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Using Sport Psychology Skills to Improve Martial Arts Training:

Developing Focus

by Monica A. Frank, Ph.D.
"Top athletes in most sports are turning to sport psychologists to enhance their performance because the development of the mental skills has been shown to give an edge to those athletes."
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The following article is part of a series of articles that focus on the practical application of sport psychology skills to martial arts training. For a more in-depth look at the research upon which this article is based, please read: Performance Enhancement in the Martial Arts: A Review

Although martial arts derive from the eastern philosophical thinking which focuses on the importance of the combined interaction of the mind and body, many western martial artists tend to ignore the mental aspects of the art and only focus on the physical aspects.

Interestingly, other sports that were not so grounded in the metaphysical traditions seem to have more easily accepted the precepts of sport psychology and embraced the development of mental skills. It seems that more and more frequently, whenever a sporting event is on television, references are made to sport psychologists assisting the athletes. Top athletes in most sports are turning to sport psychologists to enhance their performance because the development of the mental skills has been shown to give an edge to those athletes.

Developing Focus Through Trial and Error is Inefficient

It is true that elite martial artists do develop the necessary mental skills required to be competitive; they achieve these skills mainly through trial and error. However, this is a very inefficient way to develop a skill. For instance, if a person was instructed to throw a sidekick but not instructed in the proper technique, eventually he/she may learn how to throw a sidekick by discovering all the ways that it did not work and refining the technique over time. However, this assumes the individual has the tenacity to continue to practice in the face of repeated failure and is not discouraged by the pummeling from better opponents who did not have to learn by trial and error. You can see how learning a physical skill in this way would be very inefficient and silly.

The same is true of mental skills. How many martial artists may have been able to compete at a higher level if only they had been taught the mental skills rather than being expected to somehow just develop the skills? I believe that many people drop out of the martial arts not because they have difficulty with the development of the physical skills but because they don’t know how to develop the mental skills.

Importance of Using a Method to Develop Focus

I frequently hear individuals being told to “focus” during sparring as if they have the ability to do so automatically. However, not everyone knows how to focus. The injunction to “focus” ignores the need to practice the skill so the fighter attempts to focus during the sparring match but otherwise does not engage in any mental practice. This would be like expecting someone to become an elite fighter by only practicing techniques during sparring matches but never practicing kicks or punches at any other time.

Factors That Interfere With Focus

Developing focus is an important but difficult skill. Frequently, fighters are distracted by countless internal and external events.

1) External Interference. External events can include environmental conditions such as the temperature of the room or the size of the ring or it can be the presence and comments of others around them.

2) Internal Interference. Internal events can be the physical condition of the individual such as lack of sleep or it can be a negative internal dialogue or it can be visualizing defeat rather than success.

All of these events can be anticipated and a plan can be developed to adequately handle each of them. However, as with physical skills, the plan needs to be practiced until the individual can automatically use the skills when required.

Techniques To Improve Focus

At this time, I will provide you with a couple of techniques which you can begin to incorporate into your daily practice routine. These techniques will provide the foundation upon which future articles will build. Again, to use a physical analogy, you don’t learn a jump-spinning sidekick until you have first learned how to effectively perform a sidekick.

1) Centering

The first technique is a centering technique. You will use this technique not only for improving focus but in the future I will describe ways to use it to improve physical skills. So it is important to concentrate on developing the basics of this skill.

Step 1. Quiet and Comfortable Environment. When initially practicing centering, find a quiet place where you will not be disturbed. Eventually, you will be able to do the centering even with many distractions around you, but at first it is better to have few distractions. Sit in a comfortable position with your arms and legs relaxed and not crossed so as to allow for good blood flow throughout your body.

Step 2. Relax Your Body. Close your eyes and begin to focus on your breathing. As you focus on your breathing, it should naturally begin to slow which will increase the relaxation in your body. Don’t try to force yourself to relax.

Step 3. Dealing With Distracting Thoughts. If distracting thoughts come into your mind, don’t try to get rid of them. The more you try to force relaxation or make demands of yourself to get rid of thoughts, the tenser you will become. The extraneous thoughts will eventually reduce as you become better at focusing.

Step 4. Find Your Center. Once you have become more relaxed and your breathing has slowed, begin to focus on finding your center. This can vary from person to person. It can be something visual such as a color or a special place or it can be a sensation such as a peacefulness emanating from within.

Step 5. Repeat Daily. Once you find this center, each time you practice this technique you will learn to more quickly access it and to experience it more fully. Practicing centering for even five or ten minutes a day can quickly enhance this skill. You will also benefit from the stress reduction that regular centering produces.

2) Thought Awareness

The second technique is thought awareness. So often people engage in negative self-talk but they aren’t even aware of the automatic negative thoughts that are occurring. Before you can learn to combat these thoughts and to engage in more effective self-talk, you need to be aware of the thoughts.

Too often people skip this step. They think that if they just start engaging in positive self-talk, they will be effectively fighting negative thinking. However, there are two major problems with this idea. If you are unaware of your specific self-talk and how it affects you, you may not be using the appropriate refutations of the self-talk. Also, if you are unrealistically positive in your self-talk, you are not going to believe what you tell yourself which will render the self-talk ineffective.

Step 1. Journal. A good method to develop thought awareness is to keep a journal. When you engage in competition or even practice, write down your experience. Ask yourself what you were feeling and what were your thoughts related to the feelings. For instance, if you were feeