Sports Performance: Using Motor imagery to Achieve Elite Level Status

By Dr. John R. Mishock, PT, DPT, DC

Coaches, trainers, and athletes are often looking for the “next thing” that will allow them to reach the highest level of sports performance. One training technique to optimize sports performance is motor imagery, also known as mental imagery or visualization. Motor imagery is defined as the mental execution of a movement without any overt movement or muscle activity. Motor imagery has been used widely since the mid-1930s with over 122 studies demonstrating the effectiveness in neurological and orthopedic rehabilitation, cognitive psychology, and sports mental performance training. (Canepa et al. Front sports Act Living, 2020) In sports, most high-level athletes (70-90%) and elite sports coaches (94%) report using motor imagery to enhance sports performance. (Ridderinkhof et al. J Physiol, 2015)

Can motor imagery help in physical therapy and rehabilitation following injury?

The effects of motor imagery are far-reaching in physical therapy and rehabilitation, such as minimizing atrophy during a period of immobilization following injury or surgery, increasing strength and range of motion, enhancing gait following neurologic conditions (Parkinson’s disease and post-stroke patients), reducing fear-avoidance and anxiety of movement during orthopedic recovery, enhancing the speed of recovery of tissue healing following injury or surgery. (Odley et al. J Sports Sci Med. 2004; Collet et al. Appl Psychophysiol Biofeedback. 2012; Dickstein et al. Phys Ther. 2004; Pastora-Bernal et al. J Clin Med. 2021) 

Can motor imagery improve physical strength and power in athletes? 

Motor imagery is not only used in rehabilitation for recovery but can also be used in healthy athletes to improve strength, power, and explosiveness. Studies have shown that motor imagery can improve muscle strength and power by 22-63% (Yue et al. J neurophys., 1992, Tod et al. Sports Med Rev, 2015). A study of college basketball players showed that two times per week of motor imagery training with resistance training exercises increased vertical jump and medicine ball throws by 2-9%. (Lacono et al. Med Sci Sports Exerc, 2021)  

How does strength and power gains happen without “moving a muscle”?

With motor imagery there is no muscle contraction or change in muscle physiology, the change in muscle strength and power is due to enhancement and plasticity (neurological development) of the brain and nervous system.

Can motor imagery help the athlete improve sport-specific skills?

There is strong evidence in football, basketball, baseball, soccer, volleyball, gymnastics, dance, golf, tennis, swimming, and dart throwing that motor imagery improves execution of sports-specific movements, enhances self-confidence, reduces anxiety, and enhances motivation. (Mizuguchi et al. J Phys Fitnes Sports Med, 2012; Williams et al. J sports Exc. 2013; Dhouibi et al. Front in Psych, 2021) 

A landmark basketball free-throw study by Dr. Judd Biasiotto (researcher and sports psychologist), who segregated participants into three groups; free-throw physical practice only, free-throw motor imagery only, and control which did nothing.  After one month of 20 minutes of practice 3 times per week, the physical shooting group improved by 24%, the motor imagery shooting group improved by 23%, and the control group had no improvements. This study was an important milestone in demonstrating the effectiveness of motor imagery and that the combination of physical practice and mental imagery could magnify the benefits. (

 Many elite basketball players use motor imagery; for example, Steve Nash, a Hall of Fame basketball player, used motor imagery to reach a career average of over 90% from the free-throw line. Stephen Curry has credited some of his shooting success to his high school coach introducing him to visualization and motor imagery which he still uses to become the best three-point shooter of all time.

Is it better to combine physical practice and motor imagery?

Combining motor imagery with deliberate, focused training can significantly improve movement-based tasks and motor skills, i.e., shooting a basketball, swinging in golf, or hitting a baseball.

Most high-level golfers use motor imagery in training and before swings during competition. A 6-week golf study divided individuals into three groups, motor imagery, physical practice, or combined motor imagery and physical practice, with golf bunker shot training. The most significant gains in performance were observed after combined motor imagery and physical performance group. The motor imagery group only showed substantial improvements without touching a golf club. (Smith et al. Research quarterly for exercise and sport 2008)

How do the brain and motor system typically learn sports-specific movements? 

