Mental Rehearsal in Sport

Mental  rehearsal  is  an  umbrella  term  that  covers several  techniques  used  by  athletes  and  exercisers  to  improve  performance.  It  happens  covertly and  without  any  actual  movement  and  typically involves the representation of an action or behavior using nonverbal (e.g., imagery, observation) or verbal processes (e.g., self-talk). For example, an athlete may think (in the “mind’s eye”) about a skill to be performed using imagery or repeating key words associated  with  successful  execution  of  that  skill using  self-talk.  Moreover,  mental  rehearsal  may involve  a  combination  of  techniques.  Described here are the characteristics of mental rehearsal and three  common  types  of  techniques  employed  by athletes  and  exercisers  to  mentally  rehearse  their activity: imagery, observation, and self-talk.

Characteristics of Mental Rehearsal

Mental  rehearsal  is  deliberately  employed  by  the individual with the intention of achieving specific cognitive  or  motivational  outcomes.  Cognitive outcomes are usually associated with the learning and performance of skills, strategies, and routines. A  figure  skater  might  observe  someone  successfully  perform  an  axel  to  learn  how  it  should  be correctly  executed.  Motivational  outcomes  typically  include  managing  thoughts  and  emotions as  well  as  goal  setting.  Someone  attempting  to become more active to lose weight might imagine himself or herself looking thinner for motivation to be more physically active. Mental rehearsal is not necessarily limited to a singular outcome. Rather, it  is  possible  to  obtain  multiple  outcomes—for example,  observing  a  particular  skill  to  obtain improvements to both technique and confidence of performing the skill.

Systematic  use  of  mental  rehearsal  is  one  of the  qualities  that  distinguishes  elite  athletes  from those who do not excel in their field. The benefits of mental rehearsal are gaining recognition within an  exercise  context,  with  more  active  individuals reporting greater use of the quality to self-regulate their thoughts, feelings, and behaviors.


Imagery    involves    the    experiencing    or    re-experiencing  of  a  situation  through  multiple  sensory modalities (e.g., visual, kinesthetic). It is well known that when combined with physical practice, imagery leads to greater improvements of a motor skill compared to physical practice alone. The proposed  mechanism  underpinning  these  improvements  is  the  activation  of  some  common  neural networks during imagery and actual execution of the same skill. This has resulted in imagery being viewed as an effective mental rehearsal technique that  supplements  and  improves  training  and  can even stand in or be substituted for some amount of actual practice. Beyond these cognitive outcomes, imagery  is  also  well  established  as  a  confidence-enhancing  technique  that  enables  individuals  to manage symptoms associated with anxiety.

When  imagery  is  combined  with  relaxation, this subtype of mental rehearsal is known as visual motor  behavior  rehearsal.  The  two-step  process begins  with  relaxation  (e.g.,  take  a  deep  breath) followed  by  imagery  to  fully  re-experience  an event  or  situation  (e.g.,  you  are  standing  on  the green again, holding the putter). It can be used to strengthen desirable responses (e.g., you are confident as you take the shot) and/or eliminate undesirable ones (e.g., reducing or reappraising symptoms associated  with  anxiety).  While  this  standardized training  method  might  be  useful  for  modifying thoughts and feelings, it is not always appropriate to relax individuals before they engage in imagery. This  is  because  activation  levels  might  fall  below those  typically  experienced  in  the  real-life  situation, which can make imagery less effective.


Another  common  form  of  mental  rehearsal  is observation.   When   used   for   the   purposes   of acquiring a new skill or behavior, it is referred to as  observational  learning  or  learning  by  demonstration.  Sharing  many  characteristics  with  imagery including the activation of similar neural and cognitive  processes,  observation  involves  watching  oneself  or  another  perform  a  behavior;  these demonstrations  can  be  live  or  videotaped.  For example, a dancer might observe a video recording of  herself  to  feel  more  confident  in  performance. Alternatively,  a  basketball  player  new  to  a  team might observe the team run a set play to learn how it  should  be  performed.  Consequently,  as  with imagery  observation  can  facilitate  learning  and improve or alter performance and behaviors.


Self-talk  involves  having  a  dialogue  with  oneself, either out loud or in one’s head. This mental technique is used by individuals to instruct and motivate performance of skills and exhibition of certain behaviors. Within the context of mental rehearsal, statements  to  the  self  would  be  used  to  give instructions on a skill or strategy to be performed in the form of specific cues or longer phrases. The athlete rehearses the skill or strategy by talking to herself or himself, which is also known as instructional self-talk. This form of mental rehearsal can also  be  done  in  conjunction  with  imagery  and/ or  observing.  For  example,  a  field  hockey  player might  image  performing  a  block  tackle  and  say specific instructions such as “step left” and “stay low” while imaging those specific parts of the skill.


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