff at visualizations because some so-called self-help gurus have manipulated the concept to convince people all they have to do is dream it and it will happen. Let’s be clear, putting a picture on your bedroom wall of you scoring a goal in a big soccer game will not happen if you don’t actually go out and do the necessary training to become a player with the ability to even be in the game in the first place.
However, for those that do the work, and have gotten themselves to a place where they have a spot in the game, visualization can be a very powerful tool to give them a competitive advantage over the rest of the field. And, for those that are working hard to get on the field, visualization can train the brain to believe they are already there and give them a boost in achieving their dreams.
There are numerous scientific studies that the brain registers what you imagine in exactly the same way as something that actually happened.
One oft-cited study comes from a neuroscientist named Alvaro Pasqual-Leone who brought two volunteer groups to the Harvard Medical School for a research project. The first group was instructed to do a simple five-finger piano playing exercise and the second group was asked to hold their hands steady and only imagine playing the piano. The finding showed that the region of the motor cortex that controls the fingers had expanded in the brains of those who actually played the piano, but it also expanded in the brains of the volunteers who only imagined playing!
Visualization can also be a mindset. Do you imagine yourself as a powerful force? Or, do you look in the mirror and see a victim who is destined to lose? Sometimes it can be nuanced so you have to pay attention (remember paying attention?). The mental side of sports (and many other professions) is often the key separator between the best and the mediocre.
Carli Lloyd elaborated on this at the post-match press conference after her historical hat trick led the United States to the World Cup gold medal. She said, “The mental side of the game is a huge thing…. That’s what it’s all about. I think at the end of the day you can be physically strong, you can have all the tools out there, but if your mental state isn’t good enough, you can’t bring yourself to bigger and better things.”
Lloyd’s idea of needing a strong mindset to reach the pinnacle of success is not rare among athletes who have reached such elite status. Just like Lloyd did, many players who are interviewed after a championship will cite that having a strong mindset was key to their victory.