JITE v32n4 - Enhancing Psychomotor Skill Development Through the Use of Mental Practice

Volume 32, Number 4
Summer 1995

Enhancing Psychomotor Skill Development Through the Use of Mental Practice

Thomas S. Whetstone
University of Louisville

The rapid acquisition of job-related skills and competencies has been a major concern of employers for centuries. Employers find the enhanced acquisition of job skills not only good practice but essential in some areas ( Evans & Herr, 1978 ). In those occupations where participants must engage in physical activity or routinely employ finely tuned hand-eye coordination, training in proper technique is an essential element of initial employment. Training department professionals, employers, and educational researchers have spent a considerable amount of time and effort developing methods to enhance the acquisition of these critical psychomotor skills ( Evans & Herr, 1978 ; Laird, 1985 ).

Several factors affect such skills training. Hazards may exist in the actual workplace of such magnitude as to severely curtail on-the-job learning. Time presents another factor in skills training--using on-the-job training may not be expedient. Cost may be another factor in that the rapid training of new employees may be essential to the continued profitability of the enterprise. A lack of physical space, free access to facilities, or specialized equipment pose additional problems or limitations for the trainer ( Hird, Landers, Thomas, & Horan, 1991 ).

Rapid acquisition of skills is even more important in those occupations where a lack of skill or knowledge could result in a catastrophic failure. Some occupations offer a more rigorous environment where mastery of critical skills may be essential to the survival of the practitioner. Airline transportation is one area where a mistake or uncoordinated movement at a critical juncture could end in disaster for those involved. The use of full motion simulators has provided the airline industry with the opportunity to present real-time challenges to pilots and place them into scenarios that are so sophisticated that the requirements for flight time in the aircraft are substantially reduced ( Federal Aviation Regulations, 1992 ). Police officers represent another high-risk occupational group that must learn a number of skills; among the most critical of these are marksmanship skills. Simulators exist for marksmanship training; however, they are prohibitively expensive for most departments. The need for low- or no-cost alternatives to mechanical simulators is apparent for many training facilities in a variety of occupational settings.

In certain high-risk occupations, hands-on experience in critical skills may be severely limited due to practical considerations and safety concerns. In these and other less risky occupations real-life practice or practice in simulators may be limited due to budgetary, time, or space considerations. Simulators may be available but are frequently prohibitively expensive. Actual industrial equipment may be just as expensive or consistently in service and, in either case, unavailable. A method for extending the training experience beyond the time spent engaged in the physical activity may prove beneficial in improving performance, accelerating learning, enhancing the retention of material, and minimizing performance errors.

Mental practice is a method for acquiring, rehearsing, or enhancing a physical skill in the absence of both fine and gross motor movements of the body. Mental practice has been referred to alternatively as mental imagery, mental rehearsal, symbolic practice, and implicit practice ( Richardson, 1967a ). Mental practice can be visual, kinesthetic, or, as is forwarded in this article, holistic in nature. In all cases the practitioner achieves a state of relaxation and then concentrates full attention on the details--sensory, spatial, and mechanical--that define the elements of the activity and the flow of events during the implementation of the activity. During this period of intense concentration the subject will not make any overt movements commensurate with the imagined activity--even in scenarios of violent, rapid, or gross motor movements. To clarify the concept of mental practice, it may be useful to think of it as a mental simulation. Mental practice is (in the most simplistic sense) essentially thinking through a problem or activity, but in the most successful applications of this technique, in a highly structured and disciplined manner. There is a growing body of research indicating that the application of mental practice to enhance the learning of psychomotor skills has met with differing degrees of success. This inconsistency provided the impetus for this study. An experiment was conducted to test the efficacy of mental practice in enhancing the acquisition of critical psychomotor skills in a specific occupational setting. The following questions were addressed:

  1. Does mental practice produce larger skills gain scores in the treatment group?
  2. Does individual imagery ability affect the efficacy of mental practice?
  3. Does the amount of self-directed mental practice completed have an effect on gain scores?
  4. Does the level of belief in the treatment have an effect on gain scores in the treatment group?


The National Research Council (NRC) sponsored a series of committee evaluations of theories and techniques for enhancing human performance, among them mental practice ( Druckman & Swets, 1988 ). Researchers found mental practice to show promise in enhancing motor skills and suggested that further research be done specific to Army tasks ( Druckman & Bjork, 1991 ).

