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Strength and Conditioning Research


Mike Hooker
Complete Article in PDF Format

NOVEMBER 29, 1994
Imagery, or mental practice, and motor performance might seem, at least on consideration, to be far removed from each other. As Denis (1985) points out, imagery is a psychological activity that is mostly inward, belonging to the class of "private events," whereas motor performance is more external and public in nature. Imagery evokes the physical characteristics of an absent object or event that has been perceived in the past or will take place in the future. Motor activity typically is more associated with the present, as individuals perform, they can be viewed and objectively measured by others.

Given these differences, why have researchers been investigating the relationship between imagery and the learning and performance of motor skills for over 40 years? The answer is that these researchers believe that motor learning is learned at the cognitive level. Housner (1984) made this argument, for example, when they suggested that motor learning is substantially influenced by people's goals, what they possess, and the incorporation of their new knowledge with old. Housner believes this knowledge combined in a mental learning representation of the motor task and is acted upon by strategic and heuristic processes. This approach to motor learning clearly supports the possibility of functional relations between imagery and action. The purpose of this paper is to prove there is a link between motor learning and motor skills, and to provide some information on practical application.


There exists a considerable body of evidence to show that over a wide variety of different tasks subjects improve their physical performance after spending various amounts of time in thinking about or imagining themselves in the act of performing. Improvement does occur. There are reasons that might account for this improvement.

The Symbolic Learning Theory

This explanation posits that mental practice (MP) gives the performer the opportunity to rehearse the sequence of movements as symbolic components of the task. It is likely that the influence of MP is limited to those skills in which there is a symbolic representation of the movement involved. This was verified by Marks (1978) and has received consistent support from empirical research designed to address this question directly.

The Psychoneuromuscular Theory

The psychoneuromuscular theory is an outgrowth of the ideomotor principle (Carpenter,1894) which states that minimal or low gain neuromuscular efferent motor patterns during imagined movement should be identical to those patterns generated during the same overt movement, but reduced in magnitude. No movement will take place because the stimuli is subthreshold, but the effected motor neurons will be active and there will be kinesthetic feedback.

The Modeling Theory

Modeling is a general process in which observers attempt to reproduce the actions demonstrated by another person. It is considered to be one of the most effective means whereby individuals learn a variety of skills, behaviors, attitudes, and values (Feltz,1983).

Modeling can be an effective method for transmitting information, particularly in teaching motor skills. It has been argued that the modeling of action results in the development of a cognitive or representation by the observer (Epstein, 1980). There has been some question however, which type of modeling leads best to acquisition of a motor skill. Traditional thought is that we learn motor skills by observing a skilled model. This skilled model serves as a blueprint as to the correct performance of the skill. Recent studies, however, seem to suggest that we may actually learn a motor skill more effectively by observing a learning model. Motor learning is a problem solving process whereby one performs action to achieve a movement or outcome goal, receives feedback and adjusts the action on the next attempt. Emphasis is placed on trial and error and how well we adjust to feedback. By observing a learning model, we actually take in the trial and error process. This was demonstrated in a study conducted by Pollack and Lee (1992), in which subjects were allowed to watch skilled and unskilled models perform a motor skill. There was no significant difference between the group that observed a skilled model and the group that observed an unskilled model.

The Memory Organization Theory

Hale (1981) postulated a theory to account for the learning of motor skills through MP which places heavy reliance on the notion that MP is a cognitive activity which can considerably influence the memory system and lead to high levels of human performance. According to the theory, memory processes are important learning and performance variables.

The Motivation Theory

It is possible that performance differences between groups might reflect differing levels of motivation between such groups. Specifically, attention to verbal instructions, demonstrations, films or videos, or whatever, creates an interest or a level of motivation in the performer, that is, the performer practices mentally for some time, and as a result has a desire to try out the specific skills practiced. The MP group would surpass the control group because of the motivation to actually try what was practiced mentally.


Mental Practice is best utilized in conjunction with physical practice. In comparison to no practice, imagery usually benefits performance. The imagery effect on performance generally is larger for studies that employ more cognitive tasks, such as fine motor skills, than tasks that rely heavily on strength. However, imagery does not generally improve performance to the same degree as physical practice. For example,  Rothstein (1979) found that a combination of physical and imagery practice was most effective. They required subjects to hit a solid whiffle golf ball at a target 10 feet away using a table tennis paddle. There were three groups of subjects and all subjects practiced 40 trials. The Physical practice (PP) group physically performed 40 trials. The mental practice (MP) group was given a demonstration, 3 physical practice trials, and then practiced 40 imagery trials. The third group experienced a combination of physical and mental imagery trials. The results of this experiment showed the combination of MP\PP group to be superior to MP or PP conditions. These results suggest that a physical practice trial combination encourages a more effective rehearsal strategy. Magill (1989, p.460) has speculated that a reason for the superior combination effect may be the advantage of problem solving when imagery and physical practice are combined. Such problem solving would lead to better learning than when physical or mental practice occur alone.

