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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