2013. Vol.4, No.9A2, 1-6
Published Online September 2013 in SciRes (http://www.scirp.org/journal/psych) http://dx.doi.org/10.4236/psych.2013.49A2001
Copyright © 2013 SciRes. 1
Benefits of Combined Mental and Physical Training in Learning a
Complex Motor Skill in Basketball
Andrea Gaggioli, Luca Morganti, Maurizio Mondoni, Alessandro Antonietti
Università Cattolica del Sacro Cuore, Milano, Italy
Received June 28th, 2013; re vise d July 26th, 2013; accepted August 17th, 2013
Copyright © 2013 Andrea Gaggioli et al. This is an open access article distributed under the Creative Commons
Attribution License, which permits unrestricted use, distribution, and reproduction in any medium, provided the
original work is properly cited.
Previous research in sport psychology and rehabilitation suggests that training with motor imagery (men-
tal practice) is a potentially effective strategy to improve motor performance. The goal of the present
study was to investigate the benefits of combining mental and physical training in learning a complex
motor skill in basketball (the lay-up shot). To this end, sixty female university students were randomly as-
signed to either mental practice with physical training, or physical training alone. Motor performance was
assessed before and after a four-week training period. To assess motor learning performance, a video
analysis was carried out by three independent raters on the motor task before and after the training in both
conditions. Results showed that mental practice condition improved coordination and movement accuracy,
suggesting the potential effectiveness of this approach in training complex motor skills; furthermore,
findings indicate the feasibility and accuracy of using video-based analysis of movement in the assess-
ment of motor performance improvements.
Keywords: Motor Learning; Motor Imagery; Mental Practice; Sport Performance; Complex Motor Skills
Motor imagery refers to the mental simulation of a move-
ment without its physical execution. This process has been
widely used in combination with physical practice to improve
performance (for reviews see, Driskell, 1994; Allami et al.,
2007; Schuster et al., 2011). Athletes often deal with new skills
to be learned and in several circumstances an incorrect execu-
tion of a skill can result in a fault given to the athlete; in team
sports, an error by one player can affect the whole group (e.g.,
travelling in basketball is punished by stopping the game and
giving the ball to the opponent team). It has been proposed that
mental practice with motor imagery can enhance motor learning
process by allowing the explicit representation of different
stages of the action (Jeannerod & Decety, 1995; Sherwood &
Lee, 2003). More specifically, the mental representation of the
movement can be used during mental simulation to cue the
learner on temporal and spatial elements of the skill. By re-
hearsing this representation, the learner can use this information
to monitor and improve the physical performance of the skill
(Murphy & Jowdy, 1992). Starting from this background, the
main objective of this study was to investigate the efficacy of
mental practice to improve learning of a complex motor skill in
basketball. The hypothesis formulated is that supplementing
physical practice with mental practice improves specific com-
ponents of a complex motor skill. Although evidence in favour
of this hypothesis has been provided in several sports (Driskell
et al., 1994; Cumming & Williams, 2012), efficacy of mental
practice with motor imagery on a closed motor task (in this case,
lay-up shot) has been less investigated. Further, this study
aimed at evaluating the feasibility and accuracy of a new
methodology to assess motor learning performance in sports.
This approach is based on multiple raters’ evaluation of video-
recorded movements along different dimensions.
Mental Practice with Motor Imagery
Richardson (1967) refers to mental practice as “the mental
rehearsal of a task without any muscular movement” (in Olsson,
2008: p.133). Other recurring terms in the mental practice lit-
erature are “mental preparation” and “motor imagery”. Mental
preparation is a broad term describing all the mental techniques
that an athlete might use during training sessions, whereas
“motor imagery” is more specifically defined as the mental
rehearsal of a movement in absence of a gross muscular active-
tion (Jeannerod, 1994). A further distinction is made between
internal (or “kinaesthetic”) and external (or “visual”) imagery
(Lang, 1979). When taking an internal perspective, the subject
imagines to execute the task from a first-person, body-centered
frame of reference, by focusing on simulated perceptions and
sensations. In the external perspective, the movement is imag-
ined as if the subject were watching someone performing the
task, like in a movie. According to Jeannerod (1994), however,
only the internal perspective should be regarded as motor im-
agery, while the external perspective is more related to visual
imagery. In particular, internal motor imagery features a kin-
aesthetic component that helps the subject to really “feel” the
imagined movement, including not only the visual, but also the
spatial and kinaesthetic characteristics of the movement. Al-
though no real movement is performed during an imagery task,
motor imagery and physical execution are characterized by
common functional features. For example, the time taken to
A. GAGGIOLI ET AL.
Copyright © 2013 SciRes.
