Why Visualization Ought to Include More than What We See with Our Eyes

We often hear about athletes’ use of mental imagery techniques in preparation for competition (like here). And on the surface, mental practice does seem like a pretty straightforward concept.

But sometimes it’s not really clear what “mental practice” ought to look like. Does “imagery” suggest that we should focus all of our attention on just the images that represent what we will see when actually playing and performing?

Or does it work better for us to focus more on the physical sensations and muscle movements we experience while playing?

Or should we perhaps be both seeing and feeling?

Time for a drive

A team of European researchers recruited 45 participants to participate in a study to see if combining different types of imagery would improve performance more than engaging in just one alone.

They suspected that visual imagery would enhance performance more than doing nothing, but that engaging in visual and motor imagery would have even greater performance benefits.

So to test out their theory, they decided to use race car driving as a way to compare performance before and after visualization.

Of course, having a group of young male underclassmen race around in high-performance sports cars was evidently not an option, so the researchers put together a driving simulator for the participants to use, complete with a force feedback steering wheel, gear shifter, pedals, and a racing car seat.

Training phase

Each participant then went through a 90-min training session to get comfortable with the driving simulator, by racing on the Suzuka Circuit of the Gran Turismo 5 Prologue game (click here to see what it looks like).

To ensure all the participants were sufficiently-skilled drivers, they had to be able to finish three consecutive laps in under 170 seconds. Plus, their last three laps had to be within 5 seconds of each other (to ensure the participants achieved a level of consistency and performance had “plateaued”).

Then, it was time for the experimental phase, and a test of their driving skills.

Experimental phase

Participants completed 5 practice laps on GT5’s Eiger Nordwand track (see it here ) to get familiar with the course.

Then, they did 5 “real” laps as a test of their baseline level of performance.

Next, it was time for a little bit of visualization. To help, researchers created two different imagery scripts.

One group of participants received the “internal imagery” script – a walk-through of the course, with prompts to help them envision the route and task at hand (e.g. imagining the view changing as they go around a corner).

A second group of participants received the “internal imagery + kinesthetic imagery” script. Essentially the same walk-through of the course as the first group, except with prompts to help participants imagine the physical sensations and muscle movements involved in driving as well.

A third group – the control group – just solved math problems.

Then, as a test of the imagery session’s effectiveness, everyone completed 5 laps as a final post-imagery test of their driving skills.

Which group’s performance improved the most?

Before imagery, everyone’s driving performance was about the same, with no statistically significant differences between the groups’ course completion times.

However, after the imagery session, the groups’ driving times began to diverge, with the visual+kinesthetic imagery group turning in a faster time (86.36 seconds) than either the internal imagery group (87.57 seconds) or control group (87.83 seconds).

Indeed, the visual+kinesthetic imagery group’s performance improved the most from the brief 2-minute imagery session, going from 87.86s before visualization to 86.36s after visualization (an improvement of 1.5 seconds). The internal imagery group’s performances did improve too, but not by as much (88.44s to 87.57s; an .87 second improvement).

The control group’s performance, of course, changed not at all, staying virtually the same (87.84s during the pre-test to 87.83s post-imagery).

Why is multi-sensory visualization better?

Research on imagery in the cognitive neuroscience literature has found that engaging in different types of imagery cause neural activations in many of the same areas of the brain. But interestingly, each type of imagery also creates activations in some distinct and unique areas too.

So the researchers surmise that a combined approach to visualization could create a “richer cognitive representation” of the performance of a skill, making for a more effective transfer from practice to performance, and ultimately, better real-world results.


Thinking back on times when I’d used mental practice, I don’t know that I ever really emphasized both the visual component and kinesthetic sensations simultaneously. Auditory imagery was certainly always present, but my focus was generally more on the kinesthetic element than the visual component.

And while there may be individual preferences and differences, combining multiple senses does seem like an approach that would make for a more complete and life-like imagery experience.

In addition, though this wasn’t the purpose of the study, the setup and results seem to suggest that engaging in some imagery might not be such a bad way to spend the last few moments before walking out on stage to begin a performance. At least, better than engaging in mental arithmetic, as the folks in the control group did (and probably better than whatever other nightmare scenario is likely to pop into our thoughts too).

Ack! After Countless Hours of Practice...
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.

Click below to learn more about Beyond Practicing – a home-study course where you’ll explore the 6 skills that are characteristic of top performers. And learn how you can develop these into strengths of your own. And begin to see tangible improvements in your playing that transfer to the stage.


5 Responses

  1. Hi Noa,

    My teacher advises mental practice, but my own experience has been that trying to do visual, auditory, tactile and kinesthetic practice at the same time results in a pretty much hit-or-miss approach to at least some of these areas. I think it would be interesting to expand the experiment to include one- or two-goal practice (by combining just auditory and tactile, for example, and then auditory and visual, and so on, to see if that has an effect on how much one can improve one’s actual playing by mental practice.

    1. Hi Mark,

      Indeed, I think trying to engage too many different senses simultaneously at first might be a little too much to process. Starting with just one or two, and then adding more in as it becomes easier is probably the way to go.


  2. Hi Noa, thanks for the article! I’m in Hong Kong performing a run of Wicked right now, with 55 shows. You know, as a horn player there are “always” some chipped notes here and there and my goal is to play perfectly accurately, every time. I’ve been tracking these clams since show #1, and at show #30 have reduced my count by ~80%, but I still have a ways to go.

    My question is, playing 8 shows a week I don’t have an extra 3 hours to visualize my way through the entire show. Do you have any thought about the most broadly effective visualizations? Would it be specific passages? Or can I zoom out somehow to a macro level and just imagine playing the first half perfectly with that feeling of a centered perfectly accurate note on my lips? Or maybe as I’m playing the show, during bars of rest which I don’t need to count anymore I can “pre-compute” coming phrase in a multi-sensory way?

    1. Hi Marc,

      Given the limits of time, I’m inclined to suggest specific passages, plus the beginnings of major sections (like the very beginning of the show). And I don’t know that it necessary needs to be something you take out significant blocks of time to do. It could be that you engage in some visualization while en route to the show, or while eating, cooking, etc. Maybe even some post-show visualization could be useful too, before going to bed – particularly in sections that didn’t go as you had hoped.

  3. I play viola da gamba, and i find that visualizing (and moving) my left hand (one stimulus) during mental practice is less effective than visualizing and moving BOTH hands. It takes a little more effort, but if i can muster up the required mental energy and focus it seems to work a lot better.

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