I am not at all athletic and am not a huge fan of sports, but every four years I find my television stopping occasionally on some of the Olympic events. This year it stopped on women’s downhill skiing. My husband and I tuned in to the announcers talking about how due to the weather, many of the skiers did not have a chance to practice the full run. Plus the warm, rainy weather turned cold creating a series of bumps on the course. These bumps were very difficult for the athletes and took a lot of strength to navigate. Due to the course’s difficulty, most of the first skiers we saw fell or skidded outside of the course.
Then we heard Lindsy Vonn’s introduction. Just seven days before, she announced she had a bruised shin causing her excruciating pain which was on top of a bruised arm she received in December. She had not been able to practice the entire run because of her injury and the condition of the course. The camera panned to Lindsey who had her eyes closed and her head and shoulders were moving slightly. She was practicing her moves mentally because she could not practice physically.
As she approached the run, I was concerned that this already injured athlete could be seriously hurt on the dangerous course. But as she started her descent, it was clear that she was having a good strong run. She had more control and precision than the other women we saw attempt this event. Lindsey ran the race better than any other woman that day, receiving the gold medal. I believe a lot of this had to do with her visual practicing.
If you have watched any the winter Olympics or the recent summer Olympics, I am sure you have seen an athlete going through their event in their mind before they actually compete. In 2007 there was a study completed by the Cleveland Clinic Foundation in Ohio to see exactly what affect this visualization could have. The research was composed of three groups. One group spent 15 minutes, five days a week visualizing exercising their little finger. The second group spent the same time imaging they were exercising their biceps muscle. The last group was a control group who did no visualization. At the end of 12 weeks, the first group’s finger strength increased 53% and the second group’s biceps increased by almost 14%. These individuals showed that muscles strength was due to increasing the brain’s ability to signal the muscles. Perhaps Lindsey was stronger on the course because she had increased the functionality between her brain and her muscles.
Recently I finished reading The Brain that Changes Itself which investigates the plasticity of the brain. Back in school we probably all learned that different parts of our brains are responsible for different functions. For example, the left hemisphere of our brain controls the functionality to the right side of our body and our analytical skills, while the right hemisphere of our brain controls the functionality of the left side of our body and our creative skills. This book showed amazing examples of when this was not the case and most importantly how our brain functions are not “set in stone” opening the opportunity to retrain our minds after accidents and illness.
One of the examples this book shared about plasticity or the adaptability of the brain was another imagination study. Alvaro Pascual-Leone at Harvard Medical School and previous fellow at the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke conducted an experiment in the late 1990’s. He brought in two groups of people who never played piano. While letting them hear the notes, he showed them which keys to press and with which finger. He then had members of one group practice mentally by imagining the sequence for two hours a day. The second group physically practiced for two hours a day. He had a computer measure the accuracy of their actual performance. At five days, the mental practicers were as proficient as the physical practicers on day three. Although the physical practicers outperformed the mental-only group, brain maps of both groups showed similar changes. The brain was learning and growing at the same rate no matter if the task was actually completed or just imagined. Plus when a single two-hour physical class was given to the mental practicers, they excelled to the level of the five day physical practicers – even though they had only one-fifth of real playing time. Mental preparation can aid the learning of physical skills without having to experience extensive physical practice.
The conclusion for me is that in our thinking we hold the power of aiding and improving our physical actions. Next time you are learning a new skill or trying a new activity, spend some time imagining it before trying it. See if taking the time to mentally walk through an activity can help your execution. Train your mind before you train your body and see how it affects your abilities. Then share your experience with us.