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Visualisation key to improving sports performance

By Charlotte Kaye, originally posted on

The idea of visualizing, or mentally rehearsing, before an event is certainly not new. Some coaches even go as far as saying that sports are 90% mental and only 10% physical, and it is no secret that seasoned athletes already employ mental techniques. World champion golfer Jack Nicklaus quoted “I never hit a shot, not even in practice, without having a very sharp in-focus picture of it in my head”. Yet scientists studying visualization research in emerging fields such as sports psychology are still exploring how exactly mental practice can affect physical performance.

What visualization research has been done to date?
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.

Why Does it Work?
There is no single theory which explains the mechanism behind the effect of mental rehearsal/visualization 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 visualise 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.

How can mental rehearsal be implemented?
Mental rehearsal can be used at any time to supplement physical practice. It can be done either in advance of actual performance, or even during performance, such as before making a serve or taking a shot. Some people find it easier to visualise, whereas others may use other sensory experience such kinesthetic imagery (imagining touch, movement and feelings). Regular practice is important, as well as making the mental images as real as possible while remaining relaxed yet focused. It also helps to visualize from a first person perspective (looking through your own eyes) rather than seeing yourself from the outside.

What are the implications?
The implications of using mental imagery to improve performance are potentially huge. Findings similar to the above studies have been replicated across many disciplines such as athletics, dance and music. Numerous studies have also applied visualization to help patients regain movement following a stroke. -

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