Secrets from the Olympians

Peter’s boss had quite a reputation of being hard to please. Peter’s co-worker, Molly, had just been yelled at and was developing a fear of him. She was assigned to develop a presentation for him and was scared.

Peter learned about motor imagery a few days before Molly was to present. He asked Molly to visualize every detail about the way she wanted the presentation to go: seeing how it would start, practicing what she would say, visualizing how she would gesture, crafting what the slides looked like, noticing the pleased look on the boss’s face, listening to his praise about how well she did during the presentation, answering questions well, and walking out with a smile on her face. She imagined this mental rehearsal in her mind over and over again the night before the presentation.

On the day of the presentation, Molly nailed it. Peter’s boss melted and felt Molly did an outstanding job, increasing his confidence in her and her credibility in his eyes. Molly felt competent and gained confidence as well. Peter was very pleased that the whole thing worked out so well for all.

What Peter showed Molly how to do is motor imagery, and it’s something you can learn too. Motor imagery (MI) is defined as a mental representation of movement without any body movementi. It’s also called mental imagery and mental simulation of action. Motor imagery has been shown to be very effective in motor skill learning.

Here are a couple examples of how it’s been studied in the lab.

  • One scientist had new piano players try this method. The imagining players were as accurate after two hours of practice as ones who actually practiced for five days.ii
  • MI has been used to helped paralyzed individuals become more independent by designing machines that can read their thoughts.
  • When one scientistiii had subjects imagine running on a treadmill at speeds of 5, 8, and 10 kilometers per hour, both heart rate and breathing rate went up relative to the imagined speed, powerful evidence that imagery alone can engage the autonomic nervous system.

Olympic gold medal winner Peter Vidmar spent years visualizing the same scenario every morning. He would imagine himself walking into the gymnasium, performing his routine, hearing the crowd cheer, seeing his judge’s score, and accepting the gold medal. It happened as he imagined it.

How can you apply motor imagery to your life for improved learning and performance when it counts?

i Guillot, A. and Collet, C. (2005). Contribution from neurophysiological and psychological methods to the study of motor imagery. Brain Research Reviews, 50, 387-397.
ii Norman Doidge. (2007). The Brain that Changes Itself: Stories of Personal Triumph from the Frontiers of Brain Science. Viking, New York, 201-207.
iii Decety, J., Jeannerod, M., Germain, M., and Pastene, J. (1991). Vegetative response during imagined movement is proportional to mental effort. Behavioral Brain Research, 42, 1-5.