Athletes spend years intensively training
in the gym, on the slopes and at the rink. But how much is a difference in performance
all in the mind? Researchers have studied the effectiveness
of motor imagery techniques, where instead of physical practice, athletes visualise their
path to victory. In one study, competitive skiers were broken
up into three groups, dynamic imagery, static imagery and a control group. The dynamic imagery
group stood in their ski gear, on a ski slope, while they imagined themselves completing
a down-hill slalom course. The static imagery group sat inside while they imagined completing
the course. And the control group only stretched and didn’t use imagery at all.
When all groups raced down the same course, the dynamic imagery group had the fastest
average time, followed by the static imagery group and then the control group. The dynamic
imagery group also reported higher confidence in their performance.
Mental practice—rehearsing a motor skill in your mind—can actually improve physical
performance. Studies have shown that mental practice can improve the accuracy of tennis
serves and hockey shots. And the effectiveness of motor imagery is improved if it’s done
in an environmental similar to the one you compete in, like on a ski slope.
So what’s actually happening inside your brain? Brain imaging studies show when you imagine
a movement, the same areas of your brain are triggered as when you actually perform that
movement. For example, when people imagine walking, their primary motor cortex lights
up. This area usually generates neural impulses that pass down the spinal cord and tell your
legs to walk. The only difference with motor imagery is that no movements actually occur—it’s
all in the mind. So this mental training is similar to physical
training. By repeatedly activating the motor networks for a movement without actually doing
it, you can strengthen the communication between neurons associated with that movement. This
is the same way physical practice improves performance.
Athletes obviously need to train their bodies with physical practice, but training their
brains can improve the accuracy of their shots, without them even lifting a finger.
So what happens to athletes bodies when they train and compete at altitude? Check out Untamed
Science for a biological take on peak performance. And subscribe to BrainCraft for a new video
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