When first performing a novel task or movement, the brain and motor system is not in sync, and the movement is often of poor quality. For example, try throwing an object with your non-dominate hand. When an athlete repeats a specific movement, there is remodeling, adapting, organizing, and learning of movement pattern in the brain called neuroplasticity. The brain’s neuroplasticity records these movement patterns as a memory called an engram. This is what is often referred to as “muscle memory”. When the engram is rehearsed at near-perfect mechanical form, the athlete will have the greatest chance for cross-over and repeatability of the desired sports-specific movement. The key is to rehearse perfect or near perfect form as the brain will learn faulty movements equally as well. If you practice bad form the brain will create an engram (memory) of that bad form. This is why deliberate, focused practice is essential in sports performance.

If I perform deliberate, perfect rehearsal of a movement, how long does it take to perfect it at game speed in competition?

The ultimate goal of training is to perform a sports-specific movement at game speed against the highest-level competition.

It has been said that it takes 10,000 hours (10,000-hour rule) to reach elite-level status; however, this is a fallacy taken out of context. The concept of deliberate practice was more important than any magical number.

As the engram is memorized the, postural tone, equilibrium, balance, coordination, joint position, and muscle contraction type are enhanced. With “thousands upon thousands of deliberate perfect rehearsals specific to the tasks needed in the sport, the movement becomes refined and automated. This automation eventually happens subconsciously through the myelination (the physiological connection of areas of the nervous system) of the nervous system. This myelination process allows the brain and neuromuscular system to work at a subconscious level; automatically, efficiently, accurately, at high rates of speed, aka “game speed”. The key is to constantly challenge the brain and motor system to create a gradual progression of motor learning as specific as possible to the needs and demands of the sport. So, there is no magic number of repetitions or years. Each athlete’s development will be individual based on the appropriate coaching progression, the amount of focused deliberate practice, and their neuromotor system ability to adapt and learn.

How does motor imagery help in learning sports-specific skills?

Whether the athlete performs the actual movement or uses motor imagery, the brain sees both as functionally equivalent. Advances in medical technology (fMRI, PET, EEG, TMS) have led to measuring and substantiating the significance of brain activity during motor imagery. As far as the brain (primary motor cortices, frontoparietal regions, supplementary motor area, basal ganglia, and cerebellum) and nerves (corticospinal tract) go, the planning and execution of a movement during motor imagery is similar to the actual movement. Motor imagery facilitates motor skill acquisition by driving brain activation in areas critical for skill acquisition. With motor imagery training, any sports-specific tasks can be further enhanced when adding imagery to the actual movement-based training. (Newell, 1991; Hikosaka et al., 2002; Dayan and Cohen, 2011; Hardwick et al., 2013). For example, visualizing the basketball shooting mechanics and actual shooting practice will be additive in enhancing shooting accuracy.

A further advantage is that motor imagery can be done perfectly in the mind with 100% accuracy anywhere. (Li et al. Brain Res Cogn Brain Res, 2004) For example, if you visualize shooting a basketball, you can perform the shot with perfect form, never missing a shot while relaxing before bed or on the bus before a game. This motor imagery can be added or stacked to the deliberate focused rehearsal amplifying its effectiveness.  This could be especially good for the novice athlete who is learning a new motor skill.

In part II of the ” Sports Performance: Using Motor imagery to Achieve Elite Level Status”, I will review the specific training techniques to optimize skill acquisition through motor imagery.

Dr. Mishock is one of only a few clinicians with doctorate level degrees in both physical therapy and chiropractic in the state of Pennsylvania.

He has also authored two books; Fundamental Training Principles: Essential Knowledge for Building the Elite Athlete”, “The Rubber Arm; Using Science to Increase Pitch Control, Improve Velocity, and Prevent Elbow and Shoulder Injury” both can be bought on Amazon.


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