Can Your Imagination Make You a Better Athlete?

This post is based largely on portions of the third chapter in Elixir J. Sternberg’s Book “Neurologic and the Brain’s idea Rationale Behind Our Irrational Behavior.” The title of this post is the title of Chapter 3.  The Chapter begins with a quote from the famous golfer Bobby Jones, “Golf is a game played on a five-inch course—the distance between your ears.

Let me remind you of the role of memory.  Memory serves as a source of information to help you plan for and execute actions in the future.  One of the functions of memory is to serve as a mental simulator.  We can simulate the outcomes of different course of action.  We can also simulate, mentally practice, actions for athletic performances.

Jack Nicklaus and Tiger Woods are two more famous golfers for whom mental practice was central to their preparation for tournaments.  Of course mental practice is not restricted to golf.  Steve Backley was the javelin thrower  who won the bronze medal  in the 1992 Olympics in Barcelona.  Just months before the 1996 games in Atlanta, he sprained his ankle.  He was unable to walk and needed crutches to walk for six weeks and was not able to train physically.  However, he was able to prepare mentally.  Barkley sat in a chair and closed his eyes and began a grueling workout in his mind.  He imagined the javelin in his hand and felt his fingers curl around the cool metal shaft.  He imagined using perfect throwing form, tensing his muscles as he released the javelin on a high-arching path.  He watched as it sailed into the distance, looking like a pin as it reached its peak, and came careening down as gravity thrust the spear into the earth.  When he recovered from his ankle injury, after one thousand imaginary throws, he found that he had not lost any ground in his preparation.  His throws were just as good as they were before he hurt his ankle.  He improved over his bronze performance in the 1992 Olympics and won silver in Atlanta.  Michael Jordan and Roger Federer are two more outstanding athletes who practice mentally.

Research has been done on this mental simulator.  When asked to imagine a particular course of action, say getting some food from the refrigerator, the mental simulation of the activity takes about the same time as the actual performance of the act.

Neurologists ran an experiment to compare the brain activity of people while they engaged in real versus imagined movements.  Participants faced a set of four numbered buttons and practiced pressing them according to a sequence:  4,2,3,1,3,4,2.  Their brain activity was recorded as their fingers pushed the buttons.  They then placed their hands in their laps and just imagined pressing the buttons in the same order.  When these two activation patterns were compared, they overlapped most notably in the area of the motor cortex that controls finger movements.  Mentally picturing finger movements triggered an fMRI signal that was nearly indistinguishable from the signal observed during actual finger movements.

Another experiment used three groups in a task in which cards were to be pointed to in defined numerically sequences.  One group performed this task physically.  A second group performed this task mentally.  A third group served as the control group.  When the actual performance of the groups was tested, the mental practice group performed almost as well as the physical practice group, and both groups clearly outperformed the control group.

Mental rehearsal can not only benefit physical performance, it can also enhance physical strength.   Dr, Guang Yue had participants imagine flexing one of their elbows and pinky finger  for fifteen minutes a day for five days a week.  After twelve weeks the strength of their muscle contractions had increased by 13.5% in the elbow and 35% in their little fingers.  For comparison physical practice for the same time period enhanced muscle strength by about 50%.  Of course,  participants who did not practice showed no improvement.

Some might be incredulous that mental practice could enhance physical strength.  Yue observed the brain waves that appeared in the motor cortex before, during, and after the practice sessions.  Yue’s hypothesis was that mentally rehearsing a motor act would amplify the signal voltage that reached the muscle cells, causing them to contract more intensely.  His hypothesis was correct.

Sports scientists Paul Holmes and David Collins propose a seven-point mental imagery program for athletes using the acronym PETTLEP.  Here’s what is stands for

Physical—mentally simulate every movement necessary for the activity.
Envionment—Imagine the environment and the sounds from the spectators.
Task—Imagine not only the task, but the objective of the task.
Timing—Simulate the time it would take to complete the act
Learning—Adjust the imagery as you improve to reflect you progress.
Emotion—Feel the big moment, the pangs of nervousness, your heart racing.
Perspective—Experience the imagery in the first person.

Mental rehearsal has been tried for people recovering from strokes.  It does not work if the parts of the brain involved in the rehearsal have been damaged.  However, if the relevant parts of the brain have suffered minimal or no damage, then mental rehearsal should work.

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