How to Imagine More Effectively


We usually think of our imaginations as idea-fountains: wellsprings of creativity.

What’s interesting, though, is how often imagination is used by highly successful performers in their practice techniques. These people channel the fountain’s energy in a very particular way: they use their imagination to build a sensory template for the action they want to learn, speeding the learning process. They focus on pre-creating the feeling of a skill, projecting themselves inside an action so they can learn it faster and better.

Exhibit A: Wayne Rooney, Britain’s resident soccer genius. As this terrific article explains, Rooney spent much of his youth imagining as he practiced. He played in the dark, alone, inventing little games; imagined bricks as defenders; imagined street signs as goalposts. To this day, on the night before a game, he asks the equipment manager what color jersey his team will be wearing, so he can more vividly imagine himself going through game situations, over and over.

Rooney, famous for being a mumbly, half-literate lout, practically turns into a scientist/poet when he describes his technique: “You’re trying to put yourself in that moment and trying to prepare yourself, to have a ‘memory’ before the game,” he says. “You work out what decision is the best, and then if you get in that position in the game, that comes back to you. It’s basically stored in your mind.”

Exhibit B: Two people, paralyzed from the neck down, who have taught themselves to use a robotic arm to reach out and grab objects. A chip is implanted in the motor area of the brain which responds to the electrical firing patterns.

So how did they learn this? Simple: the patients were instructed to stare at the robot arm while they watched researchers manipulate it, and to imagine themselves controlling it — reaching, twisting, tilting, grabbing. Like Rooney, they stared at the skill, they imagined, and then they did it. One woman, who suffered a stroke 15 years ago, was able to control the arm to a phenomenal extent: she grasped a cup of coffee and brought it to her lips (and also brought the researchers to tears; here’s the video).

These cases and others like them indicate that we carry around powerful, built-in mental machinery (perhaps mirror neurons) that assists us in skill acquisition, when we use it properly. Let’s call this technique projection, and let’s name its basic qualities:

  • 1. It’s highly specific and detailed. You are imagining a single move (a chunk) in the deepest possible detail. The color of the jersey, the smell of the grass, the feeling of grasping the cup. It’s visualizing in sensory HD.
  • 2. It has two steps. First, you stare at the target skill until you’ve built it in your mind. Then you project yourself inside that skill, focusing on what it would feel like.
  • 3. It’s solitary. This isn’t something that’s done in groups, but alone, in quiet places, where you can operate without distraction.
  • 4. It’s used in combination with intensive practice. All the vivid projecting in the world doesn’t help until it’s combined with a lot of high-quality reps.

In our busy lives it’s tempting to spend our learning time in a frenzy of activity. Maybe it would be smarter to spend more time with our eyes closed.


PS – On a completely different topic: with the new book (Little Book of Talent) arriving in August, we’re now looking for folks who might be interested to read early versions and maybe even provide a cover blurb. Any suggestions? I’m particularly interested in locating influential people in the blogosphere – mom/parenting-bloggers? teacher-bloggers? — who might find the book useful for their audience. Write suggestions below, or email me directly at Thanks.

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7 Responses to “How to Imagine More Effectively”

  1. Bob Fisher says:

    You have put into words what I have experienced a number of times. As you mentioned, it only happens when practicing alone in a solitary setting. Once I can visualize in my ‘mind’s eye’ what I am trying to accomplish, down to the smallest detail, my skill level increases. It is not so much visualizing the end result as ‘seeing’ myself do it. Great post…

  2. Robnonstop says:

    In Psycho Cybernetics a book from the 60s by M.Maltz, a plastic surgeon interested in people’s self image, imagination is presented for various uses:

    In the chapter “Just imagine your sane” he explains how vividly imagining being like someone considered normal by mental patients and acting that way helps improve their condition.

    Artur Schnabel, world famous pianist, is quoted as saying he doesn’t enjoy practicing so he does very little actual playing and instead “play in his head” the entire piece.

    The basic premise of the book is that the human mind should consciously define a very specific imagined goal and will then automatically without much intervention steer towards that goal, always tweaking, correcting, failing less. Instead of trying to directly navigate to the goal, one should just make sure to imagine it vividly instead of worrying and thinking about failing, as that would replace the goal and make one navigate towards failure automatically. Hence the name Psycho Cybernetics.

    Many other stories are featured. It’s the first time I see the concept of conscious and subconscious thinking applied this practically to get better at art, music, sales etc. I think a salesman remade the book in recent years but I’d get the original instead unless you are interested specifically in sales.

  3. Tony Kees says:

    Been a distant follower and believer of ‘The Talent Code’. I coach youth soccer at high levels (ODP / Academy) and I have been a personal trainer to some of Illinois’ best players. I use a process that I call “Technical Edge”, where a player first rehearses footwork patterns at a moderate pace through cones in what I call ‘the wheel’, then puts himself on his ‘Technical Edge’ by performing at max speed and exertion – cutting and changing direction so radically that athleticism and ball control are severely compromised. These ‘bursts’ last about 4 seconds, with a 10 second rest and another bout, continuing for about 3 minutes before changing the pattern. The players are pushed to live on that edge where they can’t control the ball and are way out of their comfort zone. It’s not about making perfect runs through the wheel. It’s about bumping up against their physical limitations and living there as much as possible. When done constantly, Tech Edge training produces players that become more fluid, are cleaner and make fewer errors. Additionally, confidence soars! It’s a beautiful thing! I can send short video clips if you like.

  4. Tony Kees says:

    Apologies! Above description in wrong blog! Not much to do with imagery.

  5. John C says:

    My College Football coach use to tell us(the offensive linemen) to play the game in our head. He would tell us every Firday before we played on Saturday. He would convince us to put ourselves, in our mind, in every situation we could imagine. He encouraged us to do this so when the stuff hit the fan(and I promise you it was going to hit the fan at some point) we would be prepared and be able to handle it. We would be able to play through it and still execute our assignments. Being a high school coach, I have used this same approach with my teams. My baseball team and I have taken some tme to go through Brian Cains “Pride” Program and I have read several books from Ken Rivizza. They both talk about controlling the controllables. Attitude and Effort. Those are really the only things we control. So do them to your best. I feel like when I would play the game the night before in my head, My attitude and effort were always better. I could control my emotions and was able to play the game at the best of my ability.
    I think that is what is being described here. I know it works because I have experienced it first hand. I need to do a better job and getting my kids to use this mental imaginary to make us all better.
    On the Side Note, Being a school teacher and coach, I would love to reading the book and helping out with your quotes. Let me know if i can help.

  6. I have used your techniques and commented on them in my blog about teaching world languages. It has seemed to me that the very best ideas about improving and teaching and learning all coalesce at some point, so that what you are sharing coincides with some “heretical” techniques for learning languages. It’s actually possible to practice your language by imagining yourself speaking it in different situations.

    It would be an honor to read the book and provide potential blurbs. Let me know. I’m in Anchorage.

  7. John Paul Bocaya says:


    This is interesting, i just googled “i can imagine specific and detailed in everything that i want”, and this article came out.. i thought no body knew this kind of skill that i always wonderin if other people is like me..

    It became a habit to me since i was in grade school, i can imagine places i went, i mean the Whole Travel of going there.. everytime i go to places, i always like to be in the window side of the vehicle so i can see the views going there.. in details in my memory structures, signs people, etc. that i have saw the first time i travel, i can imagine it..

    So i remember the longest imagination of my travel last for about 7 hours, as the actual travel time going to that place.. After that run, my head aches for about 5 hours..

    I am now an architect, and this practice of imagination that im doin since childhood, is helping..

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