Dynamic Imagery: A More Effective Way to Do Mental Rehearsal?

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).


  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).

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6 Responses

  1. Hi, Noa,
    I found this article and its studies intriguing. As a performance anxiety coach who teaches visualization, I know that one of the factors that make mental imagery so effective is that our brains switch, so to speak, from beta waves to alpha waves, the latter of which allows for more creativity, imagination, imagery, etc. It is my understanding that we can induce alpha waves through deep relaxation, and when people are deeply relaxed through progressive muscle relaxation, when they don’t want to move at all, how does that reconcile with the findings in these studies? I’ve taken advanced courses on visualization, etc., but I want to keep up to date with the newest and most effective uses of this wonderful technique. I work with classical musicians of the highest calibre (top 5 orchestras, conservatory professors and students, and soloists), as well as amateurs, and also non-musicians, and I want to be of service in the best possible way. Thank you for your response!

    1. Hi Helen,

      While a relaxed, meditative state is indeed conducive to producing alpha waves, movement and alpha wave production don’t seem to be mutually exclusive. Athletes in a state of flow for instance, seem to be more in an “alpha” state, and I’ve come across studies where athletes will produce a burst of alpha waves immediately prior to executing a skill as well (e.g. free throw or golf putt). I think movement that triggers too many thoughts about the technical and mechanical minutiae of a skill can be disruptive, but focusing on the big picture seems to be helpful.

  2. This article is fascinating. I always takes sportspeople (particularly Federer!) as perfect examples of how to give an impulse, observe the follow through (the bit we can’t control) , and then be primed, relaxed and ready for the response. The equivalent for me, when I practice and teach, is to find the ‘sketch’ of the piece. Ie the big gesture that comes from our centre. I often play a phrase first on a djembe to find the vertical (harmonic/rhythmic) aspect of the gesture. Then I might walk it out in the room. ‘Pacing’. Then I add the detail, all the while trying to preserve the basic simple gesture I have found. If I lose that connection I go back to the basic gesture that, if it is ‘right’, will ‘produce’ the whole phrase. Thank you for these thought provoking posts!!

  3. Thanks Noa for addressing this issue of static vs. dynamic imagery. We know from studies involving mirror neurons that imagining movements without doing the actual movements still activates the neural/somatic circuits that would be involved in making those movements. So actually mimicking the movements physically would likely further reinforce the execution of the desired movement. But this brings up a related issue that I have been working on that may be of interest to you. And that is combining moderate cardio exercise with imagery and mental rehearsal. In working with musicians and athletes, I have found that mental rehearsal of desired movements while exercising on an elliptical trainer for 20 minutes every other day in the weeks leading up to a performance appears to reinforce those movements and aid learning. This has been especially helpful in learning how to make quick, awkward and precise movements. I have named this technique Cardio Imagery & Rehearsal. The technique can be understood as “applied neuroplasticity” in that cardio exercise increases blood flow to the brain and releases various growth factors such as BDNF that support the creation on new brain cells (neurogenesis). When exercise and mental rehearsal are combined, new brain circuits that support the new learning are created. The mirror neuron phenomenon is part of this process. This is neuroplasticity in action. But I have found that the exercise has to be moderate (120-130 HR). Enough exercise to stimulate production of BDNF and increased blood flow to the brain but not too much or PFC functioning will be too degraded to allow for new learning (it is hard to think clearly when we are exercising at a high HR, right?). So the technique appears to work only when there is a balance between intensity of exercise and the mental activity required for learning the material. This is not a one trial learning model. It must be repeated seven to ten times to get the benefits. Also, it is a good idea to practice this technique on alternate days because new research on learning suggests that long term memory is enhanced when you start to forget it. (I know this sounds counter-intuitive). But starting to forget something after a day or two and then going back to it and reinstalling the learning leads to better long term memory (massed learning supports short term memory and gives the illusion that you learned it when in fact, the memory degrades very quickly). There is also a hypothesis in the literature called “transient hypo-frontality” by a neuroscientist at Emory that suggests than cardio exercise redirects blood flow away from the PFC to other brain systems thereby slowing conscious mental activity that can enhance brain coherence between the two hemispheres which is probably a component of the “flow” state. Basically, exercise serves to limit the control of the PFC which may reduce the dominance of left hemisphere functioning, allowing the right hemisphere to get into the act. Also, using an elliptical trainer with its alternating movements of legs and arms may create a rhythm that supports an optimal mental state. When people are in the flow state, they often feel a sense of rhythm.

  4. Excellent piece, Noa!

    When watching TV coverage of the pre-event rituals of many Olympic athletes, especially skiers, lugers and bobsledders, I’ve noticed most of them use the dynamic version of mental rehearsal. I’ve watched their bodies emulate what the motions of their sport demands of them during their runs down the mountain. One bobsledder put both of his hands together, as if forming an arrow, and both hands and arms swayed in a specific fashion as if guiding him through the course.

    A bit off-topic, but kind of in the same ballpark…there is a psychologist in CA who works with musicians with stage fright and he advocates performing mental rehearsal while on a treadmill, with eyes wide open, but only after they’ve reached a certain heart rate. The mental rehearsal is pretty standard–running a “success” video. His theory is that the individual will become accustomed to all the sensations of arousal–heart rate, respiration, etc–so that in actual performance the musician will not interpret these as “foreign” or “scary” (fear of the fear). (Sorry, I don’t have his name or contact info.) From my grad school days, I remember a case history where a client was late for his psychotherapy appt. and ran to his therapist’s office. Upon arrival, he began to hyperventilate and had a full-blown anxiety attack. The therapist explained to him that he was erroneous in labeling his sensations as anxiety, but they were simply his body’s way of generating–through increased heart rate and respiration–the energy needed to run to his session.

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