Mental Rehearsal

 Practice makes perfect, right?

Or as my great friend Jason Vosler says, “Perfect practice makes perfect.” Well, practice may not guarantee perfection, although it sure as hell enhances the chances, but there’s a ton of research that shows mental rehearsal enhances both physical and mental performance!


You may be asking “What is mental rehearsal?”

Some might say that this seems like day dreaming. I would agree in some aspects except mental rehearsal is directed and purposeful. Mental rehearsal is going through the steps of a specific target or end result in your mind.  In this process one visualizes each step; by visualize, I mean see the full mental movie in your head–not as a movie goer, but as a participant but as the lead role. Not a trailer of the movie or clip. Adventure through the entire process as much as you can anticipate it!

Athletes are some of the best examples of mental rehearsal I can think of. Think of baseball players making a diving catch, golfers hitting their tee shots, basketball players shooting free throws, gymnasts doing their floor routines, MMA fighters during a fast-paced fight, or even soccer players falling on the ground pretending to be hurt. Ok, just kidding about the soccer player thing, but let’s agree those guys would give Meryl Streep a run for the Academy Awards best drama category! Anyway, if you watch these individuals prior to their competition, you will find them visualizing their performances–they block out stimuli and run through routines in their heads.  Even more interesting, they often do this after they compete, particularly if there was an error in their performance.  This is a retrospective version of mental rehearsal–they are cognitively “fixing” the error in their minds, which means they focus on the correct way to perform the task, not the mistake. Very important point here! They focus on the fix not the mistake, where most people commonly focus on what went wrong. This also helps them avoid associating that task/their performance with failure. Studies actually show that a combination of physically practicing and mentally rehearsing yield the superior results in this area.

I know what you might be saying, “That’s great, but I am not a professional athlete.” True! So, where can we ‘normal folks’ use the mental rehearsal technique?  



Here are a few ideas:

What if you had a really important client call, or presentation coming up? Could mentally rehearsing how that will go help prepare you? Think about it. If you play it through your mind in perfection, and do that repetitiously prior to the event would it play in your best interest? The mind and body don’t know the difference between the mental rehearsal and the actual presentation! As you practice the presentation in perfection with optimal responses and results your brain will release chemicals that make you feel exactly like you would in the actual moment if things went that way. You literally feel the future success. As you repeat this entire process the mind and body become more familiar with the scenario and feelings associated with the event. By the time you get to the presentation you feel like you’re in the Matrix. You can see things coming, anticipate questions. Know exactly what to say. Understand what points need to be made and who to make them to. You are in the zone! You’ve probably heard people say “go in act like you’ve been there before”. Well with strong mental rehearsal you have! In your mind you’ve been there a million times already and it’s second nature. Job interviews, dates, child raisings, business meetings, or performance of any sort are no different. If there is a performance involved you can use mental rehearsal to get there. Just visualize yourself going through the process and feeling calm, confident, and enjoying every moment of it.

If something goes poorly during the actual performance/task, visualize how you would have liked the performance to go, then move on.  We all know what happens to athletes when they can’t move past a mistake, so don’t dwell on what went wrong.

A limitation, of course, is that the individual needs to have a certain degree of knowledge and skill for performing the activity in order to be successful.  My 5-year-old can’t make a free throw no matter how much time he spends mentally practicing, because he still lacks the strength to do so.  Mental practice should supplement other forms of skill development, not replace them.  For instance, role playing effective listening skills and getting feedback on performances helps to develop those skills in ways that mental rehearsal cannot.  Nonetheless, mental practice assists the skill learning process and provides the extra edge for those who have reached sufficient levels of skill development.

Stress can be experienced when we perceive threats or opportunities that we fear we cannot handle effectively, and mental rehearsal helps us cope with stress.  Mental practice improves self-confidence, so we can reduce our stress by visualizing ourselves successfully dealing with our challenges.  Second, relaxation is often a part of mental rehearsal exercises, and relaxation helps reduce stress.

The following procedure integrates the relaxation and the preparation features.  Free throw shooters usually get just a few seconds to visualize successful performance, but they still find visualization helpful.  More elaborate mental rehearsal, like the following, is even more useful.



Mental Rehearsal Practice Steps:

  1. Find a time and place where you won’t be interrupted.
  2. Sit down or lie down, and close your eyes.
  3. Relax, concentrate, and focus.  Take deep breaths and exhale slowly.  As you exhale, imagine that stress is leaving your body.  Start at your feet … feel all the stress leave your feet … then your legs …  then your chest … all the way to the top of your head … feel all the stress leave your body.  Free your mind of distractions and allow your mind to focus on the relaxation process.
  4. Once relaxed, focus on your specific event.
  5. Using self-talk, tell yourself “I am confident” and “I have the ability to perform this task super successfully”.  Repeatedly tell yourself, “I will be successful at this” as you continue the deep breathing and relaxation.
  6. Imagine what you will see just before you begin the task.  Visualize yourself as an active participant, not as a passive observer.  For example, to mentally rehearse leading a meeting, imagine that you are sitting or standing in front of the room with everyone paying attention rather than sitting as a spectator of yourself in the meeting.
  7. Remaining relaxed and focused, mentally rehearse successful performance of this task.  Imagine going through the process and seeing successful results. Get detailed with your vision. Pay attention to how you feel.
  8. Repeat step 7 several times.
  9. Finally, open your eyes and smile.  You have successfully performed in your mind, which is great preparation for actual performance.  You should now be confident that you will perform successfully in the real situation.  Remember to praise yourself for being successful.  Self-reinforcement is another a key to self-motivation.

In Summary …

The mental rehearsal techniques that many of us have learned to help us perform in sports, on a stage or in some other context can also help us perform challenging tasks in the workplace.  By reducing stress and boosting confidence, mental rehearsal can help anyone experience more success!


Live and Lead Exceptionally!


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