Fact or Myth: Does Mental Imagery Improves Athletic Performance?

This is a FACT.

Practice does make perfect…but when it comes to sports, practice should encompass more than just honing physical skills. The most impressive results will come from harnessing the power of mental imagery, as well.

Annie Plessinger of the Vanderbilt Psychology Department has created a highly informative report on mental imagery (also called visualization and mental rehearsal). Plessinger’s report, The Mental Edge, describes the technique’s scientific basis, but also highlights the basics.

Put simply, mental imagery involves imagining yourself performing an action exactly as you would like to perform it, while not physically doing so. mental imagery

The Landmark Basketball Study

A great deal of research demonstrates beyond any doubt that mental imagery is a powerful tool in all forms of sports, athletics, and physical performance. You may have heard of one of the most famous tests of this theory, conducted at the University of Chicago.

Researcher Dr. Blaslotto recruited study participants, divided them into 3 groups, and tested them on how many free throws they could make.

After this initial measure…

    • The first group practiced free throws for an hour each day.
    • The second group visualized themselves making free throws.
    • The third group did nothing.

After 30 days, Dr. Blaslotto tested them again.

    • The first group, after 30 hours of physical practice, improved by 24%.
    • The second group—who never touched a basketball but instead imagined themselves shooting perfect free throws—showed a nearly identical improvement of 23%.
    • The third group who did nothing did not improve, which was expected.

Since this landmark study, further research demonstrated that the best results can be achieved by combining physical practice with mental imagery.

How Mental Imagery Boosts Performance

Mental imagery can advance your athletic skills in a number of ways, such as:

This technique is beneficial for all kinds of athletes, whether professional, amateur, or junior. It can help make up for times when physical practice just isn’t possible due to time or health constraints, and it can be especially useful for overcoming performance anxiety, mental trauma (from past injuries, for instance), or negative thought patterns about past mistakes.

How to Practice Mental Imagery

There isn’t one specific way to implement this technique, Plessinger says. It all depends on your preferences and circumstances. Mental imagery can even be done—in an abbreviated fashion—during game play! For best results, experts advise visualizing in your preferred way 2 or 3 times each week.

As you’re establishing your visualization practice, do some research, experiment with the options, and see what works best for you. The only real rule is that if you’re not enjoying yourself, you should change your technique, because mental imagery should be positive and enjoyable.