It’s not all in the mind

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Health / Myths / Psychology

Want to build more muscle, play sport more skillfully and heal better after injury, all without lifting a finger? Worried I’m trying to sell you something? Or that I’ve fallen for the latest self-help fad? You’re wrong. I’m talking about something as simple as mental imagery: imagining your body doing something before you actually do it. Think of it like a mental rehearsal without any body movement. Not an urban myth, there turns out to be some solid science behind the power of mental training.

Can you visualise your way to the perfect free throw? Image credit Tennessee Journalist via Flickr 1, 2

Can you visualise your way to the perfect free throw? Image credit Tennessee Journalist (modified) via Flickr

Can you shoot a free throw?

More than 50 years ago, Australian psychologist Alan Richardson carried out an experiment with student basketball players. He split them into three groups with the aim of exploring different ways of improving their ability to shoot free throws.

The first group practiced free throws every day for 20 days. The second group spent 20 minutes visualising themselves shooting free throws every day. If they missed a shot in their mind, they kept imagining the throw until they got it right. The third group didn’t practice or visualise.

Unsurprisingly students in the third group didn’t improve at all in the 20 days. But amazingly, the basketballers in the second group improved almost as much as those in the first group. Mentally practicing shooting free throws was almost as effective as actually shooting baskets in terms of improving their skills. And they didn’t even need to touch a basketball.

Sound like a fluke? After a bit more hunting I found that the same result had been found 20 years earlier with both dart throwing and basketball shooting. And very recently a study found that combining mental and physical practice improved coordination and movement accuracy when learning how to do a lay-up shot.

Imagining your way to sport success

Ok, perhaps you’re not a basketballer. But maybe I can pique your interest with some other studies. There has been a lot of research into the value of mental training to athletes over the last few decades.

The use of mental imagery has been shown to significantly improve successful passing rates among soccer players, and to lead to improved performance on the volleyball court.

Not into team sports? We’ve all heard that Tiger Woods likes to mentally rehearse his golf shots. Mental imagery has been shown to lead to improvements in accuracy and technique in tennis, and improved performance in high jump. Interestingly in this last study, results were even better if the high-jumpers moved their arms in the way they would while jumping as they imagined the jump.

Maybe you’re a gym junkie? In a fascinating twist, it turns out that you can build muscle by mentally contracting your muscles, without actually working them. Imaginary exercise can increase the strength of finger muscles by up to 35%. And mental imagery preserved arm strength during four weeks of arm immobilisation.

Imagery has also has also been shown to help athletes recover from injury and many elite athletes swear by the importance of mental imagery in their training.

I don’t think I could possibly do a jump, or especially a new trick, without having this imagery process. For me, this is so very key to the athlete I have become.

Emily Cook Olympic aerial skiing champion

Can your mind heal your body?

Unsurprisingly there has been a lot of interest into whether mental imagery can play a role in better health. Can imagining our bodies healing well lead to genuine improved healing?

There’s evidence that mental imagery provides additional benefits over physiotherapy and occupational therapy for people recovering from stroke.

Guided imagery led to improved outcomes for patients six months after knee surgery, and patients who did imagery exercises showed faster wound healing after gall bladder surgery.

Burn victims recover their normal movement faster if they imagine themselves performing those movements and people with Parkinson’s disease show much greater improvement in their ability to move if they combine mental imagery with physical exercises rather than doing the physical exercises alone.

Want to try it?

There are two ways you can imagine yourself performing an action and we know they both work.

You can imagine yourself as though you are actually doing the movement (what you would see if you were wearing a video camera on your head). Alternatively, you can imagine you are a spectator, watching a video of yourself.

Either way, we know the most effective visualisation uses all your senses – you need to feel, see, hear and smell what you’re doing.

So if you’re going to imagine yourself scoring some three-pointers, make sure you can feel the ball in your hands, hear the crowd going wild and see the ball sail through the hoop.

Links and stuff

Radio on demand

 This post accompanies a radio segment on Triple R’s Breakfasters program on Wednesday 3 June 2015. 


  1. Kathleen Hayes says

    Fascinating stuff. I wonder if it works the same for other skills, like carpentry or piano playing. Begs the question just how much of talent and skill is in the mind.

  2. I practice mental imagery for taekwondo, especially for pattern memorising when I don’t get the chance to step through it for real every day. I can’t split myself into three to test this out scientifically, but I do feel that it works.

Please, let me know what you think.

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