Mental rehearsal for high performance

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Sports psychologists and military personnel advocate mental rehearsal and task visualisation for pressured and cognitively demanding tasks. This involves mentally rehearsing the stages and motor actions of core, predictable tasks. The imagery should be of us performing the task with excellence and confidence, in a state of high-performance flow. The theory is that visualisation makes us more efficient in completing the task when it actually arises. Through repeated rehearsal, the task becomes increasingly automatic, reducing its demands on our limited cognitive capacity. 

Athletes use visualisation to reduce performance anxiety. Being excessively stressed about competing can lead to compromised ability. The time preceding competition can be an anxious period for athletes. Many experience thoughts of doubt leading to reduced confidence. Mentally rehearsing the lead up to the event start time as well as what is going to happen during the event has been found to increase confidence and reduce anxiety. Users of the technique report that mental rehearsal makes them experience pleasant and positive emotions when confronted with the task.

This technique is also used by military personnel and tactical firearms police. Mental rehearsal is particularly useful for planned, predictable tasks which are demanding and carry risk. A good example of this is a planned forced entry to a building. Personnel visualise the period of donning personal protective equipment, preparing and checking weapons, approaching the building and the entry process. This builds confidence in the individual officer or soldier. Repeated mental rehearsal means that only minimal cognition is required for the task. This leaves sufficient residual cognitive capacity to process and react to sudden and unpredicted events.

In medicine, visualisation can be used to improve execution of complex, multi-stage tasks, for example insertion of a central venous catheter. Doctors can imagine the process from start to finish: speaking to the patient, setting up the trolley correctly, assembling the equipment, donning a gown and gloves, what they would expect to see on the ultrasound screen and then carrying out each stage of the procedure. They can also visualise what they would see and how they would feel if they something went wrong during the procedure and what actions they would take.  

Individuals are encouraged to fully immerse themselves in the rehearsal. Closing your eyes and concentrating on what you anticipate seeing, hearing, touching and even smelling are all part of the process. Anticipating what others are likely to say and what you are going to verbalise are just as important as what you are going to do with your hands, feet and body. It’s also effective to think about non-verbal communication during visualisation. How is my body language likely to come across to others who are present? Am I going to appear confident and in control or am I going to appear anxious and out of my depth? Rehearsing how we are going to interact and be perceived by others is arguably as important as rehearsing our physical actions. 

One visualisation technique is to imagine yourself in the air above the situation, essentially watching yourself and your team in action. This is termed dissociative visualisation. Dissociation is particularly helpful for us to gain insight into how we appear to others when performing a physical task or leading a team. 

Another valuable use of visualisation is when reflecting on how we have performed under pressure. If we were happy with the performance we can mentally rehearse, in real time, what we remember happening, what we said, how we looked, how we felt, what we did and why. This will help reinforce this behaviour and condition our brains to behave the same say in the future. Similarly, when our performance hasn’t been as good as we expected, it is beneficial to visualise how we reacted and try to identify what stimuli made us feel that way. This will prepare us for similar situations in the future and help us to avoid reacting in the same way. 

PerformanceStephen Hearns