Mental Rehearsal and how “Movement” can be pleasurable while improving your Physical Performance

You may have first heard about Mental Rehearsal as it relates to Elite Athletes and Sports. However, anyone can benefit from performing Mental Rehearsals.

In sports, Mental Rehearsal is an umbrella term that covers several techniques, including Observation, Self-Talk, and Imagery, used by athletes to improve performance. It happens in our imagination without any actual movement. It typically involves the representation of an action or behavior using nonverbal (e.g., Imagery or Observation) or verbal processes (e.g., Self-talk).

For example, an athlete may think (in his “mind’s eye”) about a skilled movement to be performed using imagery or repeating key words associated with the successful execution of that skill using self-talk.  A mental rehearsal may involve combining these three techniques.

However, we will focus on Imagery as our primary tool for achieving more consistent pleasurable movement in our lives while improving physical performance. 

Using mental rehearsal consistently is one of the qualities that distinguishes elite athletes from those who do not excel in their field. In addition, the benefits of mental rehearsal have gained recognition within the “physical performance” context, with more active individuals reporting a greater ability to self-regulate their thoughts, feelings, and behaviors.

Let’s first look at Observation as it is a common form of mental rehearsal used to acquire a new skill or behavior. It is referred to as observational learning or learning by demonstration. It shares many characteristics with Imagery, including the activation of similar neural and cognitive processes.

Observation involves watching oneself or another perform a behavior, either live or videotaped.  For example, a body-builder might observe a video recording of himself to feel more confident in his performance. Alternatively, a soccer player new to a team might observe the team run a set play to learn how it should be performed.

Consequently, as with Imagery, Observation can facilitate learning and improve or alter performance and behaviors.

Self-talk involves having a dialogue with oneself, either out loud or in one’s head. Individuals may use this mental rehearsal technique to instruct and motivate their skills and exhibition of certain behaviors.

Self-talk is giving instructions to self on a skill or strategy to be performed using specific cues or longer phrases. The athlete rehearses the skill or strategy by talking to herself or himself. Self-talk can be done in conjunction with Imagery and/or Observation.

For example, a football player might imagine performing a block tackle and say specific instructions such as “step left” and “stay low” while imagining those particular parts of the skill.

Imagery involves experiencing a situation through multiple senses (e.g., sight, smell, taste, hearing, and touch.) It is well known that when combined with actual physical practice, imagery leads to more significant improvements of a motor skill compared to just physical practice alone.

The proposed mechanism at the foundation of these improvements is the activation of similar neural networks during imagery AND during the actual execution of the same skill. Imagery is thus being viewed as an effective mental rehearsal technique that can improve training and even be substituted for actual physical practice. 

This might be extremely useful, say, to prevent over-training or when one is recovering from injury, or you are an individual, for whatever reason, stopped regularly moving their body and now wants to incorporate regular pleasurable movement back in their life as a healthy habit.

It is important not to restrict our imagination merely to visual representations in the mind. We include all of the senses for maximum efficacy. This mental practice has become increasingly sophisticated over the years and is more a multisensory endeavor, which is why the term “Imagery” is now often preferred over “Visualization.” 

Furthermore, when imagery is combined with relaxation (e.g., taking a few deep breaths), imagery can be a confidence-enhancing technique that enables an individual to manage symptoms associated with stress & anxiety. This helps an individual more easily manifest their goals, such as the movement of successfully hitting your ball with a putter on a golf green while experiencing pleasure without stress.

Pleasure is now connected to moving your body, and the more we practice mental rehearsals, the more we can improve our physical performance and have enjoyment while doing so.   

What are the benefits of practicing a Mental Rehearsal?

There are many benefits to performing Mental Rehearsals regularly, and here are a few of them. 

#1 – Improve Athletic Physical Performance – Since your mind perceives imaginary experiences as though they were real. So you can selectively feed it with artificial impressions of your choosing. For example, you want to work on your golf swing, you imagine yourself executing it in perfection, thus creating a memory imprint that will carry over to your physical execution in the future.

#2 – Amplify Motivation – You can use motivational imagery to charge yourself up with motivation by familiarizing yourself with your goals. Olympians may do this by imagining themselves on the winner’s podium before translating their experience into reality. For anyone trying to develop a new movement habit, associating the movement with enjoyment during the Mental Rehearsal can boost your motivation.

#3 – Gain Confidence – We all have that surge of confidence whenever we succeed at something important to us. Through your imagination, you can artificially engineer success scenarios for the future, or you can revisit your past triumphs. One way or another, witnessing yourself succeeding invariably reinforces your confidence in the visualized activity.

#4 – Reduce Stress and Anxiety – When you retreat to an imaginary world, you can let go of stress and anxiety and feel more relaxed free of stressful stimuli. It can be a sanctuary of recovery, and visiting this imaginary safe place can effectively cure unwanted emotions. If you are an athlete, this is a great way to reduce performance anxiety imagining yourself performing in a calm and confident state.

#5 – Maintain a Peak Form and Quicken Recovery When Injured or Sick – In times when you can’t practice because you’re suffering from an injury or you’ve caught the flu, you can still keep up with your training sessions visiting your mental gym, thereby speeding up your recovery and maintaining a top form.

How do I get started and get the most out of your Mental Rehearsal?

French researchers observed that not all elite performers automatically have extraordinary mental imagery abilities. Mental imagery and using your imagination to visualize yourself performing an action are like muscles that need to be flexed regularly through regular practice. Think of imagery as a skill, and just like any skill that you perform, you will need to practice in order to improve. Start with just 5 minutes a day and increase your time in mental rehearsal as you increase your skill. 

To get the most out of your mental rehearsal, you want clarity, details, and vividness. The more detailed and precise the mental picture sent the clearer the message sent to your mind. 

By using other senses in your imagery, this helps to leave a stronger mental imprint. Try to incorporate all of your senses (see, hear, smell, taste, and feel.) 

Concerning motion, it already helps a great deal if you can imagine snapshots of crucial performance moments. But even better if you are able to imagine full sequences, from start to finish, in a fluid motion.

Short but frequent mental rehearsals beat long and infrequent ones. Consistency is key. Ideally, for the best results, you should rehearse daily. 

With each rehearsal, try to get into an ideal emotional state to associate with your movement. This will reduce stress or anxiety and enhance pleasure, which becomes linked to this healthy habit of movement in your brain. 

Posted October 14, 2021

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About the author 

Ravina Chandra

After completing my Nursing degree and launching into my career, I soon discovered that ‘Preventative Health’ is what saves us from the pain and suffering that accompanies illness and premature aging.

I now assist older adults in finding balance in mind & body, and mentoring them to align with their core values, their loves, their hopes, and their dreams. I look forward to our time together.

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