imagine the movement is correlated with the time needed to
actually execute it (Decety et al., 1989): the link between motor
imagery duration and actual motor action duration is also
maintained following specific training aimed at improving the
speed of the execution (Louis et al., 2008). Furthermore, the
imagination of effortful action activates similar physiological
changes to the actual execution of movements (e.g., increase in
heart and respiratory rates; Decety et al., 1991). There is also
evidence that physical constraints of the movement affect both
real and imagined execution (Roure et al., 1998).
At the neurological level, compelling evidence exists that the
imagination and the execution of the movement share common
neuronal substrates (Karni, 1995; Jackson, 2003; Miller, 2010).
Drawing on this compelling evidence of the functional and
neurophysiological relationship between imagined and actual
movements, several authors have proposed mental practice with
motor imagery as an effective strategy to improve motor learn-
ing (Feltz & Landers, 1983; Driskell et al., 1994; Guillot &
Collet, 2008; Schuster et al., 2011). The efficacy of this ap-
proach in improving performance of motor function has also
been investigated in neurological rehabilitation in combination
with physiotherapy, with promising results (Lafleur et al., 2002;
Gaggioli et al., 2006; Sun et al., 2013).
Applications of Mental Pr actice with M otor Imagery
Mental practice with motor imagery has been applied in dif-
ferent sport disciplines, showing benefits in speed, performance
accuracy, muscle strength, movement dynamics, and motor
skill performance (for a review, see Taktek, 2004). The spe-
cialized literature provides also specific indications about how
motor imagery training can be optimized (Driskell et al., 1994).
As concerns the relative effectiveness of external and internal
(i.e. kinaesthetic) imagery in sport applications, Hardy and
Callow (1999) investigated this issue in karate. They found that
external imagery was more effective in task learning, whereas
internal imagery was more effective in athletes with greater
level of expertise, especially with tasks involving a complex
series of movements and different body parts (White & Hardy,
1995). Further, the efficacy of mental practice with motor im-
agery seems greater when it is applied to close as opposed to
open sport skills (Coelho, 2007). In sports involving closed
skills it is easier to figure out the real movement that will be
performed. In open sports, conversely, athletes often have to
deal with different factors that may prevent the correct execu-
tion of the task and affect the course of action. In general, most
of individual sports involve closed skills, whereas most team
sports involve open skills.
Starting from this background, the goal of the present study
was to test the effectiveness of combined mental and physical
practice against physical practice alone in learning a complex
motor task in basketball (lay-up shot). We selected the lay-up
shot because it has a well-coded structure and accuracy is very
important for its optimal execution. A mistake during the feet
tapping phase, for example, may cause a foul being called to
the player: each athlete has to learn the exact sequence and
execute the task by coordinating the movement of arms and
knees, rhythmically preparing the ending jump to the basket.
The lay-up shot is performed by leaping from below, laying the
ball up near the basket, and using one hand to bounce it off the
backboard and into the basket. Furthermore, the accuracy of the
movement can be measured quantitatively by focusing on se-
lected fe atures of the motor ta sk.
Material and Methods
Sixty female university students (M = 21.25, SD = 2.73)
volunteered to participate in the experiment: they all attended
the first year of the course in Motor Sciences at Università Cat-
tolica del Sacro Cuore in Milan, Italy. We decided to include
only female participants to have a homogeneous sample in
terms of gender. Participants were randomly assigned to either
one of two conditions: mental practice combined with conven-
tional physical training (MI) and physical training alone (C).
Ten students were excluded from the analysis because they did
not show up at the post-test (t2). The group that performed the
MI condition included 35 students (M = 21.2; SD = 2.77); the
control condition included 25 students (M = 21.3; SD = 2.73).
