Mental Practice in Sports

for Skill Development and Competition

Mental practice is the cognitive (thinking) rehearsal of a physical skill without movement. It is effective both for skill learning and preparing for competition. Sport psychologist often use visualizations and rehearsal to help in motivation, self-confidence, and to reduce competitive anxiety. Regardless of its application, it is well established that training the mind is key to successful sport performance. Here, the focus is on skill acquisition.

Athletes can benefit from this technique in two ways. Internal imaging means that the athlete is approximating a real-life situation that he or she might expect in competition. External imaging means viewing themselves as the observer, as if watching a movie.

In motor learning literature, research has shown that thinking about how to perform a skill plus physical performing it works better than just physical execution for learning remembering skills. Rehearsing in the mind only is better than not rehearsing at all.




Mind preparation strategies are essential for producing maximum or peak performance. Rehearsing competitive situations in anticipation of events is a key strategy for optimizing performance.

Why Imagery Works

There are two theories about why imagery and rehearsals in the mind are effective:

1. Neuromuscular theory proposes that visualization activates the same motor pathways as if the skill were physically performed, but at a sub-threshold level. Studies using EMG equipment have demonstrated this activation, which is comparable to physical movement but at a lower level.

2. Cognitive theory suggests that imagery speeds up the acquisition of mental elements required for the performance of a skill. The athlete can also devise strategies and test solutions without the risk of injury or fatigue.

Mental Practice Techniques

Huster Vertical Jump

1. Ask athletes to visualize movements early in learning to facilitate skill acquisition.

2. Encourage athletes to engage in rehearsal strategies and problem solving activities prior to competition.

3. Between trials, include techniques where the athlete imagines how correct movements should be performed.

4. Allow opportunities for athletes to visit sites of competitions prior to important contests, and encourage them to visualize themselves in peak performance in competition.

5. Perform imagery exercises in a relaxed state when the subconscious mind is more active.

Related Pages

This article by Anne Plessinger presents an excellent review of imagery of The Effects of Imagery on Athletic Performance. It includes claims, theories, and the studies behind the techniques.

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