It doesn’t matter what skill you’re trying to improve; if you want to get better, you have to practice. However, you don’t always have to be fully engaged if you want to get that practice done. Rather, research shows that mental practice, or going through the necessary motions in your head, can help you achieve significant progress in skills that you’re trying to get better at.
In the following article you will see why this method works, and understand how to take advantage of it in order to improve your skills.
Evidence for the benefits of mental practice
Mental practice (sometimes referred to as motor imagery), has been shown to be effective in a wide range of situations:
- A study which examined golfers showed that those who combined physical practice together with mental practice (where they went through the motions of golf in their head), performed better than golfers who only underwent physical practice, even though both groups spent the same amount of time practicing overall.
- A study on musicians found that mentally-practicing new musical pieces helped pianists learn which notes they need to play.
- A study looking at surgeons showed that mental practice before surgery helped surgeons improve their technical ability and enhance their performance.
- A study which examined recovery after a stroke found that mental practice helped patients regain movement in limbs that they lost control of.
Why mental practice works
When you want to get better in a certain skill, you practice. While only going through the motions in your head isn’t completely the same thing as going through them in reality, there is a lot of cognitive similarity in terms of how your brain interprets the two forms of practice.
A lot of the evidence on this comes from studies on the neurological functions of musicians:
- An fMRI study of music-academy students who play the piano, showed that there is significant activation in related areas in the brain during both music performance as well as during mental imagery of the performance. However, certain key areas related to motor execution were only activated during actual performance, and not during mental practice.
- Another fMRI study, which examined amateur and professional violinists, also showed that brain activations were similar, but not entirely identical, during actual performance of music and during mental practice.
How to utilize mental practice in your training
Odds are that you already used mental practice in various forms throughout your life. Doing it is pretty intuitive: any time you go through the motions of a necessary action in your head, you’re mentally-practicing that skill, even if you aren’t fully aware of it.
However, you can get better results from choosing to utilize mental practice in a more purposeful way. That is, instead of using it haphazardly, try to dedicate time specifically to taking advantage of this technique, just as you would dedicate time to regular practice.
However, it’s also important to remember that mental practice can’t replace actual performance entirely. Rather, it’s intended to complement it. Therefore, the best thing to do is to take advantage of mental practice during times you could not otherwise practice. For example, you could:
- Engage in mental practice when you are injured, and therefore can’t perform the physical action. Interestingly, mental practice can not only help you improve your skills in such cases, but also retain your physical abilities. This was shown by a study which found that mental visualization of physical exertion (i.e. imagining that you are lifting a heavy object), helped reduce strength loss after short-term muscle immobilization. Even more interestingly, the study also found that imagining that you are lifting a “heavy object” results in more muscle response than imagining that you are lifting a “lighter object”.
- Conduct some mental practice right before the real performance, in order to envision the specific actions you will take. As we saw earlier for example, surgeons significantly benefited from conducting mental practice before performing a surgery.
- Use mental practice during “dead times”, when you wouldn’t otherwise do anything productive. This refers to time spent in activities such as riding the bus or waiting in line. Instead of letting that time go to waste, you can now put it to a good use, without needing anything to practice with.
- You can also go through mental practice as you’re lying in bed trying to fall asleep. This is especially helpful if you tend to take a long time to fall asleep. However, if you see that doing this ends up making it harder for your to fall asleep, you should probably avoid it.
The effects of experience level
A review paper showed that experienced people tend to benefit more from mentally-practicing their skills, in comparison with novices, and that this effect is more notable when it comes to practicing physical tasks. The researchers suggest that this occurs because novices are often not familiar enough with the task that they want to practice in order to construct an accurate mental representation of it, an idea supported in other papers on the topic.
This doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t try using mental practice as a beginner, but it does mean that you should be wary and make sure that you’re familiar enough with the skill you’re visualizing in order to practice it effectively. Most importantly, make sure that you’re going through the correct motions in your head, in order to avoid instilling bad habits.
In addition, if you’re a beginner and you find that mental practice isn’t helping you, this could be the reason why. If you suspect that this is the issue, consider waiting with mental practice for a while, and coming back to it when you’re more experienced.
Summary and conclusions
- Mental practice, or going through the motions of a certain action in your head, can help you improve in various skills.
- This method is currently used by professionals in a wide range of fields: from musicians, to surgeons, to sports players, and more.
- Mental practice works because the brain treats actions that you visualize similarly to actions that you fully perform, though there of course are some neurological differences between the two.
- You can use mental practice to complement your main training, or as a substitute when you can’t perform the full movements (if you are injured, for example).
- In general, the more experienced you are, the more you will benefit from using this technique, as novices sometimes struggle to mentally-practice actions that they are not familiar enough with.