According to a new study in the Journal of Motor Behavior, if you’re trying to improve performance, painting a mental picture of the end goal is more helpful than step-by-step coaching on how to execute the task. When asked to draw complex images, researchers found that participants had more accurate drawings when the object was described first as opposed to following instructions for what movements to make with the pen.
This idea can be applied to fitness as well. When learning something new, whether it's artistic or physical, you perform better when you can envision an overview of specific steps and have the freedom to intuit the split-second reactions, says Warren Mansell, Ph.D., professor in clinical psychology at the University of Manchester in England. For example, think about learning to walk on a tightrope. Someone can tell you exactly what to do, such as keep your eyes in a fixed spot and hold your arms out wide. But the secret to not falling is in adjusting your muscles constantly to achieve balance—knowing how high your arms should be, how much pressure should be on the inside of your foot. Learning a physical skill requires an internal sense of what feels right. That's why a mental image of the outcome (yourself walking across that rope) can help shape perception and allow you to unconsciously alter your muscle forces in a way that results in a more successful end result, explains Mansell.
If you’re trying to learn a challenging new exercise, like a Turkish get-up, form a solid mental image of what the full action looks like first. Have a trainer demo the move or look for expert examples online. In a group fitness class, pay attention when the instructor demonstrates a full rep. With that visual in mind, still listen to the step-by-step instructions, but focus primarily on allowing your body to follow its instincts on how to execute the words.