Mental rehearsal, also referred to as visualisation, is a training technique that is used to create an experience in your mind, with the objective of improving your physical skills through purposefully imagining yourself executing these actions.
Used by many of the world’s greatest athletes, research shows that mental rehearsal can help to build self-confidence, increase motivation, reduce anxiety, and improve focus.
Mental rehearsal preferences
As is the case with physical training styles, everyone has there own mental rehearsal preferences, so it’s important to find a method that works best for you. For example, some athletes use internal mental rehearsal (where you imagine an experience from your point of view, seeing and feeling it through your own eyes), whilst others prefer external mental rehearsal (where you imagine observing yourself from outside of your body, which is similar to watching yourself on video).
You may be a kinaesthetic learner, where you find it best to mentally rehearse using physical movement, feeling your body executing a skill. Perhaps your learning preference is more visual, in which case it would be more effective for you to imagine seeing yourself perform the activity. Alternatively, you could be an auditory learner, where it’s most effective for you to mentally rehearse by listening to cue words or remembering what someone has said to you.
Mental rehearsal examples
Regardless of what your preferred method is, it’s vital that your mental rehearsal is both vivid and positive, so imagine yourself successfully performing your skills in as much detail as possible.
Here are three examples to help you get started…
Kinaesthetic mental rehearsal: A scrum-half feels the strength in her legs as she waits in the ready position for the forward pack to win possession, followed by the texture of the leather as she confidently grabs the ball, before feeling her body powerfully throw a bullet-pass straight into the waiting hands of her teammate.
Visual mental rehearsal: A snooker player notices an opportunity to make a winning pot, precisely observing the angles, then visualising himself executing the shot with perfect technique, watching the ball drop into the corner pocket to win the match, and therefore seeing himself crowned as the tournament winner.
Auditory mental rehearsal: There is a hush in the ground as a batsman recites her pre-shot cue words when the bowler runs in, and then crisply hears the crack of the ball as it sweetly comes off the bat and goes for six, shortly followed by the sound of an ecstatic crowd applauding loudly and excitedly.
Therefore, when you’re mentally rehearsing…
- Only imagine what you want to happen (eg. being successful).
- Create images that seem as realistic as possible by making them vibrant and detailed.
What to mentally rehearse
Although the list of things to positively imagine is virtually limitless, there are a couple of key areas of performance enhancement that can be significantly improved through mental rehearsal…
Mindset: The brain does not make a distinction between something that is real or imagined, so it’s important to mentally rehearse your ideal mindset for optimum performance. For example, if you want to remain calm in a pressure-filled situation, imagine yourself feeling, behaving, and talking calmly.
Skill acquisition: Research indicates that mental rehearsal can help you to learn skills more quickly, so imagine yourself perfectly executing a technique that you’re trying to learn. The more you imagine this, the quicker this skill will develop in reality.
When and where to mentally rehearse
There are no right or wrong times to mentally rehearse, it just comes down to what works for you. Here are some examples…
- Before practice – Think about your objectives for the session, and then imagine yourself accomplishing these tasks as vividly as possible.
- During practice – Quickly mentally rehearse performing well in the next drill, particularly if you’re having difficulty with something.
- After practice – If you performed well in the training session, mentally recount the skills you successfully executed whilst they are fresh in your memory. If you performed below par, imagine yourself doing better next time.
- Pre-Match – Mentally rehearsing the night before, or the morning of, a match helps you to clear your mind of all unnecessary distractions, keeping you focused on those things relevant to performing well. Your physical practice sessions are now over, and the only thing remaining is to prepare your mind by imagining yourself putting it all together and competing successfully.
Mental rehearsal troubleshooting
Sometimes it can be difficult to imagine yourself performing successfully, so if you find yourself in a situation where this applies to you, try to understand the reasons why you’re struggling. By gaining an awareness of these reasons, it will help you to change your mindset.
Reasons for having difficulty imagining yourself successfully executing your skills include…
- Poor form – If you played badly in your last match, or you’ve had a run of poor form, you may have trouble getting this off your mind. Therefore, go back to a time when you were playing well, and use this recollection for your mental rehearsal.
- New skill – Perhaps you’re struggling to imagine executing a new skill simply because, as of yet, you haven’t had any success with it. If so, imagine how others have done it well, and then place yourself in that context, performing it as they did.
- Lack of preparation – Maybe you’ve not practiced sufficiently, or you’re physically underprepared. If so, you need to address this as quickly as possible by preparing adequately from now onwards. To get by in the very short term, imitate someone else, such as a successful athlete you admire.
- Over-complication – It could be that the image you’re trying to make in your mind is just too complicated. In this case, break the image down into smaller parts by removing some detail – this detail can always be added back later when you’re imagining it more positively further down the line.
Mental rehearsal happens intentionally and unintentionally. Negative imagery that creeps into your mind unintentionally can be just as powerful, so control this through the use of consistent and intentional mental rehearsal. And remember, mental training is no different than skill & physical training when it comes to volume…the more you practice it, the more skilled you’ll become at using it.
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