Cat Chatter: The Envy of Visualization

by Whitney Dean

I used to have a cat that would sit in the windowsill of the house and chatter at the birds and squirrels moving freely about the lawn. It was a weird vocalization, the rapid clicking of her teeth, as she played out her phantom killing. I used to think it was cute, amusing, the way the world outside excited her. I didn’t consider the reflexive imagining of predation, the juddering of her jaw that could break a bird’s neck.

So, when I hear professional athletes talk about the power of visualization in sports, I get it. I’m not suggesting I do it successfully, but I understand that a cat chattering on a windowsill is mentally preparing for what her body is designed to do. The more accurately she envisions the attack, the more likely she is to execute the plan effectively in real time.

And when I walk up to a loaded barbell, aren’t I, in many ways, doing exactly what my body is designed to do? These bones and joints, this sinew and musculature, is designed to lift things and grow stronger. Anything that happens to the contrary of that fact is a mechanical malfunction or deterioration.

My central nervous system is an electrical grid of nerves that send signals from my brain to my body, from my body to my brain. Sensory nerves interpret stimuli from the environment around me and shoot that information to the spinal cord where it’s delivered to my brain for interpretation and response. Motor neurons then carry out the decisions made by my brain. In support of visualization, scientific studies show that imagery fires the same physiological responses as the senses. Imagining the heat of fire elicits the same response in the body as feeling the heat of fire.

Studies of athletes practicing visualization reveal that the more detailed the imagining, the more accurately the athlete performs. I’ve tried visualizing a successful lift before, but the effort was brief, superficial, and fleeting. I’ve imagined coming up out of the bottom of a heavy snatch--approximately five seconds before the lift with no account for the details of the imagined experience. And doesn’t my mind need the same attention I give my body before physical exertion? I spend twenty to thirty minutes (ideally) warming up for a workout and only a few seconds visualizing an elite performance from myself. That’s not a fair chance.

I’ve also tried using mantras in the past, but they came from a hard, unforgiving place. I’d tell myself, in less kind ways, not to fail, which isn’t the most encouraging approach to self-affirmation. When beating myself into excellence hasn’t worked, I’ve tried mantras of aggression--”*%&# it up!”—that work for the first few repetitions, but my conviction quickly succumbs to pain and exhaustion.

There can be psychological consequences to visualization. Try watching a televised fight with me and you’ll see cat-chatter take on its most human form. My central nervous system can’t differentiate the loser in the fight from my own face, as I startle and shriek from every blow delivered in the ring. But as my boyfriend, Andrew, a Brazilian jiu jitsu fighter himself, pointed out while observing my chatter during the Diaz-McGregor fight, I clearly visualize the reality of the loser, not the winner. My phantom fight puts me on the wrong side of fate. The electrical signals in my body fire as if I was the one suffering defeat on the mat.

So what if I imagined the winner’s experience? What if I imagined the knurling of a barbell in my hands, the brush of weight against my body, the drive under, and the punch out? What if I imagined recovery when my body is trashed, breath when I have none? Like the cat, the more accurately I envision the attack, the more likely I am to execute the plan effectively in real time.

I can’t know what a cat imagines when her jaw judders at the sight of a bird--we don’t speak the same language--but I bet it’s pretty gritty to induce such autonomic phonetics as chatter. I’ve held birds and can imagine how their small, warm bodies might feel in my mouth. I know the taste of blood and the ease with which a twig breaks. I can imagine what makes a cat chatter.

4 Rounds
Run 400m
12 Power snatches 135/95#
2 Rope climbs

- then -

4 Rounds (not for time)
15 laying leg raises
1 minute elbow plank hold