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The Value of Visualization in Martial Arts Training

The Value of Visualization in Martial Arts Training“How do you get to Carnegie Hall?”
“Practice, practice, practice.”

This is a classic joke that points to the need for practice to achieve mastery. But is pure physical practice the most efficient and effective way to improve in the martial arts? Studies on the use of visualization as a part of physical skills training suggests that simply practicing may not necessarily be the most efficient way to “get to Carnegie Hall”.

A study made by Research Quarterly took a close look at the effects of mental practice on improving skill in sinking basketball free throws (as written about in Dr. Maxwell Maltz’s book, New Psycho-Cybernetics). Here’s what happened (excerpted from Maltz’s book):

One group of students actually practiced throwing the ball every day for 20 days, and were scored on the first and last days. A second group was scored on the first and last days, and engaged in no sort of practice in between. A third group was scored on the first day, then spent 20 minutes a day, imagining that they were throwing the ball at the goal. When they missed, they imagined that they corrected their aim accordingly.

The first group, which actually practiced…, improved in scoring 24%.
The second group, which had no practice, showed no improvement.
The third group, which practiced only in their imagination, improved in scoring 23%.

This experiment has been widely reported and referenced, and since repeated at many universities over the years.

In one of the most well-known studies on creative visualization in sports, Russian scientists compared four groups of Olympic athletes in terms of their training schedules (as described in Karate Of Okinawa: Building Warrior Spirit by Robert Scaglione):

Group 1 = 100% physical training;
Group 2 – 75% physical training with 25% mental training;
Group 3 – 50% physical training with 50% mental training;
Group 4 – 25% physical training with 75% mental training.

Group 4, with 75% of their time devoted to mental training, performed the best.

Applying Visualization Training in the Martial Arts

The above studies suggest that visualization isn’t just something you should do when it’s not practical to train techniques physically, though this is a also great reason to add this form of training to your overall regimen. After all, sometimes you need to give your body a break, recover from illness or injury, don’t have appropriate training partners to practice, or simply have other obligations that keep you from training physically. Here are a few ways you can apply visualization to your martial arts training:

1. Memory Practice. Some katas or training sequences require that you remember a series of moves. You can use visualization to go over the moves in your head. While you’re committing the sequence to memory, it can be handy to have a book, video, or simply your own textual description to refer to when you need to jog your memory.

2. Technical Improvement. If you’re trying to improve your technique for a particular move, it is useful to visualize yourself doing the technique perfectly in your mind. Try applying some of the same training techniques you would use in physical practice as you would in mental practice, like those I described in my post, 3 Methods for Learning Martial Arts More Efficiently.

3. Seeing Yourself Succeed. Positive psychology and the belief that you will “win” in a self-defense or competition scenario affects they way you perform. If you don’t believe you can win, you’ll do things that serve to confirm that conclusion in reality. This is why police officers are encouraged to not only visualize various combat scenarios that they might be confronted with, but to do so in ways that end in their succeeding to defend themselves and take control of the situation. This can be applied in lots of other contexts too, like seeing yourself defeat a difficult opponent in competition or training, pulling off a technique you’ve been having difficulty with, or completing high stress training exercises with ease (like multiple attacker defense, weapon defense, etc.)

Do you use visualization training as part of your martial arts training regime? If so, how? Have you found it beneficial? Please share your thoughts in the comments. 🙂

Comments (7)

7 thoughts on “The Value of Visualization in Martial Arts Training

  1. In our dojo, students receive sheets before testing for each belt. These sheets detail everything that will be on the test for the next belt level. When we get the sheets we know that we will be testing fairly soon. Every time I start to work on a new belt level, I find myself struggling to remember techniques from class to class. However, once I get my sheet, I tend to look over it outside of class and visualize techniques. Often within one or two classes after I start doing this I can remember all of my techniques and my form is improved. I hadn’t realized until I read this post that the visualization was likely what was making the difference.

    1. Our students use sheet lists in the same way, however, our sheets are available at all times both on our website for download and on our dojo wall for reference, so people can write notes, do visualization, etc. It’s nice to hear people using the same visualization techniques at other dojos. Thanks for sharing! 🙂

  2. So those old masters were not just contemplating their navels while meditating. Maybe they were just training in their mind.

  3. Wow, I didn’t realize visualization was so powerful. I’ll definitely be using that more in my day to day life.

    For jitsu, I haven’t necessarily done pure visualization. Usually what I do is practice strikes or entering and completing throws without an uke (similar to how senseis demonstrate a technique without a person there). I think the visualization will be a great addition to this.

    Do you have any articles on preparing for a grading? I took a “student skills” type of class that explained about how to properly cram for an exam and how having a ritual that you follow right before an exam is helpful (e.g. listen to your favourite song, have a specific breakfast…). Do you or Chris do anything like that before gradings?

  4. Visualisation. autosuggestion, esprit gagnant…des outils de la préparation et du conditionnement psychologique… très intéressante …merci

    Jeffrey L.

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