A formula for success: MP+PP>PP

For over a century sport psychologists have been intrigued by the idea that you can practise sport with your mind’s eye.

With varying degrees of rigour, researchers have tackled what has become known as the 'mental practice' question. This refers to a particular application of mental imagery in which performers 'practise' in their heads, or rehearse their skills symbolically, before actually executing them.

Experiments that have tested this typically measure performance on a motor skill both before and after the intervention. Participants are allocated to one of five groups: physical practice (PP), mental practice (MP), PP and MP combined, and a control condition.

In 1943 Vandell and colleagues used a free-throw in basketball as one of their tasks and reported that MP appeared to be almost as effective as actual practice.

Hundreds of studies were conducted in the subsequent half-century. In 1994, a more comprehensive analysis was performed by Driskell and colleagues. They used a technique called meta-analysis to statistically combine 35 independent studies.

In brief, their combined findings indicated that, as one would expect, PP led to greater positive performance changes than mental practice. MP had, however, a significant positive effect on performance, relative to the control condition. Interestingly, PP and MP combined was more effective than PP alone.

A number of variables were reported to have influenced the findings. Notably, experts gained more from the mental practice effect than novices.

To explain, think of a beginner attempting to mentally rehearse a free-throw. He or she may be imagining the incorrect grip, aiming poorly or releasing the ball incorrectly.

Surveys of elite performers' mental preparation often reflect the importance of mental practice. But when you notice athletes engaging in mental practice prior to their Olympic performances, you will now know that it works.