Perhaps the most compelling theoretical explanation of the mechanism underlying mental practice is found in the "symbolic perceptual" theory, which forwards the concept that mental practice is effective because of cognitive processing ( Denis, 1985 ). This theory is supported by numerous studies that have shown greater degrees of success with mental practice in those tasks that contain a greater cognitive component ( Feltz & Landers, 1983 ; Paivio, 1985 ; Ryan & Simons, 1983 ). Tasks such as dart throwing, basketball free throws, and target sports all require a great degree of hand-eye coordination and fine motor control in addition to having a large cognitive component and are more suitable for mental practice learning interventions. Weight lifting, balancing tests, arm-wrestling, and other activities requiring little thought and a great deal of muscular strength do not benefit nearly as much as the previously mentioned activities. Translating these examples into vocational skills--the frame carpenter will benefit less from mental practice than will a cabinet-maker, the machinist will benefit more than the laborer, the electrical troubleshooter more than the component assembler. Although all may benefit from mental practice to some extent, the greatest effects will be seen in those activities and occupational groups where high cognition, fine motor control, and hand-eye coordination are essential elements of the activity.

Use of Mental Practice

Mental practice has been used to improve the human condition in a number of fairly novel ways. Anecdotally, imagery has been used to structure prayer or to provide inspiration in the faithful ( Peale, 1982 ). Self-image has an effect on performance. In a study on feedback, Feltz and Riessinger (1990) found that imagery practice groups tended to have a higher self-efficacy rating even in the face of moderate (faked) failures against opponents. Overall the imagery groups had enhanced performance profiles. Imagery has been used as a therapeutic device in combating migraine headaches and immune system deficiencies. Seymour Diamond has used imagery in controlling the onset and severity of migraines in his clinical patients. Although Diamond has published no formal study, he is amassing a formidable number of anecdotal cases to support his continued use of the therapy ( Stocker-Ferguson, 1990 ). Similarly, there appears to be a connection with one's mental state and the ability to stave off disease or death. There is such a growing body of anecdotal evidence that hospitals and clinics are incorporating imagery techniques into other more traditional medical interventions. "Behavioral medicine" as a new specialty area is finding increasing acceptance in the medical community. The whole patient needs to be treated--both mind and body ( Kabat-Zinn, 1990 ; Stocker-Ferguson, 1990 ).

Mental imagery's greatest impact is found in the arena of competitive sports. In a wide variety of athletic endeavors, mental imagery has been shown to be effective in improving performance ( Druckman & Swets, 1988 ; Hall & Erffmeyer, 1983 ; Oxendine, 1969 ; Paivio, 1985 ). Epstein (1980) found mental practice utilizing an internal perspective will improve dart throwing. Van Gyn, Wenger, and Gaul (1990) found that non-specific training used with imagery produced enhanced performance in sprinters. Their results indicated that imagery is useful in focusing the basic conditioning efforts of athletes to positive outcomes in their sport. Mental practice does not appear to cause harm, unless specifically intended to do so. In a study completed by Woolfolk, Murphy, Gottesfeld, and Aitken (1985) , college-age intramural golfers were placed into one of five treatment conditions concerning the imagery of a golf putt. The results showed those who visualized negative outcomes showed a significant decline in putting accuracy. The study illustrates how poorly constructed imagery sessions, or sessions that dwell on negative aspects of the process, may produce declines in performance. These and a number of other studies have been undertaken to ascertain the particulars of how to use imagery to best advantage. The literature is almost completely void of studies using mental practice in occupational or industrial settings.

In any application of imagery to a physical process the perspective used by the participant is important. The internal imagery perspective provides an image from the perspective of an active participant, from within the body looking out ( Mahoney & Avener, 1977 ). Kinesthetic imagery is the imagery of movement, of muscular activity. Kinesthetic imagery brings in additional senses of touch and the feeling of movement, essential elements in developing images to improve hand-eye coordination. Conversely, visual imagery is generally associated exclusively with the sense of sight. The bulk of evidence supports the use of the internal and kinesthetic perspectives ( Epstein, 1980 ; Hall & Erffmeyer, 1983 ). Investigators found that the internal perspective created significantly more muscular enervation in experimental subjects ( Hale, 1982 ; Harris & Robinson, 1986 ; Jacobson, 1931 ; Jowdy & Harris, 1990 ). A number of investigators found that the most successful athletes and experimental participants used the more inclusive kinesthetic perspective even when asked to use an external perspective ( Epstein, 1980 ; Hall, 1985 ; Hall & Erffmeyer, 1983 ; Harris & Robinson, 1986 ; Jacobson, 1931 ; Jowdy & Harris, 1990 ; Mahoney & Avener, 1977 ; Mumford & Hall, 1985 ; White, Ashton, & Lewis, 1979 ). This suggests they are seeking a more realistic mental image.