All participants were novice players and had not received pre-
vious training in lay-up shot technique. Participants received no
payment or other forms of compensation for taking part into the
research. Participants signed an informed consent module for
this study. The training protocol and the research design have
previously obtained the institutional approval of the Depart-
ment of Psychology of Università Cattolica del Sacro Cuore in
Imagery ability. The “Vividness of Movement Imagery
Questionnaire” (VMIQ: Isaac, Marks, & Russell, 1986) in the
Italian version adapted by Antonietti and Crespi (Antonietti &
Crespi, unpublished manuscript) was used to assess the partici-
pant's imagery ability. VMIQ is a 24-item questionnaire asking
participants to imagine movements and rate their ability to
imagine individual movements on a 5-point Likert scale rang-
ing from 1 (very hard to see) to 5 (very easy to see). The VMIQ
has been shown to have a good internal consistency for the
visual subscale (r = .95) and for the kinestetic subscale (r = .97),
with a test-re test c oe ffi ci ent over a 3-week period of r = .76 and
of r = .62 over a 2-week period (Eton et al., 1998). The VMIQ
has shown high (r = .81; Isaac et al., 1986) to moderate (r = .60;
Eton et al., 1998) correlations with the Vividness of Visual Im-
agery Questionnaire (VVIQ; Marks, 1973) but low correlations
with Movement Imagery Questionnaire (r = .58; Hall & Martin,
1997). No participants were excluded on the basis of their
VMIQ score (see Results section).
Lay-up shot. The lay-up shot performance was evaluated
through 5-point Likert scales (1 = very poor, 5 = very good),
which assessed five features of the movement: “Fluidity”, “Rhy-
thm”, “Coordination”, “Step Accuracy” and “Balance Landing”.
Higher values in “Fluidity” indicate a smooth movement,
without interruptions and variations in speed. “Rhythm” indi-
cates the presence of a rhythmic component in the required
steps of the motor sequence. “Coordination” indicates the
player’s ability to control and correctly move all the parts of the
body required by the task: specifically for the lay-up shot, co-
ordination between knees and arms is evaluated. “Step Accu-
racy” refers to the player’s ability alternating steps during the
execution of the movement, following the right timing and the
right sequence of feet hitting the floor: a balanced posture is
also required. Finally, “Balance Landing” focuses on the final
A. GAGGIOLI ET AL.
Copyright © 2013 SciRes. 3
phase of the movement, when the player has to keep the bal-
ance after the shot, so that the player can immediately take part
to the next action.
The motor imagery instructions script was encoded as Mp3
audio file and then stored on a compact disc: the audio track
lasted 74 seconds. The script traces the lay-up shot from an
internal perspective: the athlete was instructed to recollect the
real sensations of the movement. The script used for the ex-
periment was as follows:
“Imagine that you are on the basketball field with the
basket right in front of you. You receive the ball and hold
it in your hands. By holding it tight, you begin your
movement with a right foot step. Then you perform a
quick step by moving the left and then the right foot. You
feel the speed of your movement starting from feet and
spreading all along your body. The ball is firmly settled
on your body’s side far from a possible defender’s tackle.
The horizontal strength that moves you is now loaded on
the left foot that switches it vertical. You jump as high as
you can feel your body fly. You flex your right knee and
clearly feel the extended left leg lift off the floor just be-
fore the shot. You stare at the basket and complete the ac-
tion by shooting the ball through a wrist circular move-
ment, before landing with both feet on the court”.
Some key elements of the script helped participant’s work:
for example, each athlete was asked to imagine from an internal
perspective through the use of the second-person singular. This
was aimed at enhancing the athlete’s involvement in the task
and it can help him/her through a non-familiar kind of practice.
Furthermore, words have been chosen to let the participant feel
the movement like if he/she is performing it: the script is not
just a bare description of the correct movement.
The study consisted in three consecutive phases: pre-training,
training and post-training. In the pre-training phase, a baseline
measure was obtained by asking participants to execute five
lay-up shots (t1) while the experimenter video-recorded their
performance. In the following, training phase, players in the MI
group received a Mp3 file containing audio instructions which
were designed to facilitate mental rehearsal of the lay-up shot.
