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Mental Imagery to improve sports performance


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We have all heard the quote from William Arthur Ward, “if you can imagine it, you can achieve it.” How many of us truly believe this? I was listening to a short course recently on how to outsmart yourself by Prof Peter Vishton, it’s a good one on how to manipulate the brain with certain tasks.

He had one whole segment dedicated on how mental imagery can improve sports performance. Our minds are truly capable of amazing things. Have you ever wondered how your performance might improve by incorporating mental training with your physical training?

The Shackell and Standing Study

One of the best studies done to show this remarkable power of imagery was done by Erin Shackell and Lionel Standing. They took a group of study participants and tested the strength for of their hip flexor muscles. Once a baseline was established, they were randomly assigned to one of 2 types of conditions.

The group was split into those who had a physical training program to go and strengthen their hip flexors and, the mental training group was taken to see the hip flexor machine and how it works but did not use it at all. They had to imagine using it, doing the same exercises that they physical training group had to do.

After two weeks everyone had to return to the gym for the repeat of the strength test. The results will blow your mind. The physical training participants increases their performance by 36 pounds. Participants in the mental training group, without even touching the weight machine, improved their flexor strength by 32 pounds.

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The Science behind the Study

Consider how your brain controls your muscles. Contractions of a muscle is caused by continuous train of signals sent from the brain via the spinal cord to be the efferent nerves embedded within the muscle tissue. As these neuronal signals arrive, muscle fibres contract.

The overall power that the muscle produces is a function of how big the muscle fibres are and how many muscle fibres contract. When you use physical training to enhance muscle strength, you increase how many fibres respond, and you enhance the size of the muscle fibres.  When you fatigue and damage those fibres during physical training, the body responds by repairing them and making them a little bigger than they were initially.  Physical training makes the muscles bigger.

Mental training, by contrast, doesn’t change the size of the muscle fibres very much. Imagery, however seems to increase the strength of the signals sent to the muscles. After imagery practice, when you make the an actual movement, your motor cortex will become more active than it otherwise would be. A greater number of action potential is conveyed to the muscles, causing a greater number of muscle fibres to respond when your brain calls them do to so. The result is that more force is generated by the muscles.

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Imagery Practice

Now let us get into the nitty gritty of how we can actually use these techniques to help us with our performance.

  1. When you lie in your bed, or sitting in your bed, it is suggested that you imagine it from a first person perspective. If you are running, you should mentally view it from the perspective of your own eyes.
  2. Imagery should be as detailed as possible including several different modes of activity. You want to stimulate all the senses, even those that you don’t seem directly relevant to performance.  
  3. Imagery should be precise. If you are using it for running, imagine every single detail you can think off, if you know the route. Imagine the smell in the air, the wind breeze, the sound of the gravel as your fit hit it. The sound of your breathing, every detail that you can think off.
  4. Imagine succeeding when you perform the task. Running the personal best you want. Mental images not only activate the sensory and motor processing areas of the brain, but they also activate the sematic processing. Sematic information is associated with labels, such as success and failure.

Long term Benefits of Mental Imagery

Nothing sucks more than injury or experiencing physical fatigue that prevents training. With mental imagery the brain doesn’t get as tired as our actual muscles. This will be the perfect time to get your mental training in place. There is good evidence that metal imagery, used three to four times a week, can result in improvements in a wide range of different physical activities.

Imagine you can use imagery to recover quicker from injury. The same principles can be used to imagine your injury healing. What have you got too loose from trying?

Portions of this article was take from the Great courses Plus, How to outsmart yourself. I would really suggest signing up for this course or read up on the suggested reading, if you want to learn more about mental imagery.

Is this something you have incorporated in your training or have tried? I would love to hear your thoughts and input on this topic.

If you would like to join me on social media I would love to have you   https://www.facebook.com

Suggested Readings

Doidge, The Brain that Changes Itself.

Finke, Principles of Mental Imagery.

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Categories: HealthTags: ,

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