Monday, February 8, 2010

Mental Rehearsal - Can You Ingrain a Skill by Thinking about It?

When I was 17, something weird happened to me.

I wanted very much to go to West Point after high school, but to compete for the appointment, I knew I'd need a good resume. I was vice-president of the student council, first in my class, an Eagle Scout, and captain of the golf team. But I felt I needed another sport. So I decided to go out for the wrestling team. This would help my application, and it would get me in better physical condition.

The good news is that I loved wrestling, and my body was getting stronger by the week. The bad news, if you want to call it that, was that my team-mate in my weight class was the All-Europe champion. I had to wrestle Skip Ledbetter in practice every day. I knew the only way I'd ever wrestle in a match was if he got injured. So I accepted my role as "practice dummy" for him. My ambition was a pragmatic one: I would learn to wrestle well enough that I could at least survive a practice without being pinned....

That was easier said than done. I had a lot of moves to learn, and my body needed to get a lot stronger.

So I became obsessed with becoming a decent wrestler. In idle moments, I would think about what I learned. In my mind, I would imagine myself performing the correct moves on Skip.

One night I lay in bed thinking about a particular escape move. I imagined Skip on top of me, pushing me into the mat. Then I imagined executing this difficult move perfectly, over and over again. After doing this mental exercise for half an hour, I realized that I felt exhausted. And my bed was completely soaked in sweat. I had to change the sheets!

I remember wondering how such a thing was possible. I wasn't moving my body at all. I was just imagining it. Why would this cause me to sweat?

That wasn't the end of the weirdness, however. The next day in practice, Skip took me down and was trying to work me into a position to pin me. Instinctively, I executed the move perfectly. And I found myself facing Skip, free of his grasp. He laughed and said, "Wow, good move!"

I know now that what I was doing is what is called "mental rehearsal." If you do something repeatedly, the brain adjusts to make this make this action easier to perform. It secretes chemicals that cause dendrites on the brain cells related to the skill to grow until they connect with each other in a new network. When this growth is complete, the brain has the most efficient possible wiring to enable the skill. The activity seems comfortable and automatic.

What psychologists have discovered is that simply imagining the activity has almost the same effect. The mind doesn't seem to care if you are physically performing the action or simply imagining it. Today, mental rehearsal is a well-established component of athletic training. In tournament play, nearly all professional golfers mentally rehearse the action of the desired swing and the flight of the ball before they actually execute the shot. Tennis players do the same thing.

Question: Can mental rehearsal help you improve a personal strength behavior pattern? 

Answer: Absolutely.

I encourage you to try it. But I suggest you follow these guidelines...

1. Make sure that what you're imagining is correct. You don't want to rehearse a flawed technique. So before you begin mental rehearsal, review the best practice model.

2. When you imagine yourself doing something, don't see yourself out there doing it. Instead, imagine what it's like to do it. Experience that feeling.

3. Envision the entire process that leads to the desired result. And after imagining what it's like to complete the entire action and result, imagine how good you feel having done it well.

4. Rehearse the action in your imagination many, many times in sequence. Practice makes perfect, even in your mind.

5. Don't rely completely on mental rehearsal. Most of your practice should be physical. You need real in-the-world practice to give your imagination the correct images. Mental rehearsal can speed the learning process, but it can't take the place of actually doing it.

I know mental rehearsal sounds amazing, but it actually works. There, I've just shared one of the most powerful learning strategies known to trainers. Now you can take advantage of it and share it with your friends.


Anonymous said...

I don't want to repeat myself, but I have to...AMAZING post again Denny!;-)
And I have got such "weird" experiences for years and it was also associated with sports. Mental rehearsal work for sure! When I was playing basketball I was watching NBA games on TV and then was thinking about the moves, passes and all smart things these guys did. Firstly I was quite surprised when I was able to give behind back passes during a game at the age of 12, but now I got it why? I have been playing bball 24/7, in my sleep, on the court...
Now, I am playing a lot of golf in my head;-) As I am not in the state to afford it (yet) to play it for real, I am rehearsing proper grip and driving range shots as often as I can;=)
thanks again for super cool post!

Ryan said...

Excellent Denny.

The imagination is a predictive creative faculty. Once you've imagined something you can experience it.

The key is to have absolute faith in the manifestation of the image. We picture than feel that it's not going to happen. If you build the image clearly enough - make it *really real* - you can erase these doubts.

Thanks for sharing your story!

Anonymous said...


Once a skeptic, I am now a firm believer in mental rehearsing. I knew a couple of decades ago that many high-level athletes used mental rehearsing to enhance the outcome of their athletic performance, but I rejected the notion that the technique could have any practical effect on us ordinary folks as we go about performing the tasks of our daily lives.

But years ago, encouraged by a public speaking coach, I tried the technique in connection with giving a presentation related to my work duties . It helped. So I began applying the technique to as many of my work activities as I could. Mental rehearsing engenders within me a sense of familiarity, as though I have performed a particular complex or difficult task before, even though I have not -- other than inside my own brain.

A couple of years ago, the technique helped me lose more than 65 pounds. More than a year later, mental rehearsing continues to help me maintain the weight loss and live a healthier life style. It is one of several behavior changing techniques that Weight Watchers® teaches its members. For example, when I'm invited to a holiday party or to a lavish dinner at the home of a gourmet cook friend, a couple of days before the food-eating event I begin rehearsing inside my head. I envision what I expect will be served at the event and rehearse several times in my mind the smart choices I will make regarding what I eat and drink, and how much. At the actual event, I simply do what I've rehearsed doing multiple times inside my own brain.

Until reading your blogs, I never investigated or understood the brain chemistry of why mental rehearsing works; I just knew that it did. Thanks for your explanations and insight.