As suggested by previous research (Olsson, 2008), participants
were instructed to mentally practice three times a week. Each
mental practice session consisted of five repetitions and lasted
10 minutes for a total amount of 30 minutes per week. In order
to monitor compliance, participants were asked to fill a report
after each mental training session in which they described their
feelings during mental rehearsal.
Participants assigned to the control group received half-an-
hour physical training, two times per week for four weeks, to-
talizing four hours of physical training (the same amount of
physical training was received by participants assigned to the
MI group). In the post-training phase (t2), each participant per-
formed a second series of five lay-up shots and performance
was again videotaped by the experimenter. All participants
Participants performance was video-taped during the execu-
tion of the motor task before and after training. After, videos
were collected and post-produced to obtain individual clips for
each lay-out shot performed by participants. Next, these clips
were recorded in random order on a DVD. The DVD was sent
to three professional basketball trainers (all males, mean age =
41.5 years) who were asked to rate each single lay-out shot
included in the DVD (only once at time). The three judges had
extensive experience in training and evaluating young basket-
ball players and received no monetary or other form of com-
pensation for their evaluation. The DVD instructions included
no indication concerning the scope of the research or the type
of training that was received by participants. Evaluators pro-
vided their ratings on an Excel form, which was sent back per
email to the experim enter.
In order to test inter-rater agreement, Cronbach alpha values
were calculated: high consistency (values from .83 to .87)
emerged for an all the measures of the lay-up shot except for
“Balance Landing”, that met lower agreement (t1 = .65, t2
Table 1 reports the mean improvement (t2 - t1) for each
measure. The mental practice group showed greater improve-
ment in performance than the control group.
Five repeated-measures 2 (MI vs. C) X 2 (t1 vs. t2) ANOVAs
were computed to test the statistical significance of the differ-
ences observed in the two conditions. Results of the ANOVA
showed a significant effect of training condition on “Coordina-
tion” [F (1, 58) = 5.603, p < .05, η2 = .088] and an almost sig-
nificant effect of training on “Step Accuracy” [F (1, 58) = 3.724,
p = .059, η2 = .060], whereas the other three features of the
movement (“Fluidity”, “Rhythm” and “Balance Landing”) did
not significantly differ between the two conditions. Descriptive
statistics for “Coordination” and “Step Accuracy” are reported
in Table 2. Figure 1 shows the interaction effect between
Group and Time for “Coordination”.
Vividness of Movement Imagery Ques tionnaire
Further analyses have been conducted to assess any correla-
Mean impr ovement (t 2 - t1) on selected p erformance measures.
Accuracy Coordination Balance
MI0.24 0.25 0.34 0.35 0.26
C 0.11 0.12 0.03 0.09 0.18
Coordination and step accuracy (Mean and SD).
Coordination Step Accuracy
MI 2.85 (0.94)3.20 (0.86) 2.90 ( 1 .07) 3.24 (0.97)
C 2.53 (0.55)2.63 (0.64) 2.65 ( 0 .68) 2.68 (0.76)
A. GAGGIOLI ET AL.
Copyright © 2013 SciRes.
Coordination X time interaction.
tions between VMIQ scores and performance improvement: the
participants scored from 84 to 120, with a mean value on the
whole sample of 99.17. The sample was split into tertiles con-
sidering their imagery ability (VMIQ score), assessed before
training. Pearson correlation coefficients with performance scores
(the mean improvement between t1 and t2 for each features)
were calculated. No signif icant correlations were found.
