Mental practice is a useful tool to bridge the mind and body into one. It refers to the “cognitive rehearsal of a physical skill in the absence of overt physical movements” (Magill, 2007).
Most powerful is he who has himself in his own power – Seneca
When applied to strength sports, using cognitive rehearsal can mean the difference between a quality lift and a failed one. Mental practice can be used at levels from a novice athlete learning the fundamentals, to an experienced lifter re-engaging skills after a break, or an elite athlete who is refining technique.
Mental practice as a performance aid
A strength athlete can use mental practice as a performance aid in two ways: action preparation and a combination of acquisition and performance. In action preparation, the athlete will visualize the entire lift from the moment they start to the execution of the movement. The second approach of combining acquisition and performance involves “a means of facilitating the storage and retrieval from memory of an appropriate action” (Magill, 2007). Here, an athlete who just executed their lift with perfect form and flawless timing can retrieve from memory those same exact skills to perform an even better lift on their next attempt. By using these performance aids, strength athletes can use “mental practice as an effective strategy for aiding both skill acquisition and performance preparation” (Magill, 2007).
Athletes in strength sports use mental imagery in performance preparation for various situations. According to Magill, they use them in training periods between competitive events, immediately prior to and during a competitive event, and when they are rehabilitating an injury (Magill, 2007). Some of the purposes for this imagery are “arousal-level regulation, attention focus, and the maintenance of positive and confident feelings” (Magill, 2007). Being confident, relaxed and focused enables the athlete to better prepare for their event so that they block out anxiety and nervousness that could be a detriment in their success.
Mental practice of a skill ties in with strength sports by using a neuromuscular basis for support. Jacobson (1931) asked people to visualize bending of the right arm and observed EMG activity in the ocular muscle, but not in the biceps brachii. He then asked them to visualize the same activity but with a 10 lb weight being lifted. This time, the EMG showed activity in the biceps brachii on more than 90 percent of the trials. This test signifies evidence of electrical activity in the muscles of people visualizing movement, which “suggests that the appropriate neuromotor pathways involved in the action are activated during mental practice” (Magill, 2007).
Mental practice – brain activity and muscle connection
“The results of brain imaging studies have shown that when a person imagines moving a limb, brain activity is similar to when a person physically moves the same limb” (Magill, 2007). There is a nurophysiological similarity that corresponds with weight training between the imagined and the actual movements the athlete makes. When a power lifter sets up to make an explosive lift, they can be more effective by concentrating on the muscle that is making the most effort. In a one-rep max squat exercise, athletes need to visualize their legs as pistons in a car churning up and down. By focusing their effort solely on the lower body, they can produce a greater overall force for maximum efficiency. Once this mind-to-muscle connection is achieved, the power lifters central nervous system can work more effectively on the muscle at hand instead of over working muscles that are not as important.
As a strength coach and personal trainer, I frequently teach mental practice to my clients to produce better performance output. When one of my clients is at a sticking point on the bench-press or needs to increase their power output in a sprint, I instruct them to visualize producing that movement ten times in their head. Each time they use that mental practice to produce their desired exercise, they need to do it to perfection. If they mess up once in their head, they will also cause error on the movement they are producing. One thing that I have picked up along the way concerning mental practice is external imagery. “During external imagery, the person views himself or herself from the perspective of an observer, as in watching a movie” (Magill, 2007).
Many times my clients ask about techniques and hand positions. I like the practice of watch one, do one, and teach one. Here, I have my athletes watch a lift and take notes, then correspond what they watched in a series of movements, and finally get with a partner and try to teach what they learned. This type of training has really helped my guys become better performers.
Mental practice should be a foundation to any training program in strength sports to help athletes succeed to their highest potential.