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)

Kata: Training Beyond Technique

Much is debated and demonstrated about the fighting applications within kata (patterns/forms), myself included.  But not too much is spoken about the mindset, or mental approach you should take when performing your kata.  Yes we all know that we should concentrate and focus, but beyond that . . . . what?

Whilst we are learning our kata, then obviously a certain amount of our concentration will be on making sure that we get the techniques and sequence correct.  With practice we should be able to perform our kata without having to think about them very much.  So now that we no longer have to think about the movements, what do we think about?  What’s for dinner?  Going for a drink afterwards?  Or how cool we look doing this kata without thinking about it?

Well my answer might surprise some people, especially as a large part of our training is about self development and making ourselves better people.  What I think you should do when you perform a kata that  you know well is to pour all you nastiness, malevolence, viciousness and malice into your kata.  That may sound strange from somebody who believes in self development as well as practicality, but please bear with me.

Real violence is nasty, malevolent, vicious and full of malice; and performing kata (or basics) is a mental rehearsal as well as a physical rehearsal.  Thugs may not have good technique, but they are used to “training” in the “adrenalin zone”. When you have to fight to defend yourself or your loved ones, then you are entering the thugs world of real violence and you have to be able to cope with it.  Adrenalin will effect your body, your perceptions and your ability to think. Your training should be real enough in your mind that you get a small adrenalin rush each time.  Whilst too much adrenalin can be unhealthy, a regular amount at low levels is fine, plus you become more immune to it’s negative effects after a while.  You will be able to remain calmer in a crisis.

Now some people may be concerned that training with this mindset may also train a thuggish mentality.  But as soon as you finish your kata, you step up into Yamae (finish position), you go back to calm.

We train ourselves to “switch on” quickly and “switch off” just as quickly.  If somebody attacks us, we do not want to freeze in shock (which happens even to high grade martial artists).  That said, if we successfully defend ourselves and incapacitate our attacker, we do not want to jump up and down on their prostrate body or perform River-Dance on their head.  We need to be able to stop and not be carried away in the heat of an unfamiliar moment.

As martial artists we need to know when to stop for  legal and even more importantly; for moral reasons.  We need to enter the world of vile malevolence when needed and exit it just as quickly when the job is done.  However, nasty the thug may be, we as martial artists should be able to show mercy once we overpower him/her.  It is part of the Yin & Yang of training and of our development.  Its about balance in our personality.

The only way to have little or no fear of violence is to be good at it.  I am not advocating that you act in a violent manner, but when you know that you can handle yourself in most situations, you project a confidence which most predators of the human world will recognise and they will be more likely to avoid you.  Please note that I say “most situations”, as there will always be someone more experienced or better armed then you.

Most human predators mirror the animal predators.  Think of the lion, king of the jungle.  They hunt in prides, but do they for the big muscular young bull buffalo with the great big horns.


They go for the old, the young, the weak, the one with the gammy leg that can’t run properly.  Basically, for predators its about finding an easy target.  For us training is about making you a hard target, physically and emotionally.  The big fit bull with the horns does not need to threaten the lions, the lions just know.  So it is when you walk with an air of confidence, the human predators just know.

But projecting true confidence is not just about how you walk or your posture.  It’s about knowing that you are prepared physically and mentally should a conflict make it necessary.  As Bruce Lee once said in his films, “the art of fighting without fighting”.

I heard of a study years ago where they got 3 groups and tested them at throwing balls through a basketball hoop.  After recording the results, they had one of the groups practice shooting the balls at the hoop, one of the groups not practice at all; and the third group just visualise throwing balls at the hoop.  Later they tested the three groups again.  The group that practiced improved by something like 24% (if I remember right).  The group that did not practice made no improvement at all.

The amazing thing though was that the group that just visualised throwing the balls improved dramatically, with about a 23% improvement.  Visualisation achieved almost as good a result as doing the real thing.  Therefore whilst practicing kata, using visualisations of the violence and malevolence of the situation can actually help you prepare for it more than most people give it credit for (even if you don’t fully understand the bunkai).  Although good technique is important, unless you are practicing primarily for competition it should not always be your main focus.  Funikoshi said that spirit is more important than technique and he primarily taught by kata rather than kumite (sparring).

This concept may be a bit new to some people.  Whether it’s new to you or not, please leave a comment below to tell me what you think, I’d like to hear from you.