There are many stories of athletes who visualize themselves practicing before going to bed, whether it be a baseball player engaging in a little batting practice or a diver rehearsing their dives.

But you’ll often hear discrepancies among their accounts of how and what they visualized. Some describe going over the same skill repeatedly to work out some kinks, while others describe imagining a perfect performance, or playing out a realistic match complete with the inevitable ups and downs.

I think there is a time and place for each kind of visualization, and the research suggests that visualization is indeed a valuable complement to physical practice, but what is the “best” way to do mental practice when our priority is learning new repertoire and skills as efficiently as possible?

Remember Simon?

Seventy-one participants were recruited by a team of French researchers to participate in a mental practice study.

Specifically, they were asked to learn a task which involved moving their left index finger back and forth from a mouse to 4 colored keys on a computer keyboard, according to a sequence of colors that appeared on the screen.

It was a little like the classic electronic Simon game from the 80’s (like this). Except that instead of simply pushing the buttons in order, imagine that the buttons are tiny, surrounded by 97 other buttons, and you have to tap a mouse button between presses. Oh, and you are being tested on speed too.

First, a test

Everyone got a few practice trials until they could perform the task correctly two times in a row.

Then, they were given a set of “real” attempts to perform the task as quickly and accurately as they could, which served as a baseline of their abilities (the pre-test).

Then, some mental practice

Next, the participants were given an opportunity to do some mental practice, where they were asked to imagine performing the same button sequence without moving a muscle. Their instructions were to imagine what the task physically feels like (kinesthetic imagery), as well as to imagine seeing themselves performing the task (visual imagery).

However, not all of the participants practiced in the same way.

Previous research has shown that the more work your brain has to do when learning, the less progress you may appear to make during practice, but the more you retain when tested hours or days later (like here and here). Furthermore, there are indications that sleep plays an important role in memory consolidation (like here, here, and here). So the researchers randomly assigned participants to one of 5 groups to see if these factors were relevant in mental practice as well.

The five groups

One group (the control group) just read for 20 minutes and did no training at all.

Two groups mentally practiced the same button sequence that was used in the pre-test (the constant practice groups). Except that one of these groups did their pre-test and visualization session at 8pm (the constant practice/night group), while the other group did their pre-test and visualization session at 9am (the constant practice/day group). Don’t worry – you’ll see why in a moment.

The last two groups also mentally practiced the same button sequence that was used in the pre-test – but were given 3 additional button sequences to practice as well, which were presented in random order (the variable practice groups). As with the constant practice groups, one of these groups did their visualization in the evening (the variable practice/night group), while the other did their visualization in the morning (the variable practice/day group).

Three tests of learning

Test #1. Post-test

Immediately following their mental practice session (which took about 20 minutes), the participants were tested once again on the same button sequence they performed in the pre-test to see if visualization led to any improvements in performance.

Test #2. Retention test

And to see how well their skills would hold up under the passage of time (~10 hours or so), participants were tested on the same sequence yet again either later in the evening (for the day groups who did their training in the morning), or the following morning (for the night groups who trained in the evening).

Test #3. Transfer test

Then, one final test – this time to see how effectively they could adapt to modified demands of the task on the fly.

All participants were given a brand-new finger sequence they had never seen. And as an additional challenge, they were asked to press the buttons out of order. Instead of hitting the colored keys in the order that they appeared on the screen, they were to press the 2nd color first, the 4th color next, and then the 1st color and the 3rd color (sort of like changing a fingering or bowing, perhaps?). And all as quickly and accurately as possible, of course!

One group stood out

All groups – including the group which just read magazines instead of engaging in mental practice – improved between the pre-test and post-test sessions. Which makes sense, since the more times they got to perform the skill, the better they ought to perform over time.

However, not all the groups improved from the post-test to the retention test 10 hour later. In fact, there was only one group that did – the variable practice/night group.

In addition, the variable practice/night group was also the only one to show any benefits of mental practice on the crazy out-of-sequence transfer task (see figure below).

benefits of variable mental practice with sleep

Takeaways

We know from research on physical practice, that there are ways of structuring our practice (like blocked practice1) that lead to faster skill acquisition – or a faster rate of improvement during the practice session itself. But at a cost to how much of our improvements we retain from one practice session to the next (boo).

Conversely, there are other ways of practicing (like variable practice2, or interleaved practice3) that slow down our rate of skill acquisition during practice – but lead to far less forgetting or skill decay from one practice session to the next. And ultimately, more durable learning (yay).

In other words, there’s an “acquisition-retention” paradox with physical practice, in that the faster or more easily we learn something, the faster and more easily we forget.

This study suggests that the same may be true for mental practice as well. And that when variable and interleaved mental practice are combined with a night of sleep, we are able to better perform not just the skills we have mentally practiced, but new skills as well.

Take action

So the next time your head hits the pillow at the end of the day, perhaps you could give yourself a leg up on tomorrow’s practice by taking a few moments to engage in some mental practice. But instead of limiting your visualization session to only a single run-through of a piece, or problem-solving just one particularly thorny section, try rotating through several different passages a few times before zonking out for the night.

It may feel a little more scattered in the moment, but the data suggests that you’ll wake up in the morning a tiny step ahead of where you would have been otherwise. Which is more than we can say for counting sheep, no?

Footnotes

  1. Where we practice the same skill or phrase repeated in a single uninterrupted block.
  2. Where we practice the same skill in different ways – like this.
  3. Where we rotate between different passages/excerpts/pieces, and return to them multiple times in the same practice session – like this.
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About Noa Kageyama, Ph.D.

Performance psychologist and Juilliard alumnus & faculty member Noa Kageyama teaches musicians how to beat performance anxiety and play their best under pressure through live classes, coachings, and an online home-study course. Based in NYC, he is married to a terrific pianist, has two hilarious kids, and is a wee bit obsessed with technology and all things Apple.

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