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Whether you’re recovering from an injury, trying to do some last-minute cramming before a lesson, or have neighbors who don’t enjoy trumpet excerpts at 11pm, mental imagery is a practice technique that many musicians and athletes have relied on for years.

And research suggests that engaging in both mental and physical practice leads to better performance than physical practice alone. But if you’ve ever tried to incorporate mental practice into your routine, you know that there are some real challenges that can sometimes get in the way.

For instance, it’s often easiest to do mental practice with eyes closed. The problem, of course, is that anytime I close my eyes, it’s pretty much guaranteed that I’m going to fall asleep. Or find my thoughts drifting off to an email I need to respond to. Or wondering if my neighborhood Pinkberry is going to have their awesome strawberry flavor this week.

Thinking back, there were times though when I didn’t fall asleep, and was very much engaged in my mental practice. I was recently reminded of this when I saw my daughter tapping her fingers on her leg as we waited for our food to arrive at a restaurant.

When I asked her what she was doing, she said she was practicing piano. Which made me think of how I’d often move my fingers around, whether I was walking to class, eating lunch, or listening to a recording. In hindsight, whenever I had music playing in my head, I’d often be tapping out the fingering, and even stretching my fingers out or bunching them together a bit, to remind myself of a wider or narrower interval.

It’s possible that this may have helped me stay awake and be more engaged in my imagery practice – but more importantly, does moving your muscles during imagery have any impact on actual performance? Like, is this a good thing that could enhance the effectiveness of imagery? Or does it not really matter all that much?

Dynamic vs. static imagery

A team of international researchers recruited 10 Brazilian state-level basketball players1 to participate in a study on imagery.

Each athlete first completed a basic 4-week mental imagery program to make sure they were familiar with imagery, consisting of two 5-min sessions per week, during their regular practice.

Then, over the course of about 10 days (to make sure there were at least 72 hours between each test), the athletes had three imagery/shooting tests (counterbalanced to make sure there was as little carryover from one type of session to the next2).

On one day, they stood at the free throw line and mentally practiced shooting five foul shots before taking five actual shots (the static imagery condition).

On another day, they engaged in a type of imagery known as “dynamic” imagery before taking five real free throws (the dynamic imagery condition). What’s dynamic imagery, you ask? This involved imagining not just the visual and physical sensations of shooting, but also engaging in small movements like bending the knees slightly, or moving the arms a bit (though not going through the exact motions of the shot itself).

On yet another day, they engaged in no imagery at all, but just stood at the line discussing their daily training with the experimenter, before attempting their free throws (the control condition).

So did imagery make a difference? And was there any benefit of one type over another?

Which improved performance the most?

Well, shooting accuracy did vary significantly, depending on which type of imagery the players used.

When shooting without imagery, the players averaged about 1.6 made shots out of 5.

After using regular static imagery, the players made 2.3 shots.

But after engaging in dynamic imagery, players made 3.3 shots – a statistically significant improvement over both the static and no-imagery conditions.

A caveat…

So when it comes to immediate performance, while both types of imagery can certainly work, dynamic imagery may lead to greater accuracy.

However, I think it’s important to note that the study doesn’t really get at what the long-term learning effects of each type of imagery would be. Like, which type of imagery will help me play better in my performance next week, or next month?

There hasn’t been a ton of research on dynamic imagery to this point, so that might be an open question worth taking a closer look at in future studies.

Another thing to keep in mind…

Also, it appears that fatigue has an influence on the effectiveness of these two types of imagery. In a follow-up study, the experimenters made the athletes sprint back and forth between two cones 20m apart with a metronome that increased the tempo every minute by .5 km/hr until the athletes reached “complete exhaustion” or they couldn’t keep up anymore. In this scenario, the static imagery actually led to better performance than the dynamic imagery.

Certainly something to keep in mind – but then again, I don’t think I’ve ever been quite near that level of physical exhaustion in the moments right before a performance…

Take action

All in all, if you’re backstage before a performance, waiting nervously excitedly for your turn to play, the study suggests that you’ll get off to a better start if you not only engage in some imagery while you wait, but incorporate a bit of movement into the experience too.

And I can’t promise that dynamic imagery will keep you awake, but if you do have a habit of zoning or zonking out when trying to do mental practice, see what happens if you not only imagine the sound and kinesthetic sensations of playing, but move your muscles a bit too!

Footnotes

  1. Average age=18.4 years old, with 7.3 years of practice, and currently engaged in 6 hours per day of training, 5x per week
  2. Meaning, some participants did the regular imagery first, others did the dynamic imagery first, while others did the control condition first, etc. to ensure the order of these sessions didn’t somehow affect the results.