Martial Arts: A Mental Rehearsal For Success

In neuro-linguistic programming (NLP), they have a technique called Mental Rehearsal.  This is where we know that we have a particular situation coming up and we rehearse/visualise how we want it to go in our minds a number of times before the actual event.  It could be a grading or a competition.  Or it could be an everyday life event like a works meeting where we have to make a presentation or a job interview.

It is often said that we only use about 10% of our brains.  I think it would be more correct to say that we only consciously use 10%.  Our unconscious minds control many of our behaviours and automatic responses, but can be accessed with various techniques.  The strange thing about our unconscious minds is that it does not know the difference between what is real and what is imagined.  For example, have you ever been watching a scary film and found your heartbeat increasing or your breathing getting shallow and quick (effects of adrenalin).  Then the villain jumps out unexpectedly with a burst of dramatic music and nearly jump out of your seat.

Why did you react like that?  You know that you are safe in your home, watching the TV, on your sofa right?.  You know that it is just a film with actors so it’s not real, you know that the villain cannot hurt you in any way whatsoever.   Yet you still had a physical and emotional response!

Or should I say your conscious mind knows those things.  Your unconscious mind thinks it real, so your body reacts accordingly.  Then your conscious mind reminds you where you are and you calm down again.

This is just one example of how much the unconscious mind controls us without us even realising.  So if you can deliberately access the unconscious mind and use it in a positive way which helps you, then you have a very powerful tool.

Mental Rehearsal is using visualisation.  Of course as it is our visualisation we control the outcome, which (if we’re doing it right) will always be successful.  Having succeeded many times in our minds, when we go into the real event we have added confidence because we’ve already done it a number of times (and remember that our unconscious mind thinks that we’ve done it for real).

In our basics and even more so in our kata/forms/patterns, as well as practicing the physical techniques, we should be visualising taking on multiple assailants and winning.  Yes, there are many arguments about the realism and effectiveness of the applications (bunkai) to the movements.  That’s a topic I’ve discussed many times elsewhere.  But as we perform those movements with our bodies, we should be training our minds to expect many victories in many situations.

Now I’m not suggesting that if we perform a lot of kata that we can become cocky and happily take on a whole gang of would attackers because we’ve defeated multiple assailants in our minds many times before.  But kata with correct visualisation is a tool for focusing the mind and will so that they work in conjunction with your physical movements rather than undermining you with doubt and fear.  It will help you to develop an indomitable spirit.

It is similar in pre-arranged sparring routines.  Again there is a lot of argument over how practical these are and again that is not subject of this post.  But as with kata, alongside the physical techniques they provide a good mental training aspect too.  We don’t need to visualise as we do in kata as we actually have a real person facing us.  But we still get the chance to work the mind and put in full mental ferocity into our block/parry and counter.  When we get adept at it and can block/parry and counter accurately, it is also worth noting that the defender “wins” each encounter.  So our unconscious mind gets used to the idea that we always win when attacked and expects to keep getting this outcome, even if it is a bit messier in a real life situation.

It could be argued that if the defender is training to “win”, then is the attacker training to “lose”?  I would say not really as the attacker’s only real objective is to complete the technique to make the defender work.  This again the attacker usually succeeds at!  Pre-arranged sparring is primarily an exercise for the defender.

It has been said many times by many masters both from the past and modern day that fighting is more mental than physical; yet this is seldom explained in any depth.  The physical aspects are obvious.  Although many traditional martial arts methods are quite indirect and even impractical sometimes from a real combat point of view, they do contain many elements of mental preparation and expectation of success (mental rehearsal for success).

“In combat it is absolutely vital that the correct mental attitudes are adopted.  It will not be the most technically competent person that wins the fight but, more often than not, it will be the one with the strongest mind”.
From Ian Abernethy’s book :  Bunkai Jutsu The Practical Application Of Karate Kata (Chapter 2: Performing The Katas)

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