What surgeons can learn from athletes: mental practice in sports and surgery

J Surg Educ. 2014 Mar-Apr;71(2):262-9. doi: 10.1016/j.jsurg.2013.07.002. Epub 2013 Sep 26.


Background: Mental practice has been successfully applied in professional sports for skills acquisition and performance enhancement. The goals of this review are to describe the literature on mental practice within sport psychology and surgery and to explore how the specific principles of mental practice can be applied to the improvement of surgical performance-both in novice and expert surgeons.

Method: The authors reviewed the sports psychology, education, and surgery literatures through Medline, PubMed, PsycINFO, and Embase.

Results: In sports, mental practice is a valuable tool for optimizing existing motor skill sets once core competencies have been mastered. These techniques have been shown to be more advantageous when used by elite athletes. Within surgery, mental practice studies have focused on skill acquisition among novices with little study of how expert surgeons use it to optimize surgical preparation.

Conclusions: We propose that performance optimization and skills acquisition should be viewed as 2 separate domains of mental practice. Further understanding of this phenomenon has implications for changing how we teach and train not only novice surgeons but also how experienced surgeons continue to maintain their skills, acquire new ones, and excel in surgery.

Keywords: Medical Knowledge; Patient Care; Practice-Based Learning and Improvement; experts; imagery; mental practice; surgeons; surgical skills.

MeSH terms

  • Athletes*
  • Athletic Performance
  • Clinical Competence
  • General Surgery*
  • Humans
  • Imagery, Psychotherapy*
  • Physicians / psychology*
  • Psychomotor Performance
  • Sports / psychology