Just because you’re trapped on a plane, that doesn’t mean you can’t work on your golf swing or rehearse your new salsa moves. According to Psychology Today, athletes have long used mental imagery to enhance their physical practice. Why? Research shows that going through the motions in your head – sinking a free-throw, hitting a home run, spiking a volleyball – can enhance performance just as well as, and sometimes even better than, actually working up a sweat.

In one study from Texas A&M, medical students learning to draw blood received 30 minutes of guided training. That was followed by either 30 minutes of additional hands-on training, or 30 minutes of guided mental practice. The results? The groups performed equally well – meaning the mental practice was just as effective as the hands-on practice! This was also true of students who were learning to suture. Erica Wohldmann, a psychologist from California State University in Northridge, says that mental rehearsal can be even better! How?   

Let’s say you practice your tennis backhand with a coach, but on your own, you do it incorrectly. Well, if you keep practicing the wrong movements, it can make it harder to re-learn the right technique later. With mental imagery, you can go through the motions of the swing without physically rehearsing the wrong form. In fact, you have a better chance at remembering the correct form, because you can imagine your coach showing you, and then mentally rehearse what she does. Then, when you pick up the actual racket, you’re likely to have a better backhand. Of course, Wohldmann says you do have to follow up with physical practice. You can’t be a star on the basketball court just by envisioning it. That said, if you want to perform better, visualize the results you want and you’re more likely to get them. As Wayne Gretsky once said, “The reason I’m so good at hockey is because I focus on where the puck is going to be.”