Mental rehearsal or visualization is a powerful tool for athletes. The research is clear on the benefits, applications and efficacy of training the mind to enhance performance.
What studies have been done?
A study in 2004 found that volunteers were able to increase muscle strength simply by imagining using the muscles. Scientists divided thirty volunteers into groups: some did physical training of their little finger for 15 minutes, five days a week for twelve weeks. The others only imagined doing the training. At the end of the twelve weeks the group doing the physical exercise had increased their muscle strength by 53% as expected, but the group that imagined doing the exercise also had a significant increase in strength of 35%. Another study in Canada showed that participants who learned a series of foot movements through mental rehearsal alone showed an improvement in performance. Not only that, but scans showed changes in the brain had occurred that were consistent with the kind of changes that occur after physical practice. The researchers suggested that mental practice improved performance by acting on preparation and anticipation of movements.
A study using volleyball players showed that individuals differ in their ability to mentally rehearse. Mental rehearsal correlates with physiological measures such as heart rate, breathing frequency and skin temperature. The same patterns of physiological response were shown when playing volleyball and when mentally rehearsing, and these patterns were associated with better performance when players had to receive a serve from the opposition. The researchers concluded that mental rehearsal may help to create neural ‘information processes’ which can be used when the same action is performed for real.
There is no single theory, which explains the mechanism behind the effect of mental rehearsal on physical performance. However, the general idea is that when you imagine yourself performing how you want to perform, you lay down the neural networks, which tell the muscles what to do, as if you had actually physically performed the action (Porter & Foster, 1990). The brain does not know the difference between what is real and imagined – when we imagine moving a part of the body, the area of the brain that governs that part is also activated.
In addition to training the mind, mental rehearsal also prepares us for possible obstacles and threats that may arise. If we visualize successfully dealing with these, this reduces anxiety and improves self-confidence, which may enhance performance. In addition, stress may be reduced as mental rehearsal involves a certain amount of relaxation.