Mental Practice Makes Perfect

Surely, you’ve heard of the age-old saying that practice makes perfect. However, are you familiar with the concept of mental practice producing similarly excellent results? Well, if not, then you’re not alone. Several people are quite doubtful of the benefits of mental practice, while a lot of individuals haven’t even heard of it at all. The concept of mental practice improving one’s performance is almost a revolutionary one, with implications that might set the entire world rocking. So are you ready to explore the idea further? Check out the following tidbits on mental rehearsal and its relation with peak performance.

What Constitutes Mental Practice?

First and foremost, it is best if the definition of mental rehearsal is established so as to avoid confusion. Mental practice means rehearsing in your head the actions or steps of a certain activity. It goes beyond just psyching yourself up for the activity ahead of you or deciding on what to do. It doesn’t mean urging yourself to get in the right mental condition, either. Rather, it involves practicing the exact moves you’ll be making, only this time, you do it in your head.

Does Mental Practice Enhance Performance?

This is the most important question of all. While many people, including athletes and surgeons, use mental imagery to generate peak performance, not everyone is convinced. If people were to choose between a surgeon who’s actually performed the operation a million times before and one who has done it in his head the same number of times, they would probably go with the former. But are they right in making the said decision? Read the following studies and find out.

Studies in the Operating Theater

In the arena of neurosurgery, there is no conclusive evidence showing the difference that mental rehearsal and focus can have on one’s performance. Nevertheless, there have been studies that show how rehearsing in your head can lead to better performance of basic surgical methods.

Sanders and company conducted a 2008 study involving medical students to investigate the matter. The subjects were divided into two groups. The first group received training in mental imagery techniques, while the second group devoted time to their textbooks. Both groups also received the usual instruction, of which physical practice was also a component. The proponents of the study found out that those who made use of mental rehearsal carried out the live operations better than those who were assigned to learn from their textbooks. Arora and fellow researchers conducted another study in 2011, this time involving the benefits of mental rehearsal for beginners in the field of laparoscopic surgery.


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Cases in the Sports Field

The sports field is another area where imagination and mental practice can help people perform better. Many athletes will swear that imagining the steps they’ll make before actually doing the act has done wonders for their execution and overall performance.

Jenson Button, for example, goes through the race circuit and practices in his mind. The British Formula1 driver creates a physical scenario as close to the real situation as possible by sitting on an inflatable gym ball with a steering wheel on his hands. He then closes his eyes and completes a circuit lap. Throughout the entire process, he taps out the gear changes and does the whole lap in close to real time. When he pops his eyes open, his imagined lap time isn’t far off from his actual one. Jenson Button is only one of the many athletes who use focus and mental imagery to better themselves in their chosen sport.

A 2004 study done by Ranganathan and company also found that mental contraction or flexion of body parts could lead to greater strength. The research involved separating the subjects into four groups: those who carried out mental contractions of their pinkies, those who imagined flexing their elbows, those who physically trained their pinkies, and those who did not train at all.

After four weeks of engaging in mental training, physical training, and no training, the participants were tested for finger and elbow muscle strength. Understandably, no improvement was seen in those who didn’t train at all. A fifty-three percent improvement in muscle strength, on the other hand, was seen in those who engaged in physical training. Lastly, those who mentally flexed their elbows showed a 13.5% improvement, and those who imagined contracting their pinkies showed a 35% improvement. While these last two numbers aren’t as impressive as those of actual physical training, they so support the claim that mental practice enhances performance.

How Does Mental Practice Improve Performance?

So what is it about mental practice that improves one’s performance of the act? Well, there’s no simpler way to put it than to say that learning occurs in no better place than the brain. This may be a simplistic explanation, but you have to remember that all the movements you use to carry out a specific skill are dictated by the brain. Mental practice not only allows you to learn a skill better, but it also prevents you from having to relearn the right technique when you practice physically and get a move wrong.

So if mental practice is as great as it claims to be, why do people who engage in it still perform poorly at times? If mental practice and imagination are all it takes, why is it that even experts have their moments of failure? The answer, again, points to the brain. Your brain can’t imagine doing a golf swing the same way over and over again. As a result, you can’t produce the same motion each and every time you want to.

How to Get the Most Out of Mental Practice

By this time, you’re probably wondering how you can get the most out of mental practice. Experts recommend that you keep things vivid. Imagine doing the body movements in as much detail as you possibly can. When you’re trying to pick up a new skill, it’s also best if you run through the steps in your mind slowly. This will increase your attention to the details. Once you’re already an expert, you can then imagine doing the actions as quickly as possible. Lastly, it will also help if you observe other people carrying out the task. This triggers the same motor areas in your brain, helping you become better.

The question “does mental practice enhance performance” is one that is relatively new. Further studies need to be done to settle the matter conclusively for all. For now, you may also want to try rehearsing in your head. Who knows? You might even become an expert in your field because of it.

References

  • http://www.spring.org.uk/2013/03/mental-practice-makes-perfect.php
  • http://www.psychologytoday.com/articles/200901/mind-your-body-going-through-the-motions
  • http://blog.80percentmental.com/2008/07/does-practice-make-perfect.html#.UThSttYi5m4
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