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Mental Practice Builds Physical Skills

In the book titled, “The Brain That Changes Itself” author Norman Doidge, MD reports on an imagination experiment performed by Alvaro Pascual-Leone, chief of the Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center, part of Harvard Medical School. “Pascual-Leone taught two groups of people, who had never studied piano, a sequence of notes, showing them which fingers to move and letting them hear the notes as they were played. Then members of one group, the ‘mental practice’ group, sat in front of an electric piano keyboard, two hours a day, for five days, and imagined both playing the sequence and hearing it played. A second ‘physical practice’ group actually played the music two hours a day for five days. Both groups had their brains mapped before the experiment, each day during it, and afterward. Then both groups were asked to play the sequence, and a computer measured the accuracy of their performance.”

“Pascual-Lenone found that both groups learned to play the sequence and showed similar brain map changes. Remarkably mental practice alone produced the same physical changes in the motor system as actually playing the piece. Clearly mental practice is an effective way to prepare for learning a physical skill with minimal physical practice.”

What does this evidence mean to a young, developing soccer player? I see a couple of very important ways this impacts practice and development.

First, it clearly points to the importance of visualizing yourself performing a new skill. Take juggling for example, just imagining that you’re juggling, can improve your juggling skills.

Second, with our busy lives and trying to determine the right amount of actual practice time, this is a great way to spend 15 minutes improving a skill without having to spend 2 hours round trip for a practice.

Third, during injury or times of physical rest, this is a great way to stay sharp and even improve.

Finally, this is also a great way to develop a mental skill in the process – the skill of deliberate focus.