In these cases, the visual feedback the patient receives from the movements of the character representing him on screen replaces muscle feedback. Through trial and error, the patient learns to connect neurons previously used to move his arms to the video-game character.
As an athlete wishing to swim better, you can exploit the plasticity and independence of your brain's motor centers, as highlighted by the above-described medical example, by connecting your freestyle swimming programs to images of perfect swim technique as seen in others.
All you have to do is gather some concrete and detailed images of the technique elements you covet and picture your body performing these movements for a few minutes each day while sitting or lying quietly with your eyes closed. Be sure to imagine the feel of swimming in this manner, as well. In fact, the more detailed and real you can make your visualization, the more effective it is likely to be. Throw in the smell of chlorine, if you can.
Studying the Power of the Mind
Perhaps all of this sounds like hocus pocus, but it's not. A number of studies have proven the capability of visualization to improve motor-skill performance beyond the level that can be achieved through physical practice alone.
For example, in one study subjects were challenged to toss a ping-pong ball at a target from a cup affixed to the crook of the elbow. Half the subjects practiced the skill only physically, while the other half practiced it both physically and through visualization. On average, members of the latter group improved their aim more rapidly than the others. Field studies involving skills that actually matter to real athletes have produced similar results.
New research suggests that everyone practices a de facto form of visualization to learn new motor skills during sleep. In a study performed at Harvard Medical School, two groups of right-handed subjects practiced a rapid typing task with their left hand, at the end of which time they were tested for improvement in the skill. Then they waited 12 hours and were tested for further improvement in the task.
One group was tested at 10 a.m., following a practice session, and was retested at 10 p.m. the same day without any additional practice. The other group was tested at 10 p.m. and was retested at 10 a.m. the next morning, after sleeping, and without additional practice.
Members of the first group showed a 2-percent improvement when they were retested. Members of the second group, who slept between tests, showed a 20-percent improvement the next morning without any additional practice of the skill.
In light of these results, I would suggest that the best time and place to mentally practice your swimming is at night, in bed, as you are preparing for sleep. Not only do you have nothing better to do in this situation, but taking advantage of the opportunity in this manner will ensure that your freestyle stroke is at the top of your subconscious mind as you fall asleep, increasing the chances that you will wake up a better swimmer in the morning.
Active Expert Matt Fitzgerald is the author of several books on triathlon and running, including Brain Training for Runners, Runner's World Performance Nutrition for Runners (Rodale, 2005) and Triathlete Magazine's Essential Week-by-Week Training Guide (Warner, 2006).