Consistent with the main hypothesis of this study, findings
indicate that combined mental and physical practice can im-
prove performance of a closed sport task. These findings are
partially in line with those obtained by related studies investi-
gating motor imagery in basketball (Post et al., 2010; Lamirand
& Rainey, 1994; Savoy & Beitel, 1996). Guillot et al. (2009)
trained three attack movements with 10 national female bas-
ketball players: results showed that motor imagery improved
motor performance, although mental practice was not found
more effective than physical practice alone. Other research has
indicated that imagery efficacy in basketball is enhanced when
it is supported by visual cues (Hall & Erffmeyer, 1983) or it is
performed right before the match (Post et al., 2010). In the pre-
sent study, the lay-up shot technique was examined with respect
to several dimensions (“Fluidity”, “Rhyth m”, “Step Accura cy”,
“Coordination” and “Balance Landing”). Among these features,
“Balance Landing” was the only feature showing relatively low
agreement among judges. Since “Balance Landing” is a crucial
indicator of the relationship between the individual movement
and athlete’s ability to start the next team action, this is a cru-
cial feature to consider in future studies employing mental
practice in basketball. The results showed a significant im-
provement in “Coordination”, and in particular evaluators con-
sidered the coordination between arms and knees. This is a
difficult challenge for novices, since not only they must learn
different patterns of movement involving different body parts,
but they also have to synchronize them. The imagery instruc-
tions script provided by our training protocol helped novices
taking into account all the different parts of the task, and par-
ticularly how to associate them in order to perform an homo-
geneous movement. To our best knowledge, this is the first
study showing a positive effect of motor imagery on coordina-
tion in learning a complex motor skill in sport: however, similar
findings were obtained in the clinical context, in particular in
the application of motor imagery in developmental coordination
disorder (Wilson, 2002; Doussoulin & Rehbein, 2011). The
improvement observed in Step Accuracy, although close to
significance, deserves also a comment. This feature is directly
linked to the cognitive dimension of motor learning: the main
challenge for an athlete learning the lay-up shot is represented
by the acquisition of the right sequence of steps, whose diffi-
culty is high because the final performance must be very quick.
Once again, the imagery script guided the athlete to take into
account that the three steps required are not only an abstract
sequence nor simply a series of rules to follow. The perceptions
recalled through the imagery script allowed the athlete to feel
and consider the lay-up shot as the best and fastest way to reach
the basket efficiently. The imagery script was rehearsed from
an internal viewpoint, so that the participant was able to learn
both the correct execution and the bodily sensations and feel-
ings, i.e. the shift of body’s weight while performing the task.
Giving them a detailed script they could focus on, athletes bet-
ter understood the sequence as a pattern that makes sense to the
Secondly, we have introduced a novel methodology for eva-
luation of the motor skill performance, based on the analysis of
the video-tapes of the target movement. Recent studies have
attempted to assess motor imagery effects through self-reported
measures, like the Standardized Basic and Combined Move-
ments Scale (Dossoulin & Rehbein, 2011) or the Sport Imagery
Questionnaire (Hall et al., 1998). These studies aim at identify-
ing the role of imagery training in improving psychological
issues like self or collective efficacy (Shearer et al., 2009) or
the imagery ability itself (Cumming et al., 2001). Other studies
analyze the outcome from a mathematical perspective with a
specific parametric analysis of distances and angles of the
movements, e.g. in golf (Smith et al., 2008) and high jump
(Olsson et al., 2008). A small number of researches in sport
assess the final score of the movement or the number of suc-
cessful attempts (Peynircioglu et al., 2000; Ploszay et al., 2006).
However, we propose that video-analysis performed by inde-
pendent raters represents a way of assessing motor performance
which may reduce some of the bias usually associated with
self-reports. This methodology allowed us to rate directly the
performance in a simple way, besides the results highlight the
specific features enhanced by the protocol instead of a general
However, it should be mentioned that this study had several
limitations. First, the sample involved only female participants,
limiting the generalizability of findings. Further, the sample
included only students; therefore it is not clear to which extent
these findings are also applicable to athletes.
A future goal is to investigate how to incorporate this newly-
designed imagery protocol in the training program of a team.
Our training could be specifically addressed to the novices
showing greater difficulties in performing a synchronized move-
ment. For example, a coach could identify the specific strengths
and weaknesses of each athlete, e.g., lack of coordination, to
offer them specific motor imagery training, empowering the
physical one practiced during team sessions with the help of a
A. GAGGIOLI ET AL.
Copyright © 2013 SciRes. 5
sport psychologist (or just scheduled by a specialist and then
performed autonomously by the athlete). Future studies should
also aim to investigate the real efficacy of mental training with
younger athletes (Munroe-Chandler, 2007; Parker et al. 2009),
taking into account also their ability of performing an imagery
protocol based on internal perspective (Parker, 2011).
We wish to thank Michele Moscardin for registering the au-
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