Just imagining a sport could make you better at it: research
Published Thursday, August 18, 2016 12:08PM EDT
If you’ve been watching Olympic athletes from your sofa, imagining what it must feel like to run 100 metres in under 10 seconds or swim powerfully through a pool, you might already be on the right track to becoming a better athlete yourself.
It turns out that just thinking about a sport could make you better at it.
Jim Davies, with the Institute of Cognitive Science at Carleton University says that the mere act of imagining a workout can actually improve our physical performance – even if we never get off the sofa.
“We think of sports as a body thing, but a lot of sports performance is what your brain does to control your body,” Davies told CTV News Channel Thursday.
In a recent article, Davies explained that lots of recent research has shown that visualizing yourself competing or performing a sport can make you better at it.
The effects are particularly pronounced in sports that have a high mental component, such as golf, since competitors need to visualize their shots and use an internal monologue to remain calm under pressure.
It all comes down to the power of proprioception, he writes. That’s our built-in sense of knowing where our body parts are without having to actually see them. When we visualize ourselves performing a sport, we tap into this sense and teach our bodies to perform better.
“When you imagine playing tennis or things like that, you’re actually training your brain in a similar way that you would when actually doing the activity,” Davies said,. He added the reason it works is that we use the same part of our brains doing an exercise as just imagining it.
One recent study had golfers practice putting, asking them to take a few moments before each shot to imagine putting the golf ball into the hole. Those who imagined the shot first had 30 per cent more successful putts than those who did not.
Other research has shown that doctors who mentally practice a surgery before performing it in virtual reality outperform those who do not mentally practice beforehand.
Visualizing might also help those who get food cravings, Davies said.
“If you vividly imagine it, then you’ll crave that food less because part of your mind thinks you’ve actually eaten it,” he explained.
But if you think that imagining exercise sounds a whole lot easier than actually doing it, Davies say you may need to think again. The ideal length of a sport visualization exercise is 20 minutes – which may be longer than many of us can handle.
“Part of the problem is that it’s actually very hard to sit there for 20 minutes imagining playing tennis. It takes a lot of concentration that most people don’t have,” he said.
Davies said ideally, visualization should be thought of as a supplement to physical practice – not a replacement.
“Just imagining is better than nothing, but of course, it’s not as good as doing the real thing. But it does supplement it,” he said.
“And, in fact, having part of it imagined is better than having it all being in the physical world.”