The Athlete's Way

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Adding Movement to a Mental Rehearsal Improves Performance

Physical movements increase the benefits of mental rehearsal.

Researchers in France have discovered that adding physical movements to a mental rehearsal can dramatically improve performance. The study titled "Moving While Imagining as a New Perspective for Motor Imagery Practice” was published in BioMed Central's open access journal Behavioral and Brain Functions.

Mental rehearsal—also known as visualization—can be used to improve performance in a wide range of disciplines. This recent discovery can be incorporated into mental rehearsal by anyone who relies on ‘procedural muscle memories’ in sports, dance, theater, music, surgery, public speaking, martial arts ... the list goes on and on.

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Physical Movements Make Visualization More Effective

By studying high jumpers, the researchers found that “dynamic imagery” dramatically improved the number of successful attempts and the technical performance of jumps. When looking at the rates of a 'hit' or 'miss' for high jumpers that were taught to use either internal visual imagery or external visual imagery (such as mimicking the arm movements during the jump), the researchers found that while mental rehearsal improved performance by 35%, mental rehearsal plus 'dry run' movements increased performance by 45%.

Dynamic imagery scored the highest for all measured aspects of the jump including approach, curve, impulsion, and bar clearance. Dynamic mental imagery recruits complementary neural networks in the brain that marry the psychological and physical aspects of a specific performance. When these two brain systems work together seamlessly people achieve personal bests.

Dynamic imagery also shortened the number of actual jumps required during practice according to Professor Aymeric Guillot, who led the study. He said, "Our study on high jumpers suggests that dynamic imagery may provide a training edge to professional and amateur athletes. This technique may also be of use to people in other disciplines where 'dry run' rehearsals are routinely used."

Actors and musical performers have long understood the importance of the rehearsal process. Stage actors systematically transition from seated readings with a script to blocking the scene ... memorizing lines and going through rehearsals that lead up to a “dry run.” The dress rehearsal is a perfect example of how adding movement to mental rehearsal leads to optimal performance on opening night.

Madonna is notorious for always doing a detailed ‘dry run’ and sound check—that includes abridged movements and vocals of full dance numbers—the afternoon before a show whenever she arrives in a new city on a tour. If you'd like to read more on this, check out my Psychology Today blog post, "The Neuroscience of Madonna's Enduring Success."

Mental rehearsal is beneficial for performers of all levels—from novice to elite—but may be more beneficial the higher your skill level. That said, this study reminds us that you don't have to be a grandmaster to benefit from mental rehearsal that incorporates physical movements.

The French researchers noted that not all elite performers automatically have extraordinary mental imagery abilities. Mental imagery and using your imagination to visualize yourself performing an action is like a muscle that needs to be flexed regularly through practice, practice, practice.

In a recent Psychology Today blog post titled “The Mysterious Neuroscience of Learning an Automatic Skill” I explored the function of ‘Automatism’ and implicit learning as being linked to skills that we do 'unconsciously' that ultimately become automatic, like touch typing.

Implicit learning is required for skills that you do without thinking about them consciously. On the other hand, explicit learning involves actions or knowledge that you can easily describe. Along these lines, crystallized intelligence is primarily explicit, while fluid intelligence benefits from the influence of implicit knowledge.

Rehearsing and performing surgery is much like sports.

My hypothesis is that declarative memories are primarily seated in the cerebral cortex, and implicit memories are primarily seated in the Purkinje cells of the cerebellum. My father was an elite level tennis player and neurosurgeon and saw very specific parallels to practicing his tennis game and mastering neurosurgery.

When I practiced tennis with him as a kid he would say things like, "Chris, think about hammering and forging the muscle memory of your cerebellum with every stroke." He passed on his fascination with the cerebellum to me as an athlete, coach, and writer.

Being a neurosurgeon obviously requires large amounts of crystallized, explicit knowledge. Surgery also requires the ‘automatism’ of certain implicit motor skills rooted in the cerebellum that are hammered and forged through practice. The mysterious and powerful cerebellum has long been associated with muscle memory, vestibulo-ocular reflex (VOR) and proprioception. My dad would often say, "Of this I am absolutely certain, becoming a neurosurgeon was a direct consequence of my eye for the ball."

The cerebellum is only 10% of brain volume but holds over 50% of your brain's total neurons. My dad always said, "Whatever the cerebellum is doing, it's doing a lot of it." This new study suggests that using your imagination combined with movement engages the cerebellum and activates brain connectivity and muscle memory needed for peak performance at show time.

Conclusion: Taking Flow to a State of Superfluidity

Superfluidity in action.

A regular state of Flow is created when your skill level perfectly matches the challenge in a way that keeps you fully engaged without becoming overexcited and anxious. By incorporating movements into your mental rehearsals you can gently nudge your skill level higher and higher until you become a 'black belt' in whatever it is you love to do. This process is the key to achieving a lifespan of personal bests in a variety of areas.

This new study is exciting because it illustrates that engaging the cerebellum through muscle movements while doing mental imagery dramatically improves performance. Mental rehearsal without physical movement is like having a V8 engine, but only running on four cylinders. 

My educated guess is that because mental imagery without movement only enages the left and right hemispheres of the cerebrum, it doesn't take advantage of all brain regions, which results in subpar performance. In order to create fluid performance it is important to engage all four brain hemispheres.

During mental rehearsal, you want to flex both hemispheres of the cerebrum by using your imagination while simultaneously engaging the left and right hemispheres of the cerebellum by using 'muscle memory.' Adding movement to mental imagery engages all four hemispheres which gives anybody the opportunity to take his or her ‘fluid' performance to a level of superfluidity.

If you’d like to read more on this, check out my Psychology Today blog posts:

Follow me on Twitter @ckbergland for updates on The Athlete’s Way blog posts.

Christopher Bergland is a world-class endurance athlete, coach, author, and political activist.

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