Have you ever really thought of your body as being a temple? I know I haven’t. As an athlete, I’ve put my body through hell and back through my career as a hockey goalie. Between the daily workouts that crush my body, the awkward positions that’s required of a goaltender, the constant pounding of my knees to the ice with 40lbs. of gear on my body, and let’s not forget to mention the partying as I got into my late teenage years. The beers, the chew, the late nights, only to have to wake up the next morning and do it all over again. My body always felt some sort of pain on a daily basis, whether it was my knees or my back, my ankles, my groin, the bruises from 80-100mph pucks finding holes through my gear to my collar bones, knee caps, forearms, shoulders, you name it. But I loved it. I would do anything to get back on the ice skating with the league’s best and showing them my quickness, my ferocity, my determination, and how I could rob any slightest notion of pride from the player who thinks they could score on me.
Hockey was a huge supplement to my mental health. It was one of the only places in my life where I could let go of everything else, and just be. I wasn’t thinking about the homework I still had, the test I had in the morning, the girl I really liked. I found peace, happiness, confidence, brotherhood, and purpose every time I stepped out onto the ice. It was my time to shine.
Being a goaltender was never easy, one mistake and that determined a lot of games. I was told to be the quarterback of the team, to lead us to victory, yet when I wasn’t “on my game” it felt like all eyes were on me. We were a team, but sometimes I still felt alone back there, in my thoughts. And this is exactly where I found my "team" within a team. I had to constantly communicate with myself internally. Learning how to not only focus my physical play, but my mental toughness and rebound as well. I learned how to overcome blocks, mentally and physically; how to battle back after a bad goal, how to block out any external factors trying to influence my acuity. But at the same time, I also learned how to trust my instincts, my intuition, and my sensory feedback from my body.
I was very fortunate to have, in my mind, one of the best goalie trainers in the world, Kelly Gee. I met Kelly around fourteen years of age in Illinois where he would have mini group lessons on a half sheet of ice. Just listening to the way he spoke to his goalies with motivating words, insightful questions, and unique contemplation, he not only helped his goalies learn the position, but understand the game. Kelly was the first coach to ever really teach me the art of visualization. He had a unique way of breaking down new skills, unlike any other coach. “Okay, let’s break down the kick-turn”, after I unsuccessfully and awkwardly tried it the first few times, “What’s the shortest distance between two points?” I was always pretty decent at math by visualizing the answer, which I believed really connected with his teaching frame. So I answered, “A straight line”. “Exactly”, he would reply. He would go on to explain that how positioning the body before moving may seem slower than just trying to get over, but in the end, Kelly had us moving with purpose rather than just moving in some direction we think we should be moving. Kelly broke down each movement like a slide-show. How to always move eyes and head first, which conjunctively our shoulders would follow. Then pull back the leading leg to shift our hips. Finally, bringing our driving leg to our chest for maximum force being applied to the ice as we drove in the straight line towards where we needed to be to make a save. Kelly would show us step by step in slow motion each movement that gave us efficiency and accuracy in our decisions. Then he would have us close our eyes and visualize ourselves doing the movement in our mind. Mentally imagining what it would be like step by step if we performed that skill. I remember closing my eyes the day he was teaching the proper kick turn, and not only being able to visualize the movement, but so much more came to me. I was able to feel the weight of my body, the balance centered through my hips, the force through my leg as I drove towards the puck, the smell of the ice rink, the sounds that I could hear of my skate digging into the ice, and ultimately, the puck hitting my pad.
It took me many years later to realize that Kelly wasn’t just teaching us consciously how to acquire new skills, but subconsciously giving our brain and body all the information they needed to perform that skill naturally as the skill developed. Kelly gave me the best skill of all. He taught me how to use my brain and body as a team.
The brain has what’s called mirror neurons, who’s function is to see other people performing any movement and to translate that information into a personal possibility. Mirror neurons give us the possibility of learning a skill without ever trying it before, because it allows the brain and body to have some sort of information to foresee out what it would be like if we tried.
When I learned about mirror neurons, the world changed for me. Everything I watched, everything I listened to, everything I tried, I imagined what it would be like first. See, the brain uses mirror neurons to activate all areas of the brain that would be associated with a skill, which turns out are exactly the same areas when we imagined doing something compared to actually doing it. However, to actually learn a skill, the brain needs to know what the goal is behind the skill, what the reason is for learning this skill, and how much it really means to us to learn this skill. In other words, we need to direct the brain’s attention, let the brain and body know we are interested in learning this skill and why, and what it would mean to us if we actually learned how to do it. Direction, intention, and motivation. These factors are not physical, but they govern all things physical. Anyone can make a decision, or take action if they really wanted to, but if there’s no leader, no teacher, then those movements and decisions are never a straight line.
How this translates into injury recovery and bringing this whole post together:
When we get injured, the information and neural patterns associated with the area of injury have been altered in some way. Whether that's physical restriction, pain interruption, weakness, or disconnection, the alterations of these neural patterns within the brain change how we move and experience that movement. Through visualization practices, such as mentioned above, we can consistently learn how to correct those neural patterns not just back to how we used to connect with our injured area, but even better than before. We can provide more information when we learn how to communicate on purpose with our team.
Imagine an engine running in your mind, it doesn't have to be textbook perfect, just any engine. Notice all the gears turning, pistons pumping, belts oscillating, smooth in all form. What's unique about closing your eyes and visualizing this engine is that you can continue to visualize the engine running, while at the same time pulling apart its parts. In reality, you cannot disconnect a belt, or gear and expect the engine to continue running in the same fashion. But in visualization, you can break all things apart and see where improvements can be made, shifts can happen, alterations can help perform smoother, more efficient power. If your body was an engine, which it is, you can close your eyes and break down its parts, moving your point-of-view in all directions even to an outside perspective. In addition, you can visualize yourself moving, and also feel yourself moving, without twitching a muscle. Through observation, you can adjust areas that you see may be restricting free flowing form and feed this information directly to your area of injury. You have just upgraded the neural possibility of that area of injury, and thus, that area can perform better than previously thought.
Imagine a time when you felt your best, strongest, most capable of movement and connection with the body. Re-sending messages of purposeful sensation to organize the altered neural pattern on how the injured area should move as you continue to learn, revise, and become the architect. Freeing your mind through visualization can create great insight into subtle body sensations and how to use your body more effectively within the skill you are trying to perform.
TRY THIS: Next time you are at your PT appointment and are learning a new skill, or re-learning a skill. Connect with your body and open your mind to all sensations felt during your first attempt at the skill. Then close your eyes and reflect on how you just performed that skill, what it felt like, and what you can do better next time around. Then visualize performing it better, with greater balance, speed, efficiency, and strength. What would it feel like, look like, sound like, smells, include as much sensory detail as possible. Then open your eyes and go for a second attempt. Come back to this post after you've tried this experience, and leave a message at the bottom. Let me know what worked, what didn't, what was difficult. Visualization is like any other skill, the more you practice, the quicker you learn.
The body is a team, not a temple; and a team needs a coach.