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Visualization Training in Martial Arts

Visualization Training is simply mentally rehearsing a desired performance successfully. It has been utilized by Olympic champions and athletes for decades, including Canadian bobsledder Lyndon Rush; American freestyle skier and three-time Olympian Emily Cook; as well as Michael Phelps. It has an array of positive effects on actual physical performance, primarily because the mind has a hard time discerning well-conducted visualization from reality.

When visualizing an event, you activate the same neurons that fire together during physical practice, which helps reinforce good habits. Additionally, visualizing success in a stressful situation, or even just being cool under pressure, can help reduce performance anxiety during an actual event—or in our case, sparring or even a real fight!

One of the greatest benefits of visualization training, however, is that it can be done almost anywhere, at any time. It can be practiced any day of the week, and is particularly useful to do on your off days, as it will not effect your physical recovery time. It can be done in as little as 5-15 minutes, and can greatly improve your performance.

For martial arts practice, visualization can be utilized in several ways. The first is form rehearsal. By visualizing the proper execution of your forms, you’ll continue to wire your brain and body to perfect your technique. You can also try randomizing techniques, or visualize performing them to their fullest extent on an opponent. This is a fantastic way to review and catalogue all the techniques you have in your mind, and the various scenarios in which they might be used.

While some Olympians have had enough practice with these techniques to do them while performing daily activities, I recommend finding a quiet space, and dropping into a meditative state. Assume a comfortable position seated, or lying down, and put on a meditation timer. Take a few minutes to count your breaths or just follow your breathing. Once you’re settled, mentally place yourself in the location you wish to practice. If you’re practicing your forms, for example, you may want to envision the studio where you typically train.

It is important here that you attempt to recall as much detail as possible. How does the floor feel under your feet? What does it smell like? What is the lighting like? The more detail you can recreate in your mind, the more your brain will have trouble discerning this visualization from reality, and the more effective this practice will be. Once you feel grounded in the scene, recreate the emotional state you would like to be in. Feel confident, courageous; like you know this session is going to go well, or like you will have no problem overpowering your opponent.

Alternatively, if you want to practice overcoming anxiety, recall all the various details that might have made you nervous. Is your attacker bigger than you? Do you think he is faster, or more experienced? Does he have a weapon? Once you feel your heartrate rise, you can then practice bringing it back down—reminding yourself that you are in control of the situation. Remind yourself that you are more than capable of handling this.

Next, execute your practice for 5 to 10 minutes. If you experience failure at any point, rewind the event in your mind, and experience success instead, along with the emotions and bodily sensations that come with it. This is your mind. Things can go exactly as you dictate them, and dictating confidence and success will help you produce confidence and success in the real world.

When you are complete with your session, take a few deep breaths, pat yourself on the back for a job well done, and open your eyes! Congratulations, you’ve just become that much better at whatever it was you were practicing without even breaking a sweat.

Olympians typically run these visualizations every day, but even a few sessions like this per week can have incredible effects. Start small (perhaps with just one or two sessions for 5-10 minutes) and build your practice up (to 5-7 sessions for 10-15 mins). But no matter how much time you have to dedicate to it, be disciplined in your practice, and you’ll reap the benefits.

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