I’m going to be a lot kinder to myself from now on. For a long time, I’ve lamented the fact that I haven’t practiced my drums every day. How on earth did I think I was going to improve? Well, I’m finished beating myself up, because although I never knew it, I’ve been rehearsing on a daily basis for many, many years. In fact, well before I began drumming.
In my mind’s eye, I see my twelve year-old self sitting in my room. I spent hours there, listening to music and imagining myself playing along. Little did I know, I was actually practicing. So even though I didn’t own a drum set in those days, I was unknowingly tapping into the power of visualization in order to set in motion a “blueprint” for drumming that was not fully realized until decades later.
This comes as no surprise to world-class athletes and trainers. Since the 1970s, Russian competitors have effectively used visualization to improve athletic performance. In her 2009 article in Psychology Today, AJ Adams cites studies that have shown that imagining yourself doing an activity is nearly as effective as actually motoring through it. Intense mental practice involves engaging all five senses. Guang Yue, an exercise psychologist, found that those who actually went to the gym to work out experienced a 30% muscle increase. Surprisingly, those who performed virtual practice also improved-nearly half the amount of muscle increase as those who actually exercised.
Why does it work? Visualization engages mental processes that are crucial to successfully completing an activity. These include motor control, attention, perception, planning and memory. You might be sitting in your favorite recliner or driving in the car, but your brain is training itself to perform the activity.
As it turns out, however, simple visualization may not be enough. According to Srinvasan Pillay, seeing yourself in the “first person” is a very important part of the process; breaking the task into smaller bits of information will further enhance the experience. If I want to learn that soul-stirring drum break, then, it’s not enough to just “watch” myself playing it, as if I were viewing myself in a movie. I have to be in the moment. I need to see the drum kit in front of me, and listen to the song while “feeling” my arms and legs go through the movements.
It’s tempting at this point to pat myself on the back. After all, if ten thousand hours of practice makes one a “master”, haven’t all of those years spent in rapture in front of the stereo brought me that much closer?
Well, not really. Researchers remind us that while visualization alone is incredibly useful, it becomes a potent force when paired with real-world physical practice.
When has visualization worked for you? Please leave some comments and thoughts below.