Black Belt –“Mental Training for Combat Sports” Column for December issue
By Dr. Randy Borum
“The possession of anything begins in the mind” – Bruce Lee
As a martial artist, you want to improve, right? Have you searched desperately for the “secret” to unlock your potential and take you game to the next level? Well….there is no secret…not really. But there are some proven strategies for boosting your performance. And I’m not just talking about training harder or practicing more. If you are looking for a new dimension to your training, you might consider working the mental side of your game.
Psychologists started studying sports behavior in the late 1800s to explore factors and conditions that affect performance. Any martial artist, boxer, or fighter who has ever competed or had to defend him or herself knows that victory requires more than good technique. Physical skills are necessary for successful performance. No question. But in a competitive or threatening environment, your ability to focus, to regulate your physiological arousal, and to manage your fears and self-doubts are critical.
Mental factors are equally important in your training. Learning to execute proper technique on a punch, kick, takedown or submission requires a foundation of neural pathways between your brain and your muscles. Mental practice – much like physical practice - can facilitate those pathways. You can practice and improve even when you are not in the gym or dojo. You can learn to get past sticking points in your mastery of a new move and enhance your ability apply it in different situations.
Applied sport psychology is a relatively new area of practice, but elite martial artists have practiced the fundamental principles and skills for centuries. Consider, for example, the following quotes from the legendary Bruce Lee, considered by many to be one of the greatest martial artists of all time:
“Do not be tense, just be ready, not thinking but not dreaming, not being set but being flexible. It is being "wholly" and quietly alive, aware and alert, ready for whatever may come.”
Lee is talking here about a martial artist’s ability to manage anxiety and to control one’s physiological arousal, particularly under pressure. He describes a particular state of mind and body that is optimal for his performance, but in reality, that peak state varies from one fighter to another. The “zone” – as some athlete’s call it – or state of “flow” is not necessarily the same for everyone. This means that fighters and martial artists must determine what fits for them, not just try to copy what works for others. And they must be able to alter that intensity by ramping up or calming down as necessary.
“Always be yourself, express yourself, have faith in yourself, do not go out and look for a successful personality and duplicate it.”
Having faith in oneself – Lee knew – is critical for successful performance. It is easy to know that you have learned a move, combination or technique, but have doubts about your ability to execute it effectively when you are under attack. In a match or fight many things can happen to undermine your confidence. But without confidence, you may find it difficult to follow a game plan, to use good technique and to make good decisions. Self-confidence, self-faith – or what psychologists call self-efficacy - is the cornerstone of making your mind work FOR you in motor skill performance.
“As you think, so shall you become.”
Our thoughts are both causes and consequences of our actions. Sometimes we try to tell ourselves what to think. At other times, thoughts – often negative thoughts – seem to intrude. Bruce Lee’s quote here is quite similar to a Biblical proverb: "as a man thinks in his heart, so is he" (Proverbs 3:27). The notion has been around for quite some time. If you are going to perform complex skills under pressure, you must learn how to eliminate thoughts that distract you and promote thoughts and self-talk that support your best performance.
"One great cause of failure is lack of concentration."
In a combat sport competition, it is easy to get distracted. Negative thoughts on the inside, your opponent and the environment on the outside, all compete for your attention. Even a brief loss of focus can mean the difference between victory and defeat. Lee underscored the point, calling it a “great cause of failure.” Martial artists and fighters must be able to direct their attention in the right way, where it is needed, at the right time for optimal performance.
“When performing the movements, always use your imagination. Picture your adversary attacking, and use Jeet Kune-Do techniques in response to this imagined attack.”
Mental imagery – or visualization – is one of the most powerful tools in a competitor’s arsenal. It can be used to develop motor skills, to self-monitor, and to prepare for competition. It combines the mental, emotional and physical elements of your performance. But there is more to effective imagery that just picturing your hand being raised at the end of a fight.
“A goal is not always meant to be reached, it often serves simply as something to aim at.”
As a masterful teacher, Bruce Lee realized that goals chart a course for success. Sport psychology research shows that challenging – but achievable - goals improve performance and produce results. Clear, measurable goals enhance motivation. Goals should not just be focused on an outcome – like winning - but also on performance and mastery of a particular skill.
As sport psychology researchers and martial art Masters have shown, arousal regulation, confidence building, positive self-talk, focus, mental imagery, and goal setting are some of the foundations of a fighter or martial artist’s mental game. What many don’t realize, however, is that these are all skills. Like any skills, some individuals have more natural talent than others, but almost every one can improve with practice. In the coming months, in this new Black Belt Magazine column, we will tackle these and other topics to help you take your martial art, competition, or fight game to the next level.