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Practical applications of mental practice in sport and exercise

How is mental practice applied in sport and exercise? Dr Ben Marshall describes the skills and settings in which mental practice is used.
Men rowing on a black background
© Photo by Josh Calabrese on Unsplash

Athletes can use mental practice for a variety of purposes. The following include not only improving psychological skills but physical ones also.

Psychological skills

  • Improve concentration: Sometimes an athlete can lose concentration after making an error, especially when tired. Using mental practice, an athlete can mentally rehearse their ideal reaction after making a mistake, such as maintaining their composure and focus.
  • Control emotional responses: Mental practice can be a very effective way of building confidence and managing anxiety. By imaging themselves in a situation that has previously caused them to feel anxious (e.g. a soccer penalty shootout) athletes can practice techniques for dealing with such events, such as focusing on the ball and remaining calm.
  • Acquire and practice strategy: Strategies for various situations in a sport can be mentally rehearsed. For example, a baseball pitcher can use mental practice to prepare for different batters and, likewise, a batter might do the same in preparation for different types of pitches.
  • Cope with pain and injury: As mental practice develops neural pathways without the need for movement, it can be a very effective tool during rehabilitation for maintaining skills when an athlete is unable to train.

Physical skills

  • Acquire and practice sport skills: Athletes can use mental practice to train skills that are in their current repertoire. The PETTLEP model states that imagery should match the level of the performer. An absolute novice attempting to image expert levels of skill performance, such as consistently accurate 90 mph tennis serves, is unlikely to experience much of a benefit, as they do not have the experiences to draw upon when trying to create a vivid and realistic image. Instead, they would benefit more from imaging their own current serving technique, and using this to fine-tune their performance.

When and where an athlete chooses to perform mental practice is also very important. The PETTLEP model suggests that mental practice should take place in the same environment as the real action but obviously, this may not always be possible, for example, a tennis player may not be able to access Wimbledon every day for their mental practice!

  • Before and after practice: To ensure mental practice is performed regularly, it can be scheduled into the athlete’s typical training regime before and after each session. This helps to develop the skill acquisition aspect of mental practice as the athlete has recent memories of the skill they wish to mentally practice which will help them create vivid and realistic imagery.
  • Before and after competition: Mental practice can often form part of a pre-performance routine that an athlete uses to prepare for competition. This could include many of the points listed above such as rehearsing strategies for the specific opponent the athlete is competing against and performing mental repetitions of actions, such as tennis serves. Following competition, an athlete may use imagery to replay particularly successful passages of play or skill execution. This can then be used to form the basis of future mental practice sessions.
  • During breaks in the action: A number of sports have time outs, half time breaks, or other extended pauses in the action. Mental practice could be included during these times.
  • During personal time: Mental practice can form part of an athlete’s daily routine, particularly on rest days with no physical training.
  • When recovering from injury: As mental practice develops neural pathways without the need for movement it can be a very effective tool for maintaining skills when an athlete is unable to train.

Although imagery and action observation can be highly effective for improving performance, it is very important to note that in almost all cases physical practice produces better results than mental practice. This means that mental practice should not be used to replace physical training but should work alongside it as part of a training programme or be used when physical training is not possible.

Sometimes athletes are reluctant to use mental practice, as they may not be convinced it will work. How could you address this problem?


Weinberg R, Gould D. Foundations of Sport and Exercise Psychology, 3rd ed. IIIinois: Human Kinetics;2003.

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