There’s an oft cited experiment by Australian psychologist Alan Richardson. The objective was to see if and to what extent visualization could improve sports performance.
Richardson tested three groups of twenty student basketball players shooting free throws and recorded their results. For the next 20 days, he had the first group practice free throws for twenty minutes each day. The second group spent 20 minutes each day visualizing themselves making free throws, without actually practicing. The third group was the control. They did no practicing or visualizing during the twenty day period.
On the twentieth day the three groups were tested again. The group that practiced every day improved their shooting percentage by 24 percent. The control group’s results were unchanged. The group that did no physical practice but merely visualized shooting free throws improved by 23 percent–nearly as much as the group that actually practiced.
In his paper about the experiment, Richardson wrote that best results occurred when the subject used their imagination to “feel” the ball in their hands, “hear” it bounce, and “see” it go through the hoop. The more vivid the experience, the more likely they were to improve.
When I was studying for the bar exam, I routinely visualized myself writing the exam. I pictured myself writing freely and easily, fully in command of the material. I even took a self-hypnosis class to help the process. I don’t know how much (or even if) this helped me pass the bar (the first time, thank you), but I remember going into the exam relaxed and confident.
Lawyers can use visualization to prepare for a speech, an interview, a trial, or a meeting with an important prospective client. If all it does is give you confidence, it’s worth it.
In the basketball experiment, we are asked to believe that visualizing alone provided improvement nearly equivalent to that achieved through actual practice. I understand that this was a test of a relatively simple activity and not on a par with studying for an exam or practicing a closing argument, but it is intriguing, isn’t it? It makes you wonder what else we could improve with the power of our imagination.
Most of what we do in our work probably can’t be improved by thoughts alone. I wasn’t about to go into the bar exam without studying and doing practice exams. But I’d sure like to know if my visualization contributed to my results in any material way beyond helping me relax.
Unfortunately, the basketball experiment wasn’t complete. In my view, there should have been a fourth group tested. This group would have been asked to both practice and visualize. What might those results have told us?
Today, my wife is reporting for jury duty. I’ve told her to visualize being excused early in the day. Of course I’ve also reminded her to emphasize her husband’s background. Hey, it couldn’t hurt.