Another interesting study was conducted by Gerich (1992). Gerich believed that mental practice would be beneficial to children with learning disabilities because it helped them to concentrate on the process of learning and rather than the end result or outcome. To illustrate this, Gerich devised a study that involved learning a simple motor skill. There were four groups involved in the study, a MP group, a PP group, a combination of MP and PP group, and a control group. Each group member was taught the skill of scarf juggling, and required to practice the skill. The results showed the MP group took the fewest number of trials to learn the skill and the fewest number of trials for retention. Gerich noted that a common statement arouse from the PP group after several tries and lack of success, I can't do it (p.57). This was never mentioned in the mental practice group. This study provides us with some important insight into the benefits of mental practice, that it eliminates the negative side of learning a skill. The element of failure is eliminated.


While providing athletes with the proper mental practice skills is important, this alone may not be enough.  The time needed to develop and optimize an individualized mental-skills program is consequently extensive, and, although many coaches realize the importance of mental-practice skills, the challenge of finding time to do it is too much. The development of mental practice skills training on a regular, systematic basis is therefore important so that the program becomes a natural part of the athlete's overall training regimen. This is particularly true in contemporary sport where athletes are subjected to higher standards, tougher competition, and greater stakes. These factors make the psychological components of performance more important than they have been in the past.

While it is important to provide the athlete with the proper mental practice skills, simply teaching these skills may not be enough. Bull (1991) conducted a study in which he examined the athlete motivation to continue a program on their own. Subjects were taught effective mental practice skills, and then told to keep an adherence log. The results of the study showed very low adherence rates in general, but to older and more experienced athletes specifically. This is contrary to what one would consider advantageous for training an experienced athlete. As an athlete becomes more experienced and skillful physically, he should look to improve in other areas, including mentally.

Proper and consistent coaching is important when implementing a mental practice program. It is important to train the coaches as well as the athletes. It is common in this country to have the sport psychologist work directly with the athlete, and not involving the coach at all. This is contrary to what is done in the eastern bloc countries. For example, in Germany the sport psychologists main responsibility is to train educators and coaches on the mental skill techniques so that they can work directly with the athlete, thus minimizing the number of people that work with the athlete (Yesis,1987).


Imagery instructions are very important to the mental training experience. The instructions outline the approach or mental strategy the performer should employ, and they must contain sufficient detail to ensure that the athlete is imagining the task in the appropriate manner. For example, one aspect of  the instructions that is especially important for motor skills is whether they have a visual or kinesthetic orientation. Most imagery studies have emphasized or assumed the use of visual imagery by subjects, but in certain motor skills kinesthetic imagery might be more effective. Kinesthetic imagery is concerned with the feel of a movement. Individuals are instructed to imagine how a movement feels without actually performing the movement. 

One dimension of imagery instructions that has been considered in some detail is the imagery perspectives that subjects are instructed to use. Fishburne and Buckolz (1992) categorized mental imagery into either internal or external imagery perspective.The external perspective has the athlete view themselves from a third party perspective, as if they are watching a film of someone perform. The internal perspective allows the athlete to experience the movements in the first person whereby the performer imagines the performance from within the body. This approach is potentially kinesthetic because the performer is rehearsing the task from within the body.

While there is much debate as to which perspective is most beneficial to the athlete, it is probably best to let the motor task and the athlete select which perspective is best for him or her.m If the task takes place in a fixed environment, or is a closed skill where the feel of the movements is important, an internal perspective is probably best. The external perspective is probably best for all other situations.


Although the verdict is still out as to whether mental practice improves sport or skill performance, Grouios (1992) has found that there are certain consistencies that persist throughout the literature. Some of these include:

1.Mental practice combined and alternated with physical practice is more effective than either physical or MP alone. In addition, physical practice is superior to MP. Mental practice should not replace physical practice, but rather it should be used as a valuable addition to physical practice.                        

 2. Mental practice is especially effective during the early stages of learning or during the later stage, although individuals apparently must achieve minimum proficiency level before MP can be effective. It appears that a novice is unable to concentrate on the appropriate movement responses.

3. There may be an optimal time for the length of the MP interval with a few studies indicating that concentrate tends to deteriorate after five minutes.

4. Mental practice is associated with muscular responses in the muscles that would actually perform the movement and this provides a neural facilitation for enhanced performance.

5. Clear and concise information must be provided to individuals in as many forms as possible.

 6. When imagining themselves performing a skill, individuals should try to use an internal perspective and actually feel themselves going through the movement.

 7. During physical trials the individual should attend to the feel of the movement rather than other forms of feedback, especially in closed-complex skills, so that the kinesthetic image is well formed.

 8. With highly complex skills, one method of reducing the information at a slow rate, and have the individual mentally practice at the same slow rate as the film. Before physical trials occur, however, the MP must be brought up to full speed.


Although more studies are needed in this area, it is quite apparent that mental practice and imagery are very useful tools in order to improve the performance of motor skills or sports activities. We believe learning at the cognitive level may be initiated by symbolic learning, modeling, memory organization, motivation and psychoneuromuscular theories. In order to maximize the benefits of mental training, a certain level of skill in the activity must exist. Ideally, mental practice strategies and physical practice should be practiced in conjunction with each other. If these specific guidelines are followed, then improvements in motor skills will be observed.


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