You’ve probably heard about world-class athletes practicing (and even swearing by) mental rehearsal.

Also called mental practice, the concept is simple: When you can’t physically practice your jump shot or curveball, practice it in your mind. Imagine yourself literally “going through the motions,” and it will improve your performance.

A growing body of research backs up their testimony – and finds that mental rehearsal helps you master cognitive as well as motor skills.

Speeding up surgery training
According to three studies of surgical trainees, mental practice shortens time to mastery:

Study 1: A group of students who were learning how to do spinal taps mentally rehearsed the steps in great detail. Another group actually practiced the steps. Then both groups took a test on a simulator.

Both groups scored the same – in other words, mental rehearsal proved just as effective as actual practice.

Study 2: Medical students mentally rehearsed the steps in tying surgical knots. They performed better that those who merely studied from a textbook.

Study 3: A group of novice surgeons completed a 30-minute mental rehearsal before performing a laparoscopic surgery simulation. They did better than those who didn’t rehearse.

Brain activity is the same
One possible reason mental rehearsal works so well: Imagining the steps you will take activates the same areas of the brain that actual practice does.

For example, researchers asked expert archers and novice archers to imagine aiming and shooting at a target under competitive conditions. An MRI machine was used to see what parts of the brain were activated.

For the expert archers, the brain scan found high levels of brain activity related to supplemental motor movements.

Novice brains lit up like fireworks – the imagining required them to activate numerous areas of the brain, such as premotor activity in the cerebellum.

Those were exactly the patterns seen in physical rehearsals. In short, the mental rehearsal does more than simply remind learners what to do. It actually uses the same neural pathways as the task itself.

Implications for trainers
Mental rehearsal helps address one of the toughest challenges in training: follow-up.

As a trainer, you know how difficult it is to turn learning into behavior. It takes more than a quick practice session tacked on to the end of a lesson.

But it’s often difficult to bring learners back together days or weeks after a training session to practice their skills. And it’s hard for learners to find the time, space and, in some cases, equipment to practice on their own.

Mental rehearsal can be done anytime and anywhere, because trainees carry their own simulation lab in their brains. No classroom, special equipment or instructor is required.

Making it work
How can you capitalize on the power of mental rehearsal?

1. Motivate learners to use it. People mentally rehearse all the time, of course, but few do it in a disciplined way or recognize it as a formal technique. Show learners the evidence that it works, and encourage them to commit to doing it regularly and mindfully.

2. Create scripts. The surgical training studies found that a script is essential for effective mental rehearsal. The script simply breaks down the task into a list of steps or procedures you want the learners to take.

3. Teach the techniques. Mental rehearsal is a technique that must be learned like any other. Don’t expect learners to master it on their own.

One way to teach it is through a guided session: Ask people to close their eyes, take a deep breath and clear their minds. Read the steps, one at a time, out loud, while learners imagine doing them.

4. Prime the pump. Like any kind of practice, mental rehearsal has to be done regularly. Suggest that learners put it on their calendar or build practice time into their routines. Later, have them report back on their progress.

5. Encourage use “in the moment of need.” As the laparoscopic study found, an ideal time to use mental rehearsal is just before performing the actual task. Encourage learners to apply the technique in the field.

For example, suggest that salespeople mentally rehearse a closing technique right before a negotiation, or that managers walk themselves through the steps of a performance review just before sitting down with an employee.

Marcus, Hani, et al. (2013). Practice makes
perfect? The role of simulation-based deliberate
practice. Neurosurgery 72:A124-A130.
Bramson, Rachel, et al. (2011). Comparing the
effects of mental imagery rehearsal and physical
practice. Annals of Behavioral Science and
Medical Education, Vol. 17, No. 2, 3-6.

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