It used to be thought that the human brain was essentially a static organ, but today we know that through a physical process called plasticity the brain actually changes and reorganizes neural pathways based on new experiences. If you learn something new, your brain will create new physical pathways. If you forget something you once knew, the pathways will have degraded.
One of the most powerful findings is that visualization affects brain plasticity nearly as much as doing the actual activity. In the book The Brain That Changes Itself, Norman Doidge writes:
One reason we can change our brains simply by imagining is that, from a neuro-scientific point of view, imagining an act and doing it are not as different as they sound. When people close their eyes and visualize a simple object, such as the letter A, the primary visual cortex lights up, just as it would if the subjects were actually looking at the letter A. Brain scans show that in action and imagination, many parts of the brain are activated. That is why visualizing can improve performance.
Doidge cites a study in which one group practiced finger strengthening exercises, while the other group visualized doing the exercises. After four weeks, the group doing the exercises increased their strength by 30%. The group visualizing the strengthening exercises increased by 22%. That means the visualizing group got over 60% of the benefits of training! During these imaginary contractions, the neurons responsible for stringing together sequences of instructions for movements are activated and strengthened, resulting in increased strength when the muscles are contracted.
This has profound implications for those of us who do Jiu Jitsu because it allows us to improve when we are off the mat. Most of us train physically only a few hours a week. And occasionally we must take time off due to injuries or other commitments. But if we get much of the benefit of physical training just by visualizing it means we can accelerate our development quite dramatically with zero wear and tear on our body.
I’ve experienced the benefits of visualization throughout my Jiu Jitsu career, so I can attest that it works. The key is applying it consistently. For example, after going to class, spend time visualizing the techniques that were taught. Or if you watch an instructional video, pause after each technique and spend several minutes drilling it mentally.
No, visualizing is not as beneficial as live training; what it lacks is the feedback and resistance that an opponent gives us. But it can certainly serve as an effective training enhancement and accelerator. The Soviets pioneered sports visualization in the 1970’s, and since then there has been much empirical evidence that it works. Today we have the science to understand how it works.
If you are serious about your progress, consider adding visualization to your training.