From Norman Doidge’s, The Brain That Changes Itself, research about the power of imagination, and how training that occurs purely within the confines of a person’s own skull has been demonstrated to be nearly as effective as actual, physical practice (long quote, but trust me, you want to read it):
Pascual-Leone taught two groups of people, who had never studied piano, a sequence of notes, showing them which fingers to move and letting them hear the notes as they were played. Then members of one group, the “mental practice” group, sat in front of an electric piano keyboard, two hours a day, for five days, and imagined both playing the sequence and hearing it played. A second “physical practice” group actually played the music two hours a day for five days. Both groups had their brains mapped before the experiment, each day during it, and afterward. Then both groups were asked to play the sequence, and a computer measured the accuracy of their performance.
Pascual-Leone found that both groups learned to play the sequence, and both showed similar brain map changes. Remarkably, mental practice alone produced the same physical changes in the motor system as actually playing the piece. By the end of the fifth day, the changes in motor signals to the muscles were the same in both groups, and the imagining players were as accurate as the actual players were on their third day.
The level of improvement at five days in the mental practice group, however substantial, was not as great as in those who did physical practice. Buyt when the mental practice group finished its mental training and was given a single two-hour physical practice session, its overall performance improved to the level of the physcial practice group’s performance at five days. Clearly mental practice is an effective way to prepare for learning a physical skill with minimal physical practice.
In an experiment that is as hard to believeas it is simple, Drs. Guang Yue and Kelly Cole showed that imagining one is using one’s muscles actually strengthens them. The study looked at two groups, one that did physcial exercise and one that imagined doing exercise. Both groups exercised a finger muscle, Monday through Friday, for four weeks. The physical group did trials of fifteen maximal contractions, with a twenty-second rest between each. The mental group merely imagined doing fifteen maximal contractions, with a twenty-second rest between each, while also imagining a voice shouting at them, “Harder! Harder! Harder!
The results? The subjects who actually did the physical exercise got 30 percent stronger at the end of the training period. The subjects who only did the imaginary exercise got 22 percent stronger. These results are so cool it’s worth repeating: over training periods of several weeks, purely imaginary practice can lead to changes in the brain and increases in physical performance that nearly match the effect of actually, physically practicing.
The mechanism behind this is as simple as it is fascinating: as far as your brain is concerned, merely imagining doing something is very nearly the same as actually doing it. Experiments have confirmed that imagining an image causes your brain to go through the same pattern of firing and activation that it does when you actually see the same image. Watching a person shoot a basketball causes the same brain areas to light up that are involved in shooting a basketball.
The implications behind what we are learning from research into the power of imagination are potentially huge for athletes trainers and coaches. An effective mental training regimen for football players could cut down on the amount of practice time spent in high-impact tackling sessions, thereby reducing the exposure to blows that cause concussions, and the sub-concussive blows that are believed to be involved in causing Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy. Time and energy could be saved by having athletes mentally rehearse plays, rather than doing physical run-throughs. Injured athletes could use visualization and imaginary training as a part of their rehab programs to keep physical skills from deteriorating during time off.
Obviously more research is needed, but it’s fascinating stuff. With any new idea in sports, however, a big questions that always pokes its head into the frame is this: will coaches and athletes be willing to adopt and accept imaginary training as legitimate?