Imagining Practice Can Help You Improve

Imagining Practice Can Help You Improve

Practice makes perfect, right? Well, you can even imagine playing a sport and improve…

We all know that practice (or rather repetition) is key to improvement. In essence, this practice continually reinforces the task till we get how to do it and become proficient at it. While playing a sport, we reinforce physically by training our unconscious to behave a certain way (what we often term muscle memory). On the other hand, while revising for exams, we reinforce mentally. Researchers term the former Physical Rehearsal and the latter Mental Rehearsal.

Fascinatingly, we don’t have to restrict mental rehearsals to mental activities only. It can be applied to a variety of physical activities too. This conclusion draws on the fact that our brain mediates the received information and our response to it. If we could somehow replicate the reality in our minds, we would not actually need to play basketball for hours to perfect our free throws; mere vivid visualisation would suffice.

Over the past century, dozens of experimental studies have provided real-life data to test this claim. Typically, four randomly-divided groups of players were treated with one of the four: no practice, mental rehearsal, physical rehearsal and both mental and physical rehearsal. As expected, the combination of mental and physical rehearsal turned up with the greatest improvement rates.

Surprisingly however, there were massive fluctuations in the effect of Mental Rehearsal: from no effect to as good as Physical Rehearsal. Clearly, many variables had not been controlled in most studies. There indeed was, what causal inference experts say, ‘a lot of confounding’. However, due to the number of studies conducted, we can make some useful conclusions that may help you get the best results out of Mental Rehearsal.

Logically, Mental Rehearsal is directly affected only by the vividness of the visualisation i.e. how close it is to reality. The more vivid the Mental Rehearsal, the more the improvement. However, this vividness depends on many secondary factors.

First, it depends on the effect of repetition on the task. For example, perfection in goal kick can be achieved using repeated practice, but learning exactly when to pass the ball and to whom cannot. If repeating a physical drill can help you improve, why shouldn’t a Mental Rehearsal of that drill?

Second, it depends on one’s skill level in the given task. Beginners are aware of the task in lesser detail than the advanced players. This means that they can picture it less realistically. Thus, there is lesser improvement. The more mindful one is, the more one understands and the more one improves.

Third it depends on how one pictures the task. Mental Rehearsals done in a relaxed setting show better results. Similarly, one’s concentration, mood and one’s state of mind at that time also affects your performance.

Last, how you visualise also affects how much you improve. Picturing an individual task (like diving in swimming) from a third person’s eyes, like a movie, is unlikely to help. Alternatively, your own eyes in an interactive task may take the broad picture away.

Mental Rehearsal can be an immensely powerful tool which can help you improve. But unless you truly are mindful of every little movement, it is useless. It should be alive, almost like a dream. You should feel every twist and turn, see the spin on the ball, realise the followthrough, and most important of all, see it swish down the hoop, ever so perfectly. It is crucial to imagine success to indeed succeed. Try it out. And just so that you don’t drift off to an imaginary world, make sure you keep making regular visits to the courts to fine tune your perception.


Ansbach, Lori Eckert. “The Effect of Mental Imagery on Free Throw Performance.” The Effect of Mental Imagery on Free Throw Performance, 1989,

I wrote this article on 28th January, 2020 for my school science magazine.



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