Have you ever thought about something that happened to you and then think, did that really happen or did I just imagine it? Our brains are amazing in so many ways, but one interesting glitch in it’s functioning is that it can’t always tell the difference between an imagined situation and a real one. When you imagine the smell of fresh baked bread you can really ‘smell’ it. However, it is this glitch that allows us to hack our brains!
Brain studies have shown that thoughts or imagined movements produce the same mental instructions as actual actions. In other words, when you imagine performing a particular skill or movement, your muscles fire in the same sequence as if you were actually performing the skill (obviously on a much smaller scale though). The brain is tricked into thinking the body is needed for action and sends neural signals to the muscles that would be used in that action.
This is why mental rehearsal is such a useful skill when you are not able to physically practice (like many athletes right now). It keeps muscle memory going and helps reinforce the mental blueprint you have for the various skills you need.
I like the phrase mental rehearsal rather than visualization because this mental skill involves all the senses, not just ‘seeing’ your performance or having a picture in your minds eye. To truly create and recreate a skill or action, you need to tap into all your senses:
- Visual – seeing yourself performing; for example a golfer may ‘see’ the ball travelling in the air and landing on a spot on the green.
- Auditory – hearing specific sounds related to performance, for example a tennis player hearing the sound the ball makes when it hits the sweet spot in the racket.
- Olfactory – smelling the scents associated with your sport, for example a rugby forward smelling the sweat in a scrum (interestingly of all the senses smell is most closely linked to memory – when you catch a whiff of a particular scent it can take you right back to the time associated it with, such a the smell of cookies in the oven taking you back to childhood days, or a perfume reminding you of a particular person).
Of all the senses though, my favourite for mental rehearsal is this one:
- Kinaesthetic (feeling) An important part of mental rehearsal is feeling yourself performing. Every sport has a particular rhythm to it – a golf swing, a rugby tackle, a butterfly stroke, or a block start on the track. In fact, a lot of performance is about finding and maintain this rhythm. Feelization is about feeling the rhythm of the movement you are mentally rehearsing. You may not be able to put into words what you are feeling – that’s okay – but you should ‘feel’ it in your body. I can’t always explain what a great butterfly stroke feels like, but I get a sense of it, starting in my chest, when I imagine it. By feeling the skill you want to practice, you help your muscles remember the correct sequence of firing needed for that movement.
What I like about this is not everyone can ‘see’ (visualize) themselves performing – they can’t create a clear image in their minds – or some can’t hear the sounds of performance. But almost all athletes can feel the rhythm of their sport and its particular skills.
Try to pick a skill (a serve, a hook shot, a kick for goals, a start…) every day and spend a few minutes mentally rehearsing and feeling the skill. That is practicing without practicing.