Denis, M. (1985). Visual imagery and the use of mental practice in the development of motor skills. Canadian Journal of Applied Sport Science, 10, 4S-16S.

Imagery allows people to anticipate events, therefore, it may be a vehicle for training untried forms of response. Imagery also acts as a device that enhances the memorization of kinesthetic acts. If those kinesthetic acts can be discriminated, such as after a good skill action, then learning should be accelerated. It is suggested that if individuals are taught how to image, less errors and faster learning can occur.

Mental practice/imagery is a composite of mental activities involving the recall of visual, auditory, and kinesthetic cues, not visualization alone. For it to be effective, it requires three major properties.

  1. Vividness. Better imagers learn better thus, it most probably will be necessary to instruct individuals how to perform imagery effectively. Mastery of an overt skill increases the vividness of imagery. That is why superior athletes can imagine their skills better than lesser individuals.
  2. Controllability. This is the capacity to generate persistent images. Without persistent images precise repetitions will not be possible and thus, learning would be retarded. Some forms of skill practice, for example those involved in karate and shooting, require high levels of concentration which facilitates both image control and vividness.
  3. Exactness of reference. The event has to be accurately represented for the effects of the mental activity to transfer beneficially to the real-life situation. Research has shown that practicing the wrong images (errors) produces a tendency to perform those errors.

Uses of Imagery

Mental practice seems to have greater effects on tasks with high cognitive components (e.g., focused accuracy) and lesser effects on tasks with low cognitive use (e.g., muscular endurance). It would seem that tasks which yield clearly recalled experiences (e.g., a chess move) might benefit more from mental practice than those which produce a flood of jumbled feedback (e.g., baseball pitch).

The mental processes involved in mental practice change with the stages of learning. Eventually, there has to be some physical experience so that internal representations of movements will be correct.

The role of individual differences must always be considered in mental practice training and descriptions. It is possible that some individuals will favor the recall of some senses over others, however, kinesthetic recall is possibly the necessary sense for all mental practice of movements.

There are two theories as to why mental practice works that are commonly espoused.

  1. Symbolic perceptual theory. This involves the cognitive processing of how and what to do. Cognitive processing is a major factor in the early stages of skill learning but not in the later stages.
  2. Psychoneuromuscular theory. A mental image provokes subliminal innervations of the movement patterns in the image. This constitutes a repetition of the response pattern and could contribute to an increase in the precision of the skill. Since this involves the recognition of the appropriate skill characteristics, it is only appropriate when a skill has already been learned and is performed with considerable consistency.

These two theories are not incompatible. They both address different stages and forms of representation of a skill.

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