Images are rarely only visual, spatial, or kinesthetic, but usually are all of these elements and more to varying degrees ( Farah, Hammond, Levine, & Calvanio, 1988 ). In order for imagery to be effective it must be vivid ( Ryan & Simons, 1982 ). In order to reliably obtain vividity the image must be made as multi-sensory as possible. As classroom instructors know, a multi-sensory presentation is much more likely to be understood and attended to by students. Mental practice is no different and may be more fraught with the possibility of wandering minds since it requires no physical action and may become tedious or boring ( Andre & Means, 1986 ; Paivio, 1985 ). As a result, multi-sensory images are needed ( Denis, 1985 ). The term holistic imagery will be used to denote this multi-sensory approach. Holistic imagery incorporates the use of all relevant senses in developing mental practice scenarios for participants.

Given the checkered successes of various mental practice techniques and applications, several authors have suggested the application of imagery to specific tasks to ascertain the efficacy thereon ( Kendall, Hrycaiko, Martin, & Kendall, 1990 ; Paivio, 1985 ). This challenge was the basis for this study.


The effectiveness of mental practice is clearly linked to the types of tasks encountered. Numerous investigators found the efficacy of mental practice is linked to tasks that have a large cognitive component ( Feltz & Landers, 1983 ; Paivio, 1985 ; Ryan & Simons, 1983 ). Researchers also found that tasks requiring a high degree of fine motor control along with high perceptual and cognitive components were suitable candidates for the use of mental practice ( Denis, 1985 ; Feltz & Landers, 1983 ; Paivio, 1985 ; Ryan & Simons, 1983 ; Wrisberg & Ragsdale, 1979 ; Zecker, 1982 ). Precision machining, tool and die making, illustrating and drafting, finish carpentry and cabinetry are examples of occupations where these critical components are found. The task and experimental group chosen for this study consisted of handgun marksmanship in recruit police officer basic training at the University of Illinois Police Training Institute (PTI). Handgun marksmanship requires a great deal of fine motor control, hand-eye coordination, and a deceptively high cognitive component. These task traits make this activity almost ideally suited for this research.

Fitts and Posner (1967) described skill learning as involving three phases: cognitive, associative, and autonomous. Their findings indicated that as a trainee becomes more adept at a task, less cognitive or conscious thought is needed. In many psychomotor activities trainers seek to develop automaticity in relation to the accomplishment of those tasks. These are exactly the types of traits necessary for good marksmanship under combat circumstances. The experimental location was selected to expedite immediate and continued access to the basic classes.

Marksmanship pre-test, post-test, and gain scores were used to determine the efficacy of mental practice as an instructional technique and to explore the relationship between the amount of self-directed imagery completed, individual imagery ability, the degree of subject belief in the imagery technique, and performance on the marksmanship post-test. Structured treatment sessions were conducted and a post-test was administered after the treatment. Debriefing of the subjects was provided at the end of all treatment and testing.


The participants were 72 student volunteers enrolled in three Basic Law Enforcement sessions at the University of Illinois Police Training Institute (PTI). The subjects ranged in age from 21 to 55 years of age. Only six females were in the sample. These students represented a cross-section of recruit police officers within the State of Illinois. As a sampling mechanism, the random hiring practices, along with highly variable entry requirements between departments, provides virtually every PTI basic class with a valid sample of police recruits in Illinois ( Whetstone, 1990 ). Educational levels ranged from high school diplomas through bachelor's degrees. All of the subjects were in reasonably good health and physical condition, several had no previous firearms experience, but most had some experience with firearms, and a few had served in a branch of the military. The subjects were administered the marksmanship pre-test consisting of firing 25 rounds of ammunition at a standard PTI target placed at 15 yards distance ( Landers, Wang, & Courtet, 1985 ). The subjects were then placed into groups according to shooting ability and randomly assigned to treatment and control groups to achieve balanced shooting ability groups ( Campbell & Stanley, 1963 ; Richardson, 1967b ; Schendel & Heller, 1985 ).

Experimental Task

All PTI recruit classes are required to participate in a minimum of 40 hours of firearms training. This includes classroom sessions, judgmental shooting, cover and concealment exercises, and shotgun familiarization. Actual live firing with the handgun is limited to little more than 24 hours of "trigger time" administered in two-hour blocks of closely supervised instruction. For the purposes of this experiment the pre-test was administered several weeks before any personal defense sessions were conducted. Guided mental practice sessions were started after the first four hours of live fire were completed and continued to the twenty hour mark. The classes used in this experiment received the standard firearms training regimen given to all PTI Basic classes. This generally consists of firing between 50 and 150 rounds of ammunition at targets placed at varying distances from the shooter and is dependent on what is specifically being covered on any particular day. The only exception to this regimen was the inclusion of the mental practice sessions for the treatment groups.

