Best Practice for Motor Imagery — a Review

Motor imagery — a form of mental training that involves the rehearsal of physical skills in your head, without actual movement — has long been recognized as a useful way to enhance skill development in many fields such as education, medicine, music, psychology and sports. We all know it’s important and useful… but one question remains:

How can we get the most from it?

This blog post will review a recent article that attempts to answer this by reviewing over 100 studies. Keep in mind that while this is a good overview, it’s not the full picture, or the final word. But it’s a great starting point for those of you interested in implementing more imagery in your practice!

So how should one perform imagery to get the best results? Here’s what they found:

Motor imagery training should be as task specific as possible. For instance, it's best to position a person as if they are actually performing the task physically —like standing up for golf swing imagery. Similarly, it’s best to be in a relevant context — like being outside on a golf course for golf imagery.

Imagery works best for motor tasks. While there certainly is evidence that you can improve cognitive skills and even physical strength through imagery, improving your skill with motor tasks appears to be the most effective use case.

Motor imagery is extra beneficial when performed after physical training — it seems to be most effective in this order (although you can certainly do it any time).

It's better to add motor imagery by itself after physical practice, not embed it within other forms of training in some complicated way.

  1. Audio instructions are better than visual or written instructions. That makes sense given the next point:
  2. Keep eyes closed. Looking at something — even instructions — is distracting and reduces the vividness of imagery.
  3. Motor imagery is most effective when supervised by an instructor. Live instructions appear to be best — have someone instruct you while you do it, rather than pre-recorded instructions. What’s more, non-directed motor imagery appears to be more effective than directed. That is, it's better to let things move naturally than to have strict step-by-step instructions.
  4. When instructions are given, however, they should be detailed instructions. This sounds like it’s in conflict with the previous point: but detailed here means adding more context and guidance to enhance the vividness of the imagery.
  5. Perhaps surprisingly, having standardized instructions seems better than individualized instructions... personally, I'm suspicious of this finding. Either way, it probably means there's little difference between the two.
  6. No familiarization appears to be necessary. That is, adding some extra familiarization step to imagery before beginning doesn't help. People can jump right in. This might mean that it’s hard to improve imagery ability without actually doing it. So after you finish reading this blog post — go try it!
  7. Individual sessions are better than group sessions. This is hard for large teams of athletes, but if you can afford the time, one on one work is best.
  8. Internal (first person) perspective is better than external. But of course, this might not be possible with some skills. For example, as a dancer there were some moves I learned for which first person imagery felt useless: spinning on my head meant watching a blurry room move past my eyes. I did, however, focus on what it might feel like… which brings us to the next point:
  9. “Kinaesthetic” imagery is better than visual imagery — this means people should focus on how it might actually feel to perform the movement, and not just what it looks like.
  10. The optimal motor imagery session length appears to be 15 minutes. If you’ve ever tried to perform high quality imagery, you’ll know that it can be quite challenging, and mentally exhausting!
  11. An ideal frequency appears to be 3-5 sessions a week. You can probably benefit from doing more — especially if you are training physically less because of tapering, off-season, or an injury. But there does appear to be diminishing returns (as with any sort of training).

That's it!

Remember, these are simply the features of motor imagery training that appear to be most effective. However, this doesn't tell us exactly what combination of features is best.

Furthermore, all of this depends on exactly what the person is imagining. As you can imagine (pun intended), some of this might not work if people are performing imagery for different reasons (practicing a skill, or strategizing for a game, or mood regulation).

While future research might overturn some of the results listed above, these guidelines are a great starting point. Of course, ultimately one should try a few variations and see what’s best for them, and what they are trying to learn. Use your imagination!

Reference

Schuster, C., Hilfiker, R., Amft, O., Scheidhauer, A., Andrews, B., Butler, J., … Ettlin, T. (2011). Best practice for motor imagery: a systematic literature review on motor imagery training elements in five different disciplines. BMC medicine,9, 75. doi:10.1186/1741-7015-9-75