Mental Practice Not Working for You? This Might Be the Reason Why…

Many elite athletes have described using visualization and mental practice to supplement their training and improve performance. And likewise, a number of musicians have spoken to this as well.

More than likely, you’ve used some form of mental practice yourself, whether it was hearing notes in your head as you read through a score, visualizing how you’d like your performance to go as you drove to the concert, or mentally practicing how to ask your theory professor for an extension on your final project.

Mental practice is generally thought of as being a purely mental activity. As in, you sit in a quiet place, and silently imagine yourself playing or practicing the music in your head.

But in the last few years, researchers have started testing out some hybrid approaches, that include a few twists. Like dynamic motor imagery, for instance, where you get up and move around as you engage in mental imagery.

And you might remember that we looked at a 2018 study (Romano-Smith, Wood, Wright, & Wakefield) a few months ago, which found that doing mental imagery while watching video of an expert performing that skill was even more effective than just doing mental imagery by itself (click here to read that again).

Mental practice can be a great practice tool – but if you tried the “action observation + mental imagery” hybrid and it just felt like you were banging your head up against a wall with very little to show for it, a more recent 2019 study provides some clues as to why that might be.

Let’s take a closer look…

A golf study

A team of researchers recruited 44 golfers (average handicap of 9.52) from several golf clubs to participate in an imagery study (McNeill, Ramsbottom, Toth, & Campbell, 2019).

An imagery assessment…

Each golfer was first given an imagery ability assessment to see how vividly they could see or feel various physical movements. They were then split up into two groups, based on how good they were at visualizing the physical feeling of these movements.

10 practice putts…

Everyone started out with 10 practice putts, so they could get used to the putting surface.

20 real putts…

And then they were given 20 chances to get the ball to stop on a target 15 feet away.

And a short imagery session…

After taking 20 putts, the imagery group watched a 3 1/2 minute video, where they saw footage of an expert golfer performing 20 putts, accompanied by a voice describing some of the key visual and kinesthetic feelings that are associated with successful putting.

The control group, on the other hand, just read a short golf-related article for 3 1/2 minutes.

…followed by 20 more putts

Finally, the golfers took 20 more putts, to see if the short imagery session had any impact on their putting performance.

And did it make a difference?


Well, a single 3 1/2 minute imagery session is not a huge amount of training. But some of the golfers did benefit nonetheless – the important word being some.

Specifically, the golfers who went through the mental practice session and were categorized as good imagers improved the consistency of their putting more than the good imagers who didn’t do any mental practice.

But mental practice did not seem to help the golfers who were categorized as being poor at imagery. The imagery session didn’t seem to have any effect on their putting performance at all.


In other words, the ability to vividly imagine the physical feeling of a movement may be an important part of making this particular imagery strategy (i.e. action observation + mental imagery) work. 

So if you can imagine how playing your instrument would feel while watching your favorite musician effortlessly navigate a particularly tricky passage on YouTube, then yay! Action observation combined with mental imagery may be a really useful addition to your practice toolbox. Especially if you’re stuck on a plane or train, or it’s too late to practice without annoying the neighbors.

But if you’re watching a video, and finding it really difficult to imagine the physical sensations involved in playing, I wouldn’t stress about it too much. There are some indications that even just watching someone perform a skill (i.e. action observation) can improve your imagery ability, so it certainly doesn’t hurt to watch and listen to more recordings when you have some downtime.

Marathon, not sprint

And imagery, like anything else you do in music, is something you can totally get better at over time. So there’s no rush, and it’s likely that with time and practice, you’ll be able to expand your use of imagery.

After all, there are probably some things you can already imagine the feel of pretty vividly, and other things you can’t.

Like, you may have difficulty imagining what a really effortless up-bow staccato feels like, but be able to imagine the feel of drawing a nice juicy forte sound out of your instrument. Or you may be able to imagine the feel of a tricky string crossing passage, but struggle to imagine the feel of a big shift.

It’s a process!

All this to say, if you find mental practice really hard, really frustrating, and just can’t get a feel for the nuances of the physical movements in your head, a) you’re totally not alone, and b) I also don’t think that this is the sort of thing that is going to make or break your career either.

You certainly don’t have to give up on it entirely – but I think it’s also completely fine to give yourself permission to focus more on physical practice, and work on gradually increasing your awareness of how your body feels, as the motor movements become more deeply ingrained in “muscle memory.”

In the same way that your ears were not as well attuned to the subtle intonation, sound, and rhythmic details that seem glaringly obvious to you now, but were not on your radar 6 months, a year, or five years ago, if you keep paying attention to your body, and the kinesthetic sensations involved in playing your instrument as you practice and refine your skills, you might find that imagery strategies like the one we looked at today will start to resonate more over time.

But I want to get better at imagery faster!

That said, if you’d like to make a point of practicing getting better at imagery, you certainly could. =)

To that end, here’s a helpful article that describes how to improve your imagery skills with the PETTLEP model: Perfecting Practice: Applying the PETTLEP Model of Motor Imagery

Or, if you want the tl;dr version, you can get that here: Enhancing Sports Performance Using PETTLEP Imagery

Ack! After Countless Hours of Practice...
Why Are Performances Still So Hit or Miss?

For most of my life, I assumed that I wasn’t practicing enough. And that eventually, with time and performance experience, the nerves would just go away.

But in the same way that “practice, practice, practice” wasn’t the answer, “perform, perform, perform” wasn’t the answer either. In fact, simply performing more, without the tools to facilitate more positive performance experiences, just led to more negative performance experiences!

Eventually, I discovered that elite athletes are successful in shrinking this gap between practice and performance, because their training looks fundamentally different. In that it includes specialized mental and physical practice strategies that are oriented around the retrieval of skills under pressure.

It was a very different approach to practice, that not only made performing a more positive experience, but practicing a more enjoyable experience too (which I certainly didn’t expect!).

If you’ve been wanting to perform more consistently and get more out of your daily practice, I’d love to share these research-based skills and strategies that can help you beat nerves and play more like yourself when it counts.

Click below to learn more about Beyond Practicing, and start enjoying more satisfying practice days that also transfer to the stage.


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