Imagine yourself on the golf course. Take out your favorite club, tee up and address the ball. Gracefully make your backswing and solidly strike the ball. Focus on the feel of the grip of the club, as if the club is an extension of your arm. Finish with a nice follow through and hear the crowd clap as they admire your shot.
If the mental imagery you just did re-created a true experience in your mind, it should draw on your kinesthetic sense to feel the club, visual sense to see the ball being struck by the club, and auditory sense to hear the ball at impact. This happens in your imagination, but the motor, visual and auditory regions of your brain awaken as if you just hit a ball. Therein lays the power of mental imagery. From the comfort of your couch, you are able to reinforce connections in the brain that mimic actual physical practice. You care because, like practice, these reinforced connections make you better at golf or whatever physical activity you are visualising.
If mental imagery is so visual, can simply watching sports on TV improve your game? No. Watching other people play is passive. To boost your game you need to actively imagine yourself doing the physical actions. When you creatively visualise those movements, you stimulate the brain in ways nearly the same as when you physically do the actions. Imagine yourself running a race and your pulse should creep up.
Mental imagery can only reinforce pre-existing connections in the brain. This means, in order to get better by mental imagery, you need to already be good at the action that you’re visualising. So even if I creatively visualise myself batting a sensational innings, chances are, I will still be out at duck when I actually pad up. The mental part only works when you’ve already got game.
Malcolm Gladwell in Outliers and Geoff Colvin in Talent is Overrated describe deliberate practice as the best way to develop your game. Think Tiger Woods to understand deliberate practice. His practice sessions are rigorous and structured with feedback built in to constantly improve elements of his game. They are also long. To achieve greatness, the authors say you need to spend over 10,000 hours or 10 years in practice. Mental imagery cannot replace hard practice, but it may be able to accelerate the process.
William Straub, a sports psychologist, ran an important study to learn how mental imagery could magnify the results of practice. He selected 75 undergraduate students for an eight week study of dart throwing. He divided the students into five groups. The first group was the control group. They were told not to throw darts for the duration of the eight weeks. A second group threw 50 darts for 30 minutes a day, five days a week for the eight weeks. The last three groups practiced, but unlike the second group, they practiced only on alternate days.
On the other days, they performed one of three different mental training methods. Mental imagery was one of them. At the conclusion of the study, results showed that the first group of students that did nothing for eight weeks had no improvement from baseline. The second group that did only physical practice improved by 67 points. The group that practiced and did mental imagery on the alternate days showed the greatest improvement of 167 points!
Straub proved that mental imagery can boost your game. To make it effective, you need to see, feel and hear yourself hitting that golf club, throwing those darts, or wondering why in the world you are up at dawn doing the Chakrasana. While there is no substitute for hard, deliberate practice, you may be able to accelerate your results through some sincere mental imagery. Let us know how it works.
Dr. Kumar, and our health team, can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org
(This story appears in the 06 November, 2009 issue of Forbes India. You can buy our tablet version from Magzter.com. To visit our Archives, click here.)