Item extracted from Rushall, B. S., & Lippman, L. G. (1997). The role of imagery in physical performance. International Journal for Sport Psychology, 29, 57-72.

Learning a physical skill progresses through stages of cognitive involvement, changes in speed of skill execution, and stepped progressions of element inclusion to arrive at a terminal behavior. Those factors complicate the type and use of imagery involved.

The role of imagery in memory tasks is well-documented (Paivio, 1971; Wollen, Weber, & Lowry, 1972), leading to many practical and effective mnemonic tactics that have empirical support. Imagery can serve as a valid practice or rehearsal tactic for motor learning, although such a tactic may seem peculiar--in part because the mechanisms by which imagery can influence developing skills may be unclear or ambiguous.

While the evidence is clear that optimal performance benefits derive from use of complete and accurate images in mental practice, there are some issues that must be taken into account. For example, some physical actions are of sufficient complexity that they could not be mastered through "whole" learning or, if whole learning were to be attempted, the resulting behavior would be incomplete or error-ridden. Development of effective performance for such acts virtually demands use of part-learning tactics or shaping. Among the possible reasons why mental practice can be effective is the view that regards imagery as symbolic learning.

It could be argued that when the number of components of a cognitive or symbolic task exceeds memory span, mental practice could provide effective rehearsal for information storage. A prime example is music learning (Rubin-Rabson, 1941a, 1941b; Sloboda, 1985), where a sophisticated performer brings developed imagery skills (especially auditory and kinesthetic) to bear upon a new and unfamiliar composition to be mastered. It seems that all tactics come into play--part-learning, chaining, chunking, mental practice--to include attending to an ideal performance (Lim & Lippman, 1991; Rosenthal, 1984; Zurcher, 1975).

Another tactic aimed at fostering error-free acquisition is to begin with slow execution and then gradually add speed. Use of slow-motion mental rehearsal has the risk of violating the "specificity of training" principle, noted above. Execution of the same skill at two different speeds elicits two different neuromuscular patterns. Therefore, slow-speed mental, or physical for that matter, rehearsal should be used only to allow for memory of performance components, that is, in the formative stage of skill learning--as an alterative or adjunct to part-learning, shaping, or chaining. Once the complete task, or segment, is memorized, the rehearsals should add speed--ensuring that accuracy is maintained--and then there should be plenty of physical and mental practice at full, criterion speed. Music learning has shown some evidence for the efficacy of slow performance models (Lippman & Lim, 1988).

Consideration of how a physical skill is "programmed" in the brain has led to strong admonitions that speed should be the last performance feature to be learned. Because the cerebellum is "nonjudgmental," it will store whatever movement patterns have been repeated--including errors. So initial performance and mental rehearsals should be slow, to ensure perfect and error-free sequencing and representation, followed by an increase in speed at such a gradual rate that accuracy of performance and images are not disrupted (Wilson, 1982). Once again, the specificity principle would declare that the learner is acquiring discrete skills on the way toward mastery and full-speed execution. Therefore, many physical and mental repetitions are called for once criterion speed has been reached.

Imagery for skill acquisition has distinct applications. It could be:

These are merely the more obvious uses, without attention to the features of imagery essential for promoting skill learning. It is our opinion that the use of mental practice in physical skill learning will adhere to established principles of learning, for example, it might involve the use of covert reinforcement for each mentally practiced trial. The type of mental practice involved in the sequence of skill learning is likely to be modified by the:

Research aimed at identifying and specifying additional attributes will contribute toward development of a more complete learning model.


  1. Lim, S., & Lippman, L. G. (1991). Mental practice and memorization of piano music. Journal of General Psychology, 118, 21-30.
  2. Lippman, L. G., & Lim, S. (1988). Use of slow renditions to facilitate piano proficiency in young musicians. Journal of International Listening, 133-140.
  3. Paivio, A. (1971). Imagery and verbal processes. New York, NY: Holt, Rinehart and Winston.
  4. Rosenthal, R. K. (1984). The relative effects of guided model, model only, guide only, and practice only treatments on the accuracy of advanced instrumentalists' musical performances. Journal of Research in Music Education, 32, 265-273.
  5. Rubin-Rabson, G. (1941a). Studies in the psychology of memorizing piano music: V. A comparison of pre-study periods of varied length. Journal of Educational Psychology, 32, 101-112.
  6. Rubin-Rabson, G. (1941b). Studies in the psychology of memorizing piano music. VI. A comparison of two forms of mental rehearsal and keyboard overlearning. Journal of Educational Psychology, 32, 593-602.
  7. Sloboda, J. A. (1985). The musical mind: The cognitive psychology of music. Oxford, England: Clarendon Press.
  8. Wilson, F. R. (1982). Mind, muscle, and music. American Music Teacher, 32, 12-15.
  9. Wollen, K. A., Weber, A., & Lowry, D. H. (1972). Bizarreness versus interaction of mental images as determinants of learning. Cognitive Psychology, 3, 518-523.
  10. Zurcher, W. (1975). The effect of model-supportive practice on beginning brass instrumentalists. In C. K. Madsen, R. D. Greer, & C. H. Madsen (Eds.), Research in music behavior: Modifying music behavior in the classroom (pp. 131-138). New York, NY: Teachers College Press.

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