BIHUB PATH

27 February, 2021

Training When There isn’t a Training session

Sports Performance

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On 14th July 2019, during a press conference after winning his fifth Wimbledon tournament, Novak Djokovic was asked about the secret for his success. “I always try to picture myself as the winner”, the Serbian tennis player answered. Djokovic thought this was the most mentally demanding match he had experienced until then, and he confessed he worked really hard for that moment: “We are talking about the ability to envision and get ready for potential scenarios. I try to play the match in my head before hitting the court”.

There are many examples of elite athletes that agree on the power of imagination when training for their specific sport. Michael Phelps commented in an interview that there were times during the night prior to the competition that he would dream very vividly about his next day race, and he did so from the beginning to the end, envisioning every movement he was going to make: diving, stroke, touching the wall, breathing, and starting all over again. At his best, the fighter Conor McGregor used to talk about the same techniques, envisioning every detail, not only his movements, but also the environment, the audience shouting or the feelings when entering the box.

The Power of Imagination

Envisioning our performance in any physical practice has shown to be a great complement to improve our sports performance. Neuroscience has shown a lot of interest in this matter in order to better understand the relationship between thinking something and putting it into practice. It seems contradictory to believe that by only envisioning ourselves hitting a ball, we will be able to do it better in real life. But it does happen, and the mechanisms that cause this phenomenon were discovered, as it usually occurs, very randomly.

It happened at University of Parma in 1996. Giacomo Rizzolatti’s team was conducting a research with the brain of monkeys when they discovered that some specific neurons, which they named mirror neurons, were activated not only by a specific movement, but also by seeing it in others. The finding called journalists’ and neuroscientists’ attention worldwide very quickly, some of them questioned the proposal, and some others advocated for it, as is the case of Vilayanur Ramachandran, who said that mirror neurons were to neuroscience, what DNA was to biology. The underlying mechanism of this neurons opened a world of possibilities: performing an action, seeing it, or imagining it have similar effects at a mental level.

The principle, therefore, is based on the fact that when we imagine an action, our brain gets similarly activated to when we perform it in real life. This act of thinking promotes, among other things, the development of a muscle innervation similar to that of physical sports. These results have also been observed in other non-sports disciplines, such as playing the piano, in which it has been proven by different research that the brain areas involved in the imagination of the hand movement are the same areas that are activated during the real practice, and that training through imagination, either a sport or with a musical instrument, improves our motor skills in that specific area.

Should we substitute real exercise for exercise imagination? Of course not. But considering the possibility of a mental or imaginative supplement to classic training should not be discarded in order to optimise an athlete’s performance to their best, whether or not they are high-performance athletes. As it occurs in other contexts, training through imagination presents itself as a great supplement rather than a real physical exercise substitute. Besides, it offers the flexibility of being performed at any time in any situation, which greatly benefits its actual practice, for example, while we are travelling by plane or just before going to bed. The possibilities of this type of training are countless while in confinement. And, of course, imagination might be the only possible option for those who have had to stop their physical activity because of an injury.

Rehabilitation, imagination and virtual reality

As a matter of fact, there are multiple rehabilitation programmes that involve imagining the movement of the affected limb, and other similar techniques that include the use of new technologies such as virtual reality. If mirror mechanisms act both while imagining or seeing the movement, being able to see “our” body while “performing” a movement in a virtual world may speed up the recovery of the affected limb. And the reason lies on those double inverted commas.

Virtual reality has shown to be able to make us feel in a different place, but also in a different body. In the end, our way of perceiving ourselves in the world consists in integrating different flows of information that we constantly get from our senses. In simple and no-so-accurate words, if I see a hand coming out of my arm, I think of opening it and I can see it open, or I see that an object is going to touch it and, when it happens, I can perceive contact, I will interpret that that is my hand. Now, let us consider virtual reality: if I see a (virtual) hand coming out of my (virtual) body and, when touching a (virtual) object, I can perceive the real contact (because an actual object has touched my real hand as well) will I believe that is my hand? This question has a trick, because it was answered a while ago by means of the so-called rubber hand illusion. However, there is a much more important reflection hidden: we can easily trick our mind to think we are doing something when, actually, we are not.

In the same way that imagining the movement of an affected limb speeds up rehabilitation, moving it (or more precisely, seeing how we move it) in virtual reality produces similar results. And not just because a person in that state will generally be in a better mood, but because we will keep our neural circuits that connect brain and muscles lubricated when tricking our minds to believe that we are still practising the exercise we cannot perform in the real world. Even in cases where a person has suffered a stroke, the use of virtual reality techniques has shown to improve the affected limb physical condition after recovery.

Neuroscience and psychology have been showing that an athlete’s training must not be strictly constrained to physical activity. A good balance between real exercise and other techniques that promote the imagination and envision (mental or through videos or virtual reality) of the movements, techniques or plays that are performed, can lead to a significant increase in sports performance. We already know the saying: mens sana in corpore sano. And vice versa.

 

Jose Valenzuela

Bibliography

  1. Iacoboni, M. Imitation, Empathy, and Mirror Neurons. Annual Review of Psychology 2009, 60:1, 653-670.
  2. Zatorre, R.J.; Halpern, A.R. Mental concerts: Musical imagery and auditory cortex. Neuron 2005, 47, 9–12.
  3. Jeannerod, M. The representing brain: Neural correlates of motor intention and imagery. Behav. Brain Sci. 1994, 17, 187–202.
  4. Henderson A.; Korner-Bitensky N.; Levin M. Virtual reality in stroke rehabilitation: a systematic review of its effectiveness for upper limb motor recovery. Top Stroke Rehabil. 2007, 14(2), 52-61.
  5. https://thesportjournal.org/article/utilizing-imagery-to-enhance-injury-rehabilitation/
  6. https://www.nytimes.com/2014/02/23/sports/olympics/olympians-use-imagery-as-mental-training.html

 

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