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Visualisation – Mental Rehearsal for the Brain Can Significantly Improve Performance

In rock climbing, we called it “visualisation” – a practice of mentally rehearsing the moves you are going to make before you start climbing. I used to visualise all my project routes because I read in The Mind Gym that the brain does not differentiate between a real memory of something that really happened and something we just played in our minds like a daydream.

Visualisation or Mental Rehearsal is a common practice in sports, music, and surgery because it has been found to be a very effective way to improve performance.

“Neurologists have shown in clinical tests that a person can visualize in their mind’s eye completing a physical motor skill and can mentally rehearse the skill with significant effect on actually performing the skill physically.” – TJW

Source: “Modulation of muscle responses evoked by transcranial magnetic stimulation during the acquisition of new fine motor skills” – Journal of Neurophysiology (1995)

But sports, music and surgery are not the only instances where visualisation can be useful. It can be applied to many other areas of our lives if we could apply it as effectively as the professionals do.

Image Credit: De Lucas Training

How to Visualise

In Head Games: The Use of Mental Rehearsal to Improve Performance from Wright State University, they suggest the following procedure:

  1. Find a time and place where you won’t be interrupted.
  2. Recline or lie down, and close your eyes.
  3. Relax, concentrate, and focus.  Take deep breaths and exhale slowly.  As you exhale, imagine that stress is leaving your body.  Start at your feet … feel all the stress leave your feet … then your legs …  then your chest … all the way to the top of your head … feel all the stress leave your body.  Free your mind of distractions and allow your mind to focus on the relaxation process.
  4. Once relaxed, focus on the specific challenging task.
  5. Mentally tell yourself that you are confident and that you have the ability to perform this task successfully.  Repeatedly tell yourself, with confidence, that you will be successful.
  6. Imagine what you will see just before you begin the task.  Visualize yourself as an active participant, not as a passive observer.  For example, to mentally rehearse putting a golf ball, imagine that you are standing on the green rather than watching yourself from the gallery.
  7. Remaining relaxed and focused, mentally rehearse successful performance of this task.  Imagine going through the process and seeing successful results.
  8. Repeat step 7 several times.
  9. Finally, open your eyes and smile.  You have successfully performed in your mind, which is great preparation for actual performance.  You should now be confident that you will perform successfully in the real situation.  Remember to praise yourself for being successful.  Self-reinforcement is another a key to self-motivation.

DeLuca’s Sports Performance shares in Mental Rehearsal for Peak Athletic Performance the 5 keys to successful mental rehearsal:

  1. Image Effectiveness: How well you control the image; the vividness and clarity of the image and your ability to incorporate all the senses (sight, sounds, hearing, feeling and taste) into make the mental experience. You want to make it as real as possible.
  2. Visualize What You Can Control: Sure you want to win, but in large part there are too many factors out of your control to make this happen. So, when you perform your visualization see yourself performing your moves perfectly. Controlling your body and how it executes specific maneuvers is 100% in your control.
  3. Know The Exact Place And Time: When you visualize see yourself surrounded by the environment you would see at the event during the exact day, time and place of the event. How this works is, suppose you’re going to be in a tack event at 2:00 PM. See yourself on the starting line looking around. What would the stands look like? How hot (cool) would it be? How many people would be there? You want to see everything as if you are then NOW. This part is still in the first person.
  4. See Yourself In The First Person: When conducting your imagery exercise for a behavior or physical task, see the images as if you are looking through your own eyes. Feel as if you are felling in your own body, hear as if you are hearing with your own ears. Visualize yourself (through your eyes) performing your task perfectly. I’m not big on instructing what not to do, but in this case it might be helpful. Do not see yourself as if you are watching a movie…not yet at least. This will happen later in the next process.
  5. Move To Second Person: Once you have finished the event and you have performed perfectly slowly move from first person into second person. That is, start to “drift” back and see yourself as if you are watching a movie. This is important because if just leave the image in first person your unconscious may think that you’ve already finished this event and the “future pull” will not be created. When you move to watching yourself your unconscious knows this has not taken place yet and will do everything it can to make it happen.

Add a “Dry Run” Movement

In Psychology Today, they shared a study that found adding movement to a mental rehearsal improves performance even more than simply mentally rehearsing without movement:

“the researchers found that while mental rehearsal improved performance by 35%, mental rehearsal plus ‘dry run’ movements increased performance by 45%.”

Source: “Adding movement to ‘dry run’ mental imagery enhances performance” – Behavioral and Brain Functions (2013)

Make it as Real as Possible

TJW also advises that it “is critical that you see yourself performing the skill to be learned as if it were happening in the present”. In other words, make it feel as real as possible – if you’re visualising an outdoor sport, take it right down to the feel of the wind on your face or the heat of the sun on your back.

Perfect Practice Only

When we’re mentally rehearsing for an event that worries us or scares us, it can be instinctive to see mistakes or how things could go wrong but it is important to shut these thoughts out of your head. Seeing all the possibilities for error can negatively impact your mental rehearsal. This is probably the main reason why visualisation isn’t as effective for some of us.

“Repeated visualization of a desired experience can be a very effective way to create a strong mental image in your brain… Unfortunately, a lot of people end up using essentially the same rehearsal strategy when remembering bad experiences. It’s unintentional, of course, but the effect of mentally rehearsing an experience over and over is the same” – Welcome to Your Brain

More Sources for Mental Rehearsals

Published by Shen-Li

SHEN-LI LEE is the author of “Brainchild: Secrets to Unlocking Your Child’s Potential”. She is also the founder of (a website on parenting, education, child development) and (a website on Right Brain Education, cognitive development, and maximising potentials). In her spare time, she blogs on Forty, Fit & Fed, and Back to Basics.

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