A Research-Based “Hack” That Could Improve Your Mental Practice (and Build Confidence Too)

Fish and chips may be one of the greasiest, artery-cloggingest meals ever devised, but one day, my wife and I decided to try preparing this at home.

We got some tilapia, made up a batter, and a couple hours later, we had our homemade fish and chips. Blueberries were in season, so we made a cobbler for dessert too.

The meal was actually a little disappointing, but I still remember it very vividly. I can picture the texture of the strips of fish, and the little dollop of tartar sauce on the side. I remember clearly the blueberry cobbler bubbling in the glass dish we used, the fragrant smell of baked blueberry, and how tasty it looked with the little sugar crumbles on top.

Why do I have such clear memories of this particular meal, over a decade ago? Well, I don’t know if it was the fish or blueberries, but this was the first and only time my wife and I have ever experienced food poisoning.

To this day, I steer clear of tilapia (maybe just as well?), and I haven’t eaten any type of cobbler since. Heck, even re-imagining the cobbler while writing this almost made me gag a bit.

So why am I bringing up and reliving this unfortunate culinary experience?

Making imagery work

It relates to the use of mental imagery in learning and enhancing performance.

In much the same way that the mental images of this meal produces a physical reaction, research on imagery suggests that to a large degree, the vividness of the images we generate in our mind is what determines whether mental practice works or not.

And while I can picture and smell this meal with exquisite detail, there are lots of things that I can’t imagine so clearly. Like fingered octaves, and what my left hand should be doing in pretty much all of Ernst’s Last Rose

For many, generating images of any kind – whether it’s sound, images, or the physical sensations of movement – can be frustratingly difficult.

The good news is that imagery ability is something that can be developed.

But how?

Practice, practice, practice?

If generating images in your mind doesn’t come naturally, don’t worry. There are lots of folks who find it difficult.

Like any other skill, practice does help. But if you struggle with imagery, “practice more” doesn’t feel so helpful. It’s like telling someone to work out more, if they can’t bench press 250 lbs.

So what else can we do? Are there any imagery training hacks?

Another way?

There are a few studies (on gymnasts and dancers), which suggest that observing others may be an effective way to improve imagery ability.

So a team of British researchers conducted a study to see how regular imagery training and “action observation” compare.

Three groups of golfers

27 club-level golfers took a test designed to determine their imaging ability – specifically, how easy or difficult it was for them to imagine certain kinds of golfing movements.

Then, they were assigned to one of three groups – an (1) imagery training group (imagery script), (2) a video group (action observation), or (3) a physical practice group (control).

Imagery training

Each golfer in the imagery group was given a customized script, developed around the aspects of their game the golfer expressed interest in working on.

They were asked to practice imagery by reading the script, and then use those details to create a visual in their head. All while wearing golfing attire, holding the same club they were using in their imagery, and assuming the stance they would use on the course to hit that shot. They practiced the imagery of that shot for 11 minutes, 3 days per week, for 6 weeks.

Action observation

Each golfer in the video group was filmed performing the specific shots they wanted to work on. They then reviewed the recording to pick out their best shots, which were then compiled into a highlight video.

They too were asked to wear their golfing clothes, hold the same club they were using in the video, adopt the correct stance, and then watch their 5 1/2 minute video twice a day, 3 days per week, for 6 weeks.

Physical practice

The physical practice (control) group simply identified an area of their game they wished to improve, and were asked to practice this specific aspect of their game for 11 minutes, 3 days per week, for 6 weeks.

Six weeks later…

Everyone started out at with about the same level of imaging ability. But after six weeks of practice, there were some noticeable differences between the groups.

The imagery training group made significant strides in their imagery ability. Not only were they able to generate images more easily – going from an average imagery score of 22 before training to 26 after1, but they were able to imagine the feel of the movement (kinesthetic imagery) more effortlessly as well, with the average baseline score of 20.56 improving to 25.22.

The action observation group also made significant strides in imagery ability. Their average score improved from 19.78 to 23.78 for visual imagery, and from 19.44 to 22.67 for kinesthetic imagery.

The control group, on the other hand, did not improve at all (23.11 vs. 23 for visual imagery and 22.78 vs. 22.44 for kinesthetic imagery).

But wait!

I should mention that while both imagery groups did improve, action observation was not quite as effective as regular imagery training in improving golfers’ kinesthetic imagery ability. The scores trended in the right direction, but just barely missed the cutoff for statistical significance. So for now, imagery training is probably a safer bet than action observation when it comes to enhancing your ability to imagine the physical feeling of a movement.

That being said, if you struggle with imagery, I think it’s just fine to start with action observation, and then start doing some more conventional imagery training when that becomes easier. Certainly far better than avoiding or giving up on imagery because it feels too difficult.

Take action

This study reminded me of a confidence-building technique that 3-time US Olympic diving coach Jeff Huber used with his divers. A strategy which he calls the “best dives tape.”

Like the golfers in this study, his divers taped all of their practice dives, and anytime they had a personal-best-type dive, they added it to their highlight reel, replacing their previous personal-best. This compilation of their best dives was something they watched over and over, to help them cultivate greater confidence and trust in their abilities.

(Incidentally, Huber also has a Ph.D. in educational psychology, which makes his book on effective coaching a resource that I think musicians interested in teaching would also gain lots of actionable insights from.)

Aside from enhancing visualization ability, I think the “best-of” video approach could help make videotaping a little more enjoyable too. Where you’re always looking for and reviewing your best moments, instead of unproductively dwelling only on your worst moments.

After all, there’s enough negativity in and around us most days anyway. Sometimes it’s nice to have an occasional reminder of what we can do when we put our best foot forward.


  1. The scores on the imagery scale go from a low of 4 to a high of 28, where 4 means it is very hard for you to see/feel a movement, and 28 means it is very easy to see/feel a movement).

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Why Are Performances Still So Hit or Miss?

It’s not a talent issue. And that rush of adrenaline and emotional roller coaster you experience before performances is totally normal too.

Performing at the upper ranges of your ability under pressure is a unique skill – one that requires specific mental skills, and perhaps a few other tweaks in your approach to practicing too. Elite athletes have been learning these techniques for decades; if nerves and self-doubt have been recurring obstacles in your performances, I’d like to help you do the same.

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5 Responses

  1. TAG (teaching with acoustical guidance) does wonders to help a student correct a troubling passage. I’m thinking that one could “TAG” himself in practice effectively as well. I’ll have to try this on myself. After all, it is all about practice being the most effective.

  2. One method I think is related to this: “Recoding the piece you’re working on at the level you can play it through and can play the tricky spots with a bit of luck. Feel free to interrupt and play frases again. Just make sure you play so that it ia possible to edit the piece together. After playing cut and edit your performance together. Don’t use too much time editing but listen carefully. There you have a best of track of your playing. You also learn to hear what must done differently to make it better :)”

  3. So the question that seems obvious to me for the follow-up study is, how do these gains in imagery ability translate to performance in the tangible, physical realm?

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