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A couple months ago, my daughter went through a pretty hardcore PB&J phase. And since I hadn’t had a PB&J sandwich in years, I made myself one too1, quickly re-discovering how yummy they are.

I mean sure, peanut butter by itself is fun. And some strawberry jam is nice to have around too. But when you put them together? Awesome. (And you know what’s also awesome, BTW? Full-fat cream cheese and chunky strawberry jam on a lightly toasted Bays english muffin2.)

Umm…what does this have to do with anything?

Well, research suggests that mental practice can be a helpful adjunct to regular physical practice.

Research also suggests that “observational practice,” where we simply observe someone perform a skill, can help us learn more effectively too.

And recently, researchers have begun to study the effect of combining these two approaches, to see if that might be even better than either strategy alone.

Throwing darts

A team of researchers recruited 50 university students, with no previous mental imagery training or dart-throwing experience.

Everyone was given a few tips on dart throwing technique (e.g. focus on center of the dartboard), allowed to take five practice throws, and then took 30 real throws to establish a baseline level of performance.

Each participant was then randomly assigned to one of five groups – an observational practice group, a mental practice group, a simultaneous observation & mental practice group, an alternating observation & mental practice group, or a control group.

And finally, they were told to practice their dart-throwing skills 3 times per week for the next 6 weeks, and given specific instructions on how exactly to practice.

4 ways to practice

#1: Observational practice

The observational practice group’s practice sessions involved watching a short video of an intermediate-level player performing 30 dart throws for a score of 222/300, filmed so that their right hand and forearm were visible from a first-person perspective.

Why not a professional or elite-level player? Well, earlier studies suggest that observing an imperfect performance may actually lead to better learning than watching a perfect performance, where it’s easier to underestimate how difficult the task is, and don’t have as many opportunities to see all the things that could go wrong.

#2: Mental practice

The mental practice group, on the other hand, practiced by simply imagining making throws from a first person perspective.

#3: Simultaneous observation/imagery

The simultaneous observation/mental practice group practiced by watching the same video of the intermediate player taking 30 throws, but while simultaneously imagining the physiological sensations they would experience if they were actually performing the movement.

Kind of like if you were to watch a video of your favorite performer on YouTube, while also imagining how your hands, fingers, arms, etc. would feel if you were playing along with them on your instrument.

#4: Alternating observation/imagery

As the group’s name would suggest, the alternating observation/imagery group practiced by watching the model on the video throw five darts, and then visualizing themselves throwing five darts, and then watching five more, visualizing five more, and so on.

Control

The control group simply watched a video interview with a professional dart player three times a week, for the same amount of time that the other participants spent practicing.

Who improved the most?

After 6 weeks of practice, the participants returned to the lab for a test of 30 throws to see which type of practice led to the greatest improvement in performance.

This will come as no surprise, but the folks in the control group, who simply watched a documentary about darts for 6 weeks, did not improve at all.

Meanwhile, there were significant improvements for the alternating group, the simultaneous group, and the mental practice group.

It was a little surprising that the observational practice group didn’t improve, because previous studies have found positive results for this kind of practice. But while the group’s average score did improve from the first test to their last test, it wasn’t a big enough difference to reach statistical significance.

Anyhow, among the three groups that did improve, the simultaneous group had the largest improvement from pre-test to post-test. An improvement that was significantly greater than that of the group that only did mental practice.

The alternating group was somewhere in between – not significantly better than the mental practice group, but also not significantly worse than the simultaneous group.

Takeaways

So all in all, it seems that while mental practice is helpful, and can lead to improved performance even in the absence of any physical practice, a combination of mental practice plus observational practice is far more effective than either one alone.

Why is that?

Well, the researchers note that while both observational practice and mental practice are associated with activity in the same general area of the brain (the premotor cortex), each type of practice activates some parts of that region more strongly than the other. So engaging in both types of practice may lead to more activation in the premotor cortex overall, and as a result, more effective learning.

Take action

From this study alone, it’s not clear how much of a difference there might be between simultaneous and alternating mental/observational practice. So you could certainly try either or both – as I’m wondering if it might depend a bit on the situation.

For example, when I’m learning a new skill, I’ve often alternated between watching a video of the skill on YouTube, and then doing a few mental repetitions in my head to see if I can remember all of the details and execute it correctly in my mind. I’ve found that my brain gets a little overwhelmed if I try to imagine the feel of the movement, while also trying to pay attention to all of the details that I’m observing on screen.

But when it comes to something I know a bit better, and I don’t have to think quite so hard about the physical movements involved, I feel like I can totally handle watching and imagining a movement at the same time. As a child, for instance, I would often listen to recordings and visualize the physical feeling of playing with light fingers, a relaxed, heavy bow arm, solid contact with the string, and so on, as I’d play along with my favorite performers and orchestra in my imagination.

Either way, whether you a) watch a tricky shift on video, imagine performing that shift in your mind, and then try it on your instrument, or b) imagine shifting in your mind as you simultaneously watch the shift on video, before trying it out for real, they both sound like useful ways to make practice time away from your instrument even more productive. 

So the next time you’re looking to save your chops before a big performance, or want to practice when you don’t have access to your harp or marimba, or are stuck on a plane with nothing but a backpack of scores and a playlist of your audition excerpts, try this hybrid approach to visualization and see how it goes!

Footnotes

  1. Specifically, on King’s Hawaiian Bakery sweet rolls which make them even more tasty.
  2. And for english muffin nerds, a bit of trivia: apparently, Bays english muffins were the ones used on the original McDonald’s Egg McMuffin. Which I’m guessing is no longer the case…but who knows?