Coming from a traditional martial arts background myself, I’ve always been taught that mental focus is the primary attribute for a martial artist to achieve. Only when this is accomplished will martial skill really begin to flourish.
And if you think about it, it makes sense.
Most martial arts are designed for life or death encounters or high level sporting encounters where you will get hurt. Mental focus is of absolute importance and self doubt is more dangerous than any enemy. It’s small wonder then that meditative practices are integral to the martial arts training and lifestyle.
As is visualisation.
This isn’t just limited to the traditional arts either. Visualisation in particular is becoming more commonly used in the MMA circles and in other high level sporting events.
A great example is that of the bob sled in the winter Olympics. If you haven;t seen it, you must have seen the movie Cool Runnings.
Checkout the bath scene at 55seconds into the trailer. Derice, as the driver is constantly going over the track in his head, in another scene he’s studying photo’s of each turn and mimicking the movement through it. End result, in his mind he has completed hundreds of successful runs in the sled, which results in and actual physical performance that matches it.
This isn’t just movie hokum. It’s a common tactic used by all the bob sled / luge athletes as to run the track over and over is time consuming, dangerous and costly. The drivers train in their heads, much like a martial artists performs a kata or a golfer does a few mock putts before actually lining up on the ball.
Visualisation is a very powerful tool in your tool box. This is how Jack Parker used to tell us when we were young, up coming Karate-Ka:
“Any time your not doing anything, think about your karate, run the kata through in your head. It doesn’t matter where, do it on the bus, do it on the toilet, any time you have a few minutes to yourself.”
And that’s the key. Frequent repetition. The mind won’t fatigue like the body will, so we can practice a lift or a spot kick or an osoto gari over and over without tiring, like we would if we were doing it for real. Yet we are still activating the neural pathways, we are still feeling the emotion, we are still getting a positive training result.
But what about the nerves?
How do way stay calm enough to carry out the mental and physical training?
This is where breath control comes into play.
Breath Control is a central feature in many martial arts
The Asian Martial arts put forward the following theory:
As the breath falls under both conscious AND unconscious control, we can use it as a bridge or a gateway to consciously control our unconscious functions.
What does that mean?
We breath unconsciously most of the time, it is a reflexive action. We continue to breath while we sleep at night, we even continue to breath when our opponent lands a successful knockout punch.
Yet we also have conscious control over our breath. We can choose to speed it up, slow it down and even stop it (for a short while).
The Martial Artists realised that through breath control we could also alter our state of mind, which scientists have measured with CAT scanners of a Buddhist monk, and even our heart rate. Yes, competent meditators have consciously stopped and restarted their heartbeat.
I don’t recommend you try that, but it shows what is potentially possible.
I use a few breathing/meditative practices that are extremely simple and very effective. I also use a few that are far more in depth than can be explained in a mere blog post, techniques that fall under the banner of Chi Gung as taught to me by Mark Rasmus.
Of the simple methods there are two I recommend. The first is the 100 method and is a common night time ritual for me and one I recommend to many of my athletes, especially on the run up to a major event.
It goes like this:
Every time you exhale, count. Simple eh? The aim is to count to 100. However, a more realistic aim is to repeatedly count to ten. Count each exhale in your head until you reach your target number, then repeat.
You will get distracted. Your mind will fire thoughts at you, very often your nervous demons will rear up at you in an attempt to drag you into a cycle of self doubt and adrenaline, potentially ruining your sleep patterns and reinforcing any doubts. As soon as you realise this is happening, stop and restart your counting at number 1. Do this every time you become attached to a thought.
I liken this brain activity to a TV that is left on in the background. You may be sat reading your book or writing something, but the flashing screen and incessant noise seems to draw you in and before you know it your sat watching some nonsense rather than dealing with the task at hand. The random thought flashing across your minds eye are just like this TV. Over time, you’ll learn to ignore the thoughts and simple count your breaths. With enough practice, the thoughts seem to stop coming, as if the TV had been switched off.
This will allow you to relax yourself and hopefully get a good nights rest. It’s also a helpful tool to employ prior to your warm up, or even on the journey to the big event.
The second method is the 4-4-8 method commonly used in Yoga. I like this for several reasons, one of which is that it has a positive training effect on your lungs and breathing mechanisms. As a teenager I remember a younger member of the Karate class, a lad who struggled with his asthma. Jack taught us all the 4-4-8 method and often practised it with us at the end of a class. This one lad recognised the value of it and ran with it. A few months later Jack related a story to me after talking to the boys father. They had recently been to the Doc to have his regular check up done and to monitor the asthma. During this check up the Doc takes a lung capacity test. The boys lung capacity had increased by around 33% or one third since his last check up several months earlier. It turned out, the lad had implemented a daily practice of the 4-4-8 since first learning it and had never had an asthma attack since.
That alone is enough to lend worth to this method, never mind the calming effect it has on the mind.
Here’s how it goes:
inhale for the count of 4, hold it for the same count, exhale for the count of 8. The numbers are arbitrary, but the pattern is important (dunno why, it just is), the pattern is always 1-1-2, the exhale is double the inhale and the hold.
As you progress, you can increase the numbers or simply count more slowly. Try it with a metronome to keep the count steady. Or if you’re out for a stroll, maybe walking the dog, count your steps (don’t do this near traffic or if it’s your first time experimenting)
Silly poses – optional
Do you need to sit in a certain pose? No. just get comfortable Do you need to omm and chant? No. Do you need scented candles? No. Does it have to be dark? No. All you need is a period of time where no one will disturb you. Everything else is window dressing and/or mumbo jumbo.
So there you have it, a complete guide to mental fortitude and focus.
The roots of all this, as I’ve mentioned, come though the martial arts systems I’ve been exposed to, but they can be and should be applied to whatever your sport or training practice may be. I even used some of it to keep focused while writing this article!
I talk about breath control for performance during my bodyweight workshops, the next one of which will be in Galway in February, details can be found here
The last thing I like to add is routine, something familiar on the day.
We’ve all heard about players going through specific routines prior to an event, our own Worlds Strongest Man competitor, James Fennelly never leaves for an event without his lucky green socks.
355kg for 11 reps, gotta be the socks!
With my guys I like them to use the same warm up routine every time they train. This routine then becomes a switch, a little island of familiarity before going out to perform. If we go through the routine of getting changed, then going through our standard warm up prior to anything new, it gives us a trigger to switch from day to day you to animal you. Setting up triggers and “anchors” is big in NLP circles, having a prematch routine that is the same is you normal pretraining routine can be your anchor, your switch.