Study: ‘Mental practice’ helps with teamwork too
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Study: ‘Mental practice’ helps with teamwork too

We’ve written before in Insights about the power of mental practice, or mental rehearsal.

The idea is pretty intuitive – when you can’t physically practice, imagine yourself going through the motions step by step. The surprising thing: How effective it is.

Nearly every study on mental practice has focused on individual skills. But what about collaborative tasks? Can mental practice – which can only be performed alone – help teams work better?

The research

A study conducted at the University of Toronto looked at how mental rehearsal affected the performance of medical residents on a collaborative task.

Subjects were divided into two groups and given a refresher on a patient resuscitation procedure – a high-pressure task if there ever was one.

The control group – which was made up of more experienced trainees – received a 20-minute refresher conducted by an experienced teacher.

The experimental group was given 20 minutes to mentally practice the procedure, guided by a script that laid out the important principles and protocols. After the 20 minutes were up, the subjects were permitted to briefly discuss the script with a fellow group member.

After the refreshers, pairs from each group participated in a simulation that tested their ability to perform the resuscitation technique. The mental practice group scored 10 percent higher on average than the control group. They were also rated higher on teamwork skills such as communication and collaboration.

Mental models

The researchers suggested that the reason the mental rehearsal group outperformed the control group was because the members possessed the same “mental models.” The script they followed during their mental practice helped align the group members’ approach – the same guiding principles, the same step-by-step process, etc.

Mental models also help mitigate the effects of stress on performance, according to the study. When a clearly articulated process is laid out, trainees are less affected by the pressure and complexity of their task. Stress can cause procedures to break down. Mental practice, when guided by a script, helps people to stay on-track and perform complex tasks the right way when the pressure is on.


Here are a few research-based recommendations on how to apply mental practice in your training program.

Promote mental practice. Based on a growing body of research, mental rehearsal has many advantages: it’s effective, easy, costs virtually nothing, and can be done anywhere at any time.

Provide scripts or checklists. Mental practice is useless if your learners practice the task the wrong way. Give trainees a script or list of steps that they can follow while rehearsing. This will ensure that they follow the recommended procedure correctly and that the same mental models are developed across your department for when teamwork and collaboration is required.

Facilitate group discussions. Just because mental practice is a solitary technique doesn’t mean team members can’t take advantage of the power of peer learning. Similar to the study, encourage your learners to discuss the script and how they mentally practice. This will promote even greater alignment among your employees and will give any learners who are struggling with the technique a chance to get advice from their peers.

Lorello, G. R., et al. (2015). Mental practice: A simple tool to enhance team-based trauma resuscitation. Canadian Journal of Emergency Medicine. doi:10.1017/cem.2015.4

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