When you think of mental imagery or visualization, do you think of a quiet, relaxed, meditative activity?

Or something more akin to playing air guitar?

Most studies of mental imagery go to great lengths to ensure that participants remain very still while engaging in visualization. That way, it’s easier to link any performance enhancements to the use of imagery, and not muscle movement.

This may be important for conducting good research, but when it comes to using imagery outside the lab, it’s not like the imagery police are going to arrest us for moving our arms or legs a bit while visualizing ourselves rocking the opening of the Dvořák cello concerto.

So what happens if we combine visualization with simultaneous physical movement?

Steve Nash and his imaginary free throws

Like many other NBA players, Steve Nash engages in a unique pre-free throw ritual before every free throw. It’s not especially quirky, but is pretty unique. Specifically, he steps up to the line and mimes a few imaginary free throws before taking the actual free throws.

It might seem a little oddball, but it certainly seems to be working for him. He has a career free throw percentage of .904, making him the NBA’s all-time leader in free throw percentage.

Hmm…seems like something worth looking into a bit, no?

A study of elite high jumpers

Researchers from Le Centre de Recherche et d’Innovation sur le Sport conducted a study of 12 elite national-level high jumpers aged 16-25 (6 male/6 female) whose personal bests ranged from 156cm to 218cm1.

Jump up, jump up and get down

Each athlete was allowed 4 warm-up jumps, followed by 10 official jumps at a height that represented 90% of their personal best.

Before each attempt, they were asked to engage in a brief visualization of each jump. Before five of the jumps, the athletes engaged in motionless mental imagery, where they were asked to imagine every detail of the jump, while keeping their body still.

Before the other five jumps, they engaged in dynamic imagery, which involved mimicking the motion of jumping with their arms (like so).

This is similar to Nash’s imaginary free throws, but while Nash’s movements are nearly identical to his shooting movement, the high jumpers were asked to avoid executing the skill for real, and to keep their upper body movements simple. The idea was to use movement to enrich their visualization – not replace or overpower their imagery experience by focusing too much on the physical execution.

Timing is everything

Previous studies have highlighted the importance of “temporal congruence” (timing) in maximizing the impact of visualization. Makes pretty good sense when you think about it. Imagining (or playing) a tricky shift in Don Juan under tempo is very different than imagining or playing that shift at tempo.

Accordingly, the researchers found that when engaged in motionless mental imagery, the visualized jump took an average of 5.12 seconds. The actual jump which followed, lasted 4.24 seconds. A discrepancy of .88 seconds might not seem like much, but we’re talking about a statistically (and practically) significant 17% difference. That’s not the same jump anymore, in the same way that playing Schumann Scherzo 17% slower isn’t the same excerpt.

Conversely, when engaging in dynamic imagery, the average time discrepancy between imagined and actual jump was a barely perceptible .01 seconds (4.26 for the imagined jump, and 4.25 for the actual jump).

Jump success

As you can imagine, the researchers were also interested in seeing if the two types of imagery might have different effects on high jump performance and technique, so they had two expert trainers review the jumps and evaluate four components of the jump.

  1. The quality of the approach phase of the jump, in terms of the athlete’s speed and stride frequency
  2. The quality of the athlete’s strides during the curve portion of the run-up
  3. The quality of the impulsion phase – with regards to the athlete’s body alignment, take-off angle, and knee position of the non-jumping leg
  4. And finally, the athlete’s shoulder, knee, and feet movement during the bar clearance portion of the jump.

Dynamic imagery resulted in higher scores in each of these four areas, and an overall score of 8.06 (vs. 7.89 for motionless imagery).

Perhaps most intriguingly, the athletes were also more successful in clearing the bar when utilizing dynamic imagery, with a success rate of 45% (compared with 35% when engaging in motionless imagery).

Take action

The athletes rated dynamic imagery as being more vivid than motionless imagery (4.67 vs. 3.58 – a statistically significant difference). So, if you’ve had difficulty making your mental images vivid, adding some physical movement might help add to the realism and effectiveness of the experience.

But even if your imagery is already quite vivid, it can’t hurt to try adding some movement to your mental imagery practice and experimenting with this a bit. Shake things up a bit! Don’t feel like you need to do visualization in a straightjacket. Move around a bit, let your hands, fingers, body move as you visualize yourself executing the opening of your excerpt or concerto.

Thinking back on the long car rides I often had traveling to and from lessons, I remember often catching myself moving the fingers on my right hand (yes, right; that wasn’t a typo) while practicing in my head. Or working through finger spacing, intervals, and even finger pressure on both hands in some cases. Seemed like an odd thing to do, but it was strangely comforting. Perhaps there was something to this habit after all!

Ugly free throws

In the mood for a chuckle or two? Check out some of the NBA’s ugliest free throws , including some classic footage of Wilt Chamberlain and Don Nelson (but be sure to check out #1 – it’s a real beaut).

Footnotes

  1. For reference, the current mens world record is 245 centimeters (set by Javier Sotomayor in 1993) and the women’s is 209 (set by Stefka Kostadinova in 1987).