Experimental Treatment

The experimental treatment consisted of one two-hour imagery training session, ten five-minute guided holistic imagery mental practice sessions, twenty hours of live fire practice and a request for a minimum of five minutes of individual, self-directed mental practice each night during the approximately three weeks of firearms training. Although the progress of both treatment and control groups was monitored all through the training, formal marksmanship data was gathered at only two points during the experiment--the pre-test and post-test.

Treatment group subjects were given a two hour guided holistic imagery training session prior to the marksmanship training phase ( Hird et al., 1991 ). This session provided instruction and background information on mental practice and how to optimize the experience. This session ensured that all treatment group subjects were given the same set of instructions, were using the same holistic imagery perspective, and gave reasonable assurances that they understood the procedures ( Hall, 1985 ). The training allowed the participants to become mindful evaluators of their own mental images. The session provided instruction in progressive relaxation, deep breathing, and how to focus attention on a subject to the exclusion of all extraneous thought. Techniques similar to those used by Zen masters were employed to demonstrate how to develop and utilize mental images ( Kabat-Zinn, 1990 ). Guided imagery training was initiated after the first two days of live fire marksmanship training. This was done so the trainees could establish a baseline familiarity with the required physical skills. Studies have indicated that an essential ingredient for success in any imagery training is the requirement for prior task exposure ( Clark, 1960 ; Epstein, 1980 ; Hall & Erffmeyer, 1983 ; Noel, 1980 ; Richardson, 1967a ; Suinn, 1985 ).

After the initial two training days the treatment group was provided with a five minute, guided holistic imagery mental practice session each day before going out to the live fire range ( Mahoney & Avener, 1977 ; Morrisett, 1956 ; Richardson, 1967a ; Twining, 1949 ). Audio tapes were used for the guided imagery sessions and were constructed from verbal protocols elicited from four instructors at the American Pistol Institute (API) in Paulden, Arizona. These verbal protocols were then combined and the most relevant and vivid observations were used to script the final guided imagery tapes. The scripted tapes were designed to provide the participant with the observations and sensory input of four highly experienced police combat marksmen as they would engage a deadly threat. Following the recommendation to provide multiple imagery sessions, these guided imagery sessions were repeated for ten days of marksmanship training ( Morrisett, 1956 ; Paivio, 1985 ; Richardson, 1967b ; Suinn, 1985 ). As a neutral distraction activity, the control group subjects were given five extra minutes of time on the live-fire range. Although they did not shoot any more rounds than the treatment group, they were provided with additional coaching and target analysis from the firing line staff.

In addition to the audio-tape guided imagery training sessions, the treatment group subjects were asked to engage in self-directed holistic imagery sessions for 5 to 10 minutes each evening in the comfort of their quarters. The participants were initially instructed to recall and use the imagery scenarios verbalized in the guided mental practice audio tape sessions, but over the course of the treatment they were also encouraged to go beyond the taped scenarios and develop their own imagery. During the self-directed imagery sessions the participants were instructed to try to visualize the activity in either highly detailed, slow motion, or in less detailed but kinesthetically accurate real-time. They were told that fewer, more detailed scenarios were more important than a great number of flash scenarios. They were reminded that details were the essence of the holistic imagery technique.

During the pre- and post-tests the targets were placed at 15 yards distance from the firing point ( Landers et al., 1985 ; Rose & Christina, 1990 ). The pre-test of marksmanship ability was conducted with each subject having a personal test proctor. The proctor gave the subject a fire command and noted the time in which each pair was fired and the average completion time for all pairs was then computed. The timing established a baseline average completion time for each subject. These baseline times were then aggregated for the whole class, averaged, and then decreased by 20 percent. This adjusted time was then used during the post-test to add a degree of difficulty commensurate with the projected increase in skills of all subjects ( Landers et al., 1985 ). Virtually all handgun marksmanship training accomplished at PTI is designed to strike a balance between accuracy (of the shot) and speed (of the drawing and firing of the weapon). With speed and accuracy being central to the instruction, it was considered necessary to provide a time challenge element to the post-test ( Landers et al., 1985 ). This is even more critical since PTI instructional experience with recruit classes indicated that untimed firing at targets placed at 15 yards generally does not provide a discriminating marksmanship problem to recruits after twenty hours of live fire.

Qualitative Data Collection

Following guidelines suggested by other researchers, and information obtained in a pilot study for this experiment, the experience of the experimental subjects was closely monitored and a post-treatment interview was conducted ( Wollman, 1986 ). A semi-structured interview format was utilized, as was a Likert-scale questionnaire that had been developed exclusively for the treatment group (as a method for determining level of belief in the mental practice technique). These interviews were conducted after the post-test was administered. The treatment group subjects filled out the questionnaire en-masse, and were then interviewed separately. In addition, the control group was interviewed to determine if they either collectively or singularly engaged in imagery or other activity or behavior that may have increased their scores in a manner not controlled by the experimental design. Qualitative data was an integral part of the pilot study and revealed a number of methods for improving the study. Similar procedures were used in this study to ascertain whether the improvements addressed some of the weaknesses encountered in the original design and to further refine the technique for future replications and experiments with other occupational groups.

