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Do your thoughts influence your physical performance? Can visualization at the alpha brain wave level help physical performance? A lot of Olympic athletes claim it does, while others say there is really nothing to it. Now a landmark study by a Silva Method graduate in Nyack, New York, provides an impressive demonstration of the power of relaxed visualization at the alpha brain level, in improving physical performance. Youngsters who visualized themselves performing did as well as those who practice physically, and those who spent half their practice time visualizing and the other half practicing the physical skills were the best of all.
Testing a theory Cecelia A. Prediger, a physical education instructor at Nyack Junior High School, noted that various observations and reviews conclude that "mental practice can lead to motoric gains. Furthermore, when mental and physical practices are combined, there is a tendency to do better. "However," she continues, "there is no firm evidence to support this view." So during October and November of 1987, she decided to get that evidence. With that in mind, she structured a research project along the following lines: The test subjects The subjects were 120 seventh grade boys and girls, ranging in age from 11 to 13 years, participating in physical education classes at Nyack Junior High. This age group would tend to function predominantly within the alpha brain wave frequency range, so it would be relatively easy to teach them to relax and lower their brain frequency to alpha. The challenge Their task was to become more proficient with the eye-hand accuracy shooting skills of field hockey. To maintain the internal validity of testing, students were instructed to shoot at a target foreign to the game. This would eliminate the variable of the actual practice of the sill during the game time. The target area had three 12-inch orange cone markers, separated one yard apart from each other. Three field hockey balls were placed on the ground six yards from the cones. Students, staying behind the shooting line, shot three balls, one at each cone, in the sequential shooting order or right, center, and left. One point was scored for each cone hit in its correct order. The physical education instructors tested, scored, and recorded each student individually. The clay infield of the baseball field was used to lay out this target area, thus eliminating factors of grass clumps, ruts, sticks, rocks, and the morning due. The infield was swept smoothly for this task. The nature of the sport only allows for students to play right-handed, as there are only right-handed sticks, and so another variable remained constant. The three marker cones were intentionally set one yard apart to simulate the distance across the mouth of the goal cage. The shooting distance of six yards, while intentionally not exact, is another simulation of the distance from the goal end line to the penalty stroke line. This design further minimizes threats to internal and external validity. Nine different physical education classes were randomly assigned to one of three different teaching conditions. All students were administered a pre-test on the first day, one of three instructional conditions for the follow seven lessons, and two post tests on the ninth day. Teachers explained the nature of this research project to their students and encouraged them to do their best. Instructions for the pre-test were identical for all three groups, and all 120 students were allowed to shoot at the cones and their scores recorded. The training For the seven lessons following, certain requirements were mandatory for all three groups. The first five minutes of each class was strictly timed for shooting practice only. All instructors met beforehand to agree precisely on the teaching instructions for the improvement of eye-hand accuracy shooting skills. the concepts of open and close stance, focusing, head position, and follow through, using either the push pass or the drive, were taught. They were taught identically, but practiced quite differently. One group, the control group, practiced five minutes every day with only the physical, hands-on shooting skills. Students worked in small groups of twos and threes to alternately take turns at shooting and retrieving field hockey balls. Under teacher supervision, corrections, instructions, and reinforcements were attended to, as in normal procedures for teaching physical education classes. A second group also practiced for five minutes for each class, but used only relaxation and visual imagery techniques to improve shooting skill accuracy. they did not practice the shooting skills physically at all during those seven sessions. Students sat quietly in the bleachers in the gymnasium and were guided by the instructor through relaxation and visual imagery techniques. Again, these instructions were discussed and were agreed upon whit participating colleagues in prior conferences. A Silva Method graduate, Ms. Prediger worked from memory to create the procedure tat was used. Instructions for relaxation incorporated eyes-closed, breathing techniques, and progressive relaxation, with a countdown. In guided visual imagery, clear pictures and feelings were emphasized. Students were instructed to "see the orange cones, feel their grip, feel the impact, and see the end results." Realizing the value of doing for yourself rather than depending on someone else, Ms. Prediger arranged the project so that after the fourth day of guided imagery, students were instructed to use their own creative, bizarre, and fantasy- oriented thoughts for the visualization of shooting. A third group also practiced five minutes each day, but structured their time to allow relaxation and visual imagery rehearsal along with the physical hands-on practice. Strictly timed, two and a half minutes were devoted to relaxation and imagination rehearsal as described above, while the remaining two and a half minutes were used for the physical skill practice. After the two and a half minutes of relaxation and visualization, the students in this group proceeded outdoors for their physical target practice for the remaining two and a half minutes. In the final session, students again shot at the 12-inch cones as they did in the pre-test. They also shot at 18-inch cones, This, according to Ms. Prediger, minimized the threats to external validity. What were the results? The results For the control group, with all physical practice, they had 13 hits in the pre- test, 22 hits in the first post-test (70 percent improvement), and 29 hits in the second post-test with the larger cones. The group who practiced mentally for the entire five minutes had 12 hits in the pre-test, 20 in the first post-test (68 percent improvement), and 31 in the second post-test. That news was exciting: Practicing mentally yielded results that were virtually identical to the results attained by practicing physically. But it was the results of the third group that truly amazed everyone. They had exactly the same amount of total practice time, so it would seem logical that their improvement would be about the same as the other two groups. Unless of course having only half as much practice hurt them in both categories, in which case they would have less improvement. One might also argue that their improvement should be almost as great as the other two groups combined, since they would get the benefit of both mental and physical practice. So what actually happened? The results surprised a lot of people. The third group started with 12 hits on the pre-test, much like the other two groups. In the first post-test, they had 31 hits - a 160 percent improvement! And they had 30 hits in the second post-test.
Learn without doing One more interesting finding involved the group of students who only practiced mentally. In the pre-test, only 12 of the 40 students in this group hit a target. None hit more than one target. In the second post-test, 23 of the students hit the targets. In other words, 11 students who had never hit a target physically, hit targets in the post-test! Two of the students in this group hit all three targets, while none of the students in the group that practiced physically for five minutes each session hit all three targets. Think of that: Eleven students learned to successfully perform a physical skill that they had never accomplished before, just by relaxing and visualizing. Eleven students who had never hit a target physically, were able to do so after imagining it at the alpha brain wave level. Conclusions "The results of this experiment," Ms. Prediger concludes, "support the claims of Suinn (1983) concluding that mental practice can lead to physical gains and when mental and physical practices are combined, there is a tendency to do better. The post-tests and overall improvement percentages...show this clearly." "Since the skills of this study were typically taught n physical education classes," she said, "the results provide the teacher, coach, and athlete with additional techniques for improving or acquiring proficiency in many skills. Accordingly, we can have confidence in recommending the practices of visualization to our athletes."