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Motor Imagery - The Next Best Thing to Physical Practice

Imagine you have a performance coming up (presentation, athletic, musical, whatever) that you need to practice for, but you are stuck in a place or situation that makes it impossible. Instead of just being frustrated, take matters into your own hands - or I should say - your own brain.

Performance experts often talk about how visualizing success - what that success would look like and feel like - is important for motivating you to get there. But several studies have shown that another form of mental preparation can be effective as well - mental practice.

Practice is, of course, essential in developing any skill or ability. Mental practice, also known as motor imagery or mental representation, is not a replacement for physical practice, but it can improve your performance more than physical practice alone. That's because there is quite a bit of similarity between how your brain interprets the two different types of practice.

I use this technique often when driving toward an event where I will be giving a talk or a show. I may want to get in some more practice time but also save my voice, so I will rehearse my script in my mind, picturing my movements and gestures and internally hearing my vocal inflections.

By measuring brain activity, neuroscientists have studied the effects of motor imagery on a variety of performers, including athletes, musicians, surgeons, patients recovering from strokes, and others.

While the results vary depending on the type of activity being replicated and the amount of practice, the findings all suggest that performance improves with mental practice, sometimes significantly.

One of the most interesting studies found that imagining you are lifting a heavy object actually helps reduce strength loss of the muscles involved have been immobilized (perhaps through injury). The study suggests that using mental imagery interventions may provide a valuable tool to improve recovery after short-term muscle immobilization, such as from anterior cruciate ligament repair.

You probably already use mental practice to some degree. You imagine yourself going through the physical actions of hitting a tennis ball, fingering a guitar fret or even how you will react to an important or difficult conversation you anticipate having. That's great, but if you intentionally plan and schedule time for mental practice, you can improve your results by increasing the likelihood of following through.

Just as in physical practice, it is important to be sure that you are mentally practicing correctly. The adage, “Practice makes perfect” is only accurate when the practice is correct. (Though don’t expect absolute perfection in any case). That is why studies have found that those with more experience at a skill or activity get more benefit out of mental practice than someone who is just learning. They tend to practice better.

A motivating factor for me to use mental practice is this: As I get older I am increasingly aware of how precious and limited my time is. Wasting time is becoming a bigger frustration for me than ever and is one of my most annoying irritants. Waiting for someone to show up. Sitting at an airport, especially when a flight is delayed. Driving alone for several hours. But as long as what I am doing is at least fairly mindless (does not require many cognitive resources), I find it is a great time to get in some mental practice and improve myself and my future performance.

Think well and be well.

- Steve Haffner

Want to learn more about improving your decision performance?

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