Determining Differences in Imagery Ability

Various researchers have observed test subjects with differing degrees of imagery ability. For those who do little or no mental imaging, the use of mental practice may be difficult to accomplish. To avoid this potentially confounding factor a test of imagery ability would be helpful to identify those with poorly developed imagery skills. The Vividness of Movement Imagery Questionnaire (VMIQ) was constructed specifically to test kinesthetic imagery ability, or the ability to "visualize" and "feel" movement ( Isaac, Marks, & Russell, 1986 ). The VMIQ was utilized in this experiment to determine the relative imagery ability of the treatment group participants. The results of this test were used to determine the imagery ability before training of all treatment group participants and to establish a cut-off point (75) between those with a high degree of imagery ability and those with comparatively low imagery ability.

Measures of Participation and Belief

Two measures of student participation and belief in the treatment were analyzed in addition to the above variables. Treatment group trainees were asked to engage in a minimum of five minutes of self-directed mental practice each evening in their rooms. They were asked to accurately (and honestly) record the actual number of minutes spent in the activity each night. The log sheets documenting the subject's level of participation in self-directed mental practice sessions (homework) were collected and the subjects divided into two groups of high (40 minutes completed), and low (< 40 minutes completed) frequency homework participants. These groups were then compared on gain scores through the use of two-tailed t -tests.

The second variable of interest was an analysis of the questionnaire on belief given to the treatment group subjects after the post-test. This subjective self-report test assessed the level of personal belief and voluntary participation in the mental practice intervention. Using Likert scales, these reports produced a rank of "belief-in" or "buy-in" of the treatment. The items on the questionnaire were summed and the aggregate was used to define the level of belief, and these belief scores were then compared to gain scores by the use of a two-tailed t -test.


Throughout the conduct of this study data were amassed and analyzed. Unless otherwise indicated, all statistical analyses were performed with alpha = .05. Important practical differences between treatment and control groups were observed almost immediately. It is important to note that determining a practical difference in demonstrated marksmanship ability is somewhat subjective. However, when human lives may be at stake, incremental improvement may be all that is required to survive a lethal encounter. With this perspective in mind the readers must decide what differences they would benefit from "out on the street." In addition to the experimental subjects, five experienced instructors were polled and all considered improvements above ten percent of the possible score to be of practical value. To provide a basis for comparison, "Expert" shooters produced scores above 225 points (90%+) and "Marksmen" shooters produced scores between 200 and 225 points (80%+). Occasionally novice shooters will be observed to produce expert level performance after minimal training, but most novices score in the 70 to 85 percent range. Table 1 holds the data findings for all sets of groups examined in this experiment.

Does Mental Practice produce larger marksmanship gain scores in the treatment group

Table 1 shows the mean gain scores for the treatment and control groups (aggregated, no subsets in either condition) and the results of a two-tailed t -test utilized to determine differences in gain scores by experimental group. As shown in Table 1 , the efficacy of the imagery technique was supported by the data. The treatment group mean marksmanship gain score was 32.86 points above the control group's score ( Table 1 ). The means of the two groups on the pre- and post-tests were charted, and appear in Figure 1.

Table 1
Marksmanship Score Findings by Group Sets

Group n pretest
SD t

Combined Groups
Control 36 119.50 170.11 50.61 60.35
Treatment 36 111.50 194.97 83.47 58.69 -2.34*
Split Groups on Initial Marksmanship Ability
Control (High) 19 167.26 180.16 12.89 48.70
Treatment (High) 21 152.71 203.76 51.05 42.01 -2.64*
Control (Low) 17 66.12 158.88 92.76 41.49
Treatment (Low) 15 53.80 182.67 128.87 48.01 -2.26*
Treatment Group, Sub-Group Data
VMIQ (High) 19 112.79 196.05 83.26 63.38
VMIQ (Low) 17 110.06 193.76 83.71 54.92 -.02
High Belief Score 21 110.19 211.43 101.24 64.81
Low Belief Score 15 113.33 171.93 58.60 38.40 2.27*
Homework (High) 22 94.00 194.59 100.59 55.68
Homework (Low) 12 151.75 197.25 45.50 47.89 2.21*

Note. 250 points possible score. *p < .05

The treatment and control groups had been subdivided into high and low marksmanship ability as evidenced by the marksmanship pre-test score. There was a statistically significant 36 point difference between the gain score of the low ability treatment group and the low ability control group (see Table 1 ). A 38 point difference in gain scores between high ability treatment and control groups was also observed. Table 1 also shows the results of a two-tailed t -test of high ability treatment and control groups, where a statistically significant difference in gain scores was again observed. Figure 2 shows the relationship between paired high and low ability groups.

Does individual imagery ability affect the efficacy of Mental Practice?

To answer this question, scores on the Vividness of Movement Imagery Questionnaire (VMIQ) were compared with the gain scores. The VMIQ scores produced a mean of 75.74 and a standard deviation of 15.02. The group was actually rather homogenous on the VMIQ with only one subject scoring a 100 on the test, and the rest essentially clustered around the mean. After an examination of the scores the group was split at a VMIQ score of 75 points to produce high and low imagery ability groupings. The two group mean marksmanship gain scores were then compared using a two-tailed t -test of independent samples and no significant differences were found.

Does the amount of self-directed mental practice homework completed have an effect on marksmanship gain scores?

The amount of homework completed appeared to be a factor in the study and was supported by the data. There was a statistically significant difference in gain scores observed at the .01 level between groups where homework was regularly accomplished and those who did comparatively little or no homework. The treatment group turned in log sheets attesting to as much as 290 minutes of self-directed mental practice being completed, and as little as none. A mean homework completion time of 70.56 minutes with a standard deviation of 58.16 was produced by the group. The group was split into a high homework participation group and a low homework participation group at the participation time of 40 minutes. Table 1 shows the results of a two-tailed t -test of independent samples computed for the two groups on gain scores. The subjects who completed more homework had a higher score on the post-test than did the low homework completion group. There was a difference in gain scores of 55.09 points or roughly 22 percent of possible points. The relationship between these two groups is illustrated in Figure 3.

Qualitative findings . During the interview many subjects noted difficulties in finding the time and proper environmental ambiance in which to do the homework. During the personal interviews many of the subjects commented on the apparent power of homework to improve scores. All stated that they wished they had done more homework in the time preceding the post-test. When asked if this represented an important practical difference all subjects agreed that it did indeed represent an advantage they would want to have. When asked what they would personally feel was a minimal practical difference in scores they would like to take out on the job, a few stated that any increase in score would be of practical value, but most placed that score above ten percent of possible score.

Does the level of belief in the treatment have an effect on marksmanship gain scores in the treatment group?

An evaluation instrument was developed to answer this question. The instrument consisted of five statements with a Likert-scale provided for each to record the degree of the subject's agreement with the statement. The scales produced a range of scores from 5 points (total disagreement) to 25 points (total agreement). The treatment group produced a mean of agreement with the statements concerning the mental practice technique of 20.11 (of a possible 25), with a standard deviation of 3.30, to register more than moderate support for the technique. To examine group differences, the treatment group was again split on the subject's degree of belief as measured by the instrument. The balanced split point was placed at 20 points and Table 1 provides the results of a two-tailed t -test comparing gain scores by belief score groups split at 20 points. Those who had a high belief in the mental practice technique had a mean of 110.19 points on the pre-test compared to those with low belief in the technique, who posted a mean score of 113.33. Conversely, the "believers" scored well above the "non-believers" on the post-test, 211.43 and 171.93 respectively, for a gain score difference of 42.63 points. A line chart of the relationship between these two groups is provided in Figure 4.

Qualitative findings. In semi-structured interviews the treatment group subjects felt the imagery was beneficial in proportion to the level of belief in the technique and the amount of personal effort put into the homework. Once again this rather dramatic difference was statistically significant, and the practical difference to the subjects in this study was clear. Many of the treatment group subjects expressed initial skepticism about mental imagery but stated they were willing to at least give the technique a try. Less than ten percent of the group remained entirely skeptical through the end of the study. One subject who quit the treatment group in a pilot study and subsequently failed the first state-mandated marksmanship test, requested to return to the treatment in a follow-up group (not included in this study). Afterwards he stated he felt the mental practice was a major factor in his not only passing the marksmanship test, but scoring high enough to obtain a marksmanship badge. The participants in this study generally found their belief growing as the study and their training progressed. Nobody manifested a belief profile that went from strong to weak or no belief in the effectiveness of mental practice Some of the participants stated they thought the technique worked simply by requiring one to think about shooting more often when not at the range. Other individuals thought the technique had value in proportion to how much one believed in the effectiveness of the technique. Most agreed that belief in the technique, regardless of the mechanism, was a centrally important factor in how well it worked.


This study was able to determine quantitatively that the use of holistic imagery to enhance the acquisition of critical psychomotor (marksmanship) skills was an effective training augmentation. The treatment group had an average gain score more than thirty points higher than the control group. The difference between the treatment and control groups was statistically significant and, in the real world of police combat, may indeed be of great practical importance. Observing these practical differences between groups were among the most important findings in this study.

Determining the overall effect of mental practice between the treatment and the control groups was the focus of this study. This study clearly shows that the application of mental practice to the marksmanship task was effective. It was observed that certain groups of individuals within the treatment and control groups posted very large gain scores. As with many other studies, the larger gain scores were generally posted by those individuals who had low scores on the pre-test. Incrementally smaller gain scores were posted by those who scored relatively well on the pre-test. The marksmanship test itself proved capable of discerning small improvements in the experienced shooters without posing an impossible task for the novices. This has important implications for other work-related education and training.

Mental practice has the potential for expanding occupational training beyond the limits of the classroom or shop. The technique can be applied in virtually all construction and mechanics classes where the students can mentally design, plan, assemble, or operate structures and machinery. In addition, occupations requiring detailed knowledge of processes and work flow can benefit from mental practice. Individuals can mentally walk through the steps, visualizing virtually infinite detail of spatial orientation, joining, fastening, wiring, splicing, and tooling. For machinists the technique could save numerous projects from unnecessary costs where machining steps are carefully examined mentally to produce the proper result with the fewest number of individual operations. In those areas where the risk factor is high (e.g., nuclear power plant operations and airline piloting), mental practice can extend the benefit of expensive and hard-to-schedule simulator time. Mental practice has the advantage of linking knowledge to actions and examining the details and nuances of the activity at any point during the mental simulation. Like a video game, mental practice allows the participant to stop the action to assess what has happened, what is currently happening, what will happen next, and why. During actual experiences and during simulations there can be little or no time for such reflection and analysis. The key is to ensure that the mental imagery is vivid, accurate, and comprehensive.

The guided imagery training sessions were well received by the treatment group. In any application of this technique it is critically important to convince the trainees that mental practice is useful. The most logical place to accomplish this task is during the initial imagery training session. It was felt by the researcher and most of the participants that the initial imagery training session was critical for the success of the experiment. This is the trainer's main opportunity to provide instruction on what holistic imagery is and how it can be used effectively in relation to the training at hand. Once trainees leave this session they must understand how to develop holistic mental images and how to incorporate them into their own mental practice scenarios.

Concerning the self-directed holistic imagery sessions, the majority of subjects reported difficulties in finding the time or place to do the homework. Many reported interruptions from control group roommates, televisions, and other uncontrollable distractions. Important gain score differences were noted with those who engaged in more than 40 minutes of homework during this investigation and those who did not. In a more traditional instructional setting these concerns may be mitigated by the trainees' having their own abodes and perhaps exercising somewhat more control over the environment for at least a minimum amount of time. Most of the treatment group trainees looked back on the experience and expressed a desire to have done more of the homework. In other occupational skills areas it may be of further benefit to suggest expanding this homework to supplemental texts or other reading assignments. A suggestion to stop reading occasionally, close one's eyes, and visualize a component or mentally practice a procedure may prove quite beneficial. In the present study this traditional homework element was totally absent from the curriculum. That traditional text-based homework may be present in numerous industrial and occupational education courses can give structure and focus to any self-directed mental practice sessions.

The treatment group had a positive post treatment belief in the efficacy of the mental practice technique. Most entered the study with a skeptical attitude about the technique, and just as many convinced themselves during the first training session of its potential worth. Those who registered the largest degree of belief in the study outpaced their non-believing counterparts on the post-test and gain score measurements. Examining sub-groups of high and low marksmanship ability (as determined by the pre-test) under both experimental conditions revealed statistically significant differences in gain scores between the low and high marksmanship ability treatment and control groups. This and other studies have indicated that mental practice is most beneficial when combined with physical practice. One of the theories centers on the need to physically prove what you think you can do. In this experiment, belief was a state of mind first formed in the realm of possibility and then nurtured through continued observable physical successes and improvements over a period of days and weeks. The participants in this study generally found their belief growing as the study and their training progressed. This translates into a necessity to provide actual practice in occupationally oriented techniques over a period of time. Skill building, especially in the area of fine psychomotor skills, can be time consuming. The success of this study encourages one to experiment with mental practice as a method for accelerating, not merely enhancing training. If the skill is a complex industrial task, it may be very effective to utilize mental practice in the instructional setting both to brief before the actual performance of the task, and de-brief after the task is completed. A virtually infinite number of "What-if …?" scenarios could be developed for these sessions, limited only by the actual variables inherent in the process and the imagination of the participant or instructor.

Actively seeking out the observations and impressions of the class proved to be a most profitable aspect of this study. Given the generally conservative nature of police officers, it was gratifying to find the subjects so open and willing to try something new and outside the mainstream. Even the subjects in the control group who were unable to benefit personally from the experiment voiced an appreciation for the study and the potential benefits that could accrue to future classes. There was a good deal of cooperation, and in the guided imagery sessions the treatment group subjects took on the task with a level of seriousness and concentration required to make the treatment effective. This is an important attitude to inculcate in students who will be requested or expected to use mental practice during training. Once efficacy can be proven through occupationally or skill-specific empirical studies, convincing students to take it seriously and use it routinely will become somewhat less problematic.

The techniques incorporated in this experiment were a compilation of elements from numerous previous studies that had mixed results. Previous studies utilized tasks that had a low cognitive component or a task that required only gross motor movements and were found not suitable for the intervention. Others used tests that failed to discriminate adequately between performers or used measures that were too inherently subjective. A few studies produced negative results by providing all imagery training at one time, while others failed to provide initial imagery training. Utilizing protocols from expert performers provided a model for the novices to follow during the guided mental practice sessions and gave them a guide or loose format for constructing their own self-directed mental practice scenarios. Incorporating mental practice into a curriculum requires more than merely telling students to close their eyes and imagine. People differ on innate imagery ability, and students at early stages in skill acquisition may not yet be fully cognizant of all the nuances of a skill or technique to adequately or accurately visualize the process and conduct effective mental practice. A perfected model of performance must be presented initially and repeatedly to ensure that students will be able to accurately reproduce the process in their minds.

The procedures in this study can be used to incorporate mental practice into almost any industrial or occupational training program. The applications range from working-out research and development problems to design tasks to troubleshooting. In all of these areas practitioners have discussed using mental imagery and mental practice to assist in critical decision-making and mentally viewing the results before any overt action is taken. Mental practice may be an effective method for incorporating critical thinking into a program and may be specifically beneficial with those students who are more action-oriented in their learning styles.

Recommendations for Practice

Mental practice should be utilized to enhance physical training regimens, to learn complex psychomotor job skills, bolster self awareness or efficacy, or merely to focus thinking on complex problems. Further, visualization techniques have been shown by other studies to be effective in a variety of target sports as well as activities with complex cognitive components. The author readily admits that the concept of mental practice may be difficult to accept as an effective training tool, but too much evidence exists in support of the technique to dismiss it out of hand. The evidence gathered by this study is compelling. Working with recognized experts in a skill area and incorporating the features of this and other studies may very well produce effective mental practice adjuncts to traditional training. The experience of numerous researchers over a period of decades indicates that, at worst, mental practice will not be of any significant benefit and, unless specifically designed to do so, does no harm. Good instructional design on a foundation of expert models, provided over a period of time are the essential elements for success with all training and education, including mental practice interventions. To fine-tune any effort to incorporate mental practice into a program, starting with a small group to test methodology and efficacy may be prudent.

Recommendations For Future Research

The initial holistic imagery training session was critical in giving the subjects the proper method for engaging in and utilizing holistic imagery. Stressing the self-directed imagery training sessions (homework) more in the initial training session is viewed as an important factor to emphasize in replication. During any protracted break in training the instructor should make contact with the trainees on a regular basis to encourage the continuation of self-directed imagery sessions. The use of guided imagery tapes during self-directed sessions may be worth exploring, keeping in mind that the subjects here enjoyed the flexibility of creating their own scenarios.

Making contact with the students while they are engaged in the actual physical activity to encourage them to remember the physical sights, sounds, and sensations was seen as a valuable addition to the procedures used in this experiment. The VMIQ test should be investigated further. Administering the VMIQ and then giving initial holistic imagery training to a random sample and none to a control group may prove the supposition that the initial imagery training session equalized the imagery ability of all treatment group members (what it was intended to do) and prevented any differences in the gain scores between imagery ability groups.

There are indications that age, experience, motivation, and a number of other factors may play a part in moderating or enhancing the effect of imagery training. These factors should be examined during any replication of this study. In addition, the mental practice technique should be applied in an experimental setting to other areas of psychomotor skill acquisition classes to determine if the technique is an effective intervention for those skills.

There have been a number of innovative techniques for accelerating and enhancing learning. Among those that have shown promise in empirical studies, mental practice stands out as having great potential while remaining an essentially low-cost, or cost-free intervention. The relative dearth of programs incorporating mental practice indicates where we may profitably apply some effort to obtain more rapid and comprehensive student learning. The variety of ways in which to include this training and the occupational skills training that could benefit from it are limited only by the reader's imagination.


Whetstone is Assistant Professor, Department of Justice Administration, College of Arts & Sciences, University of Louisville, Louisville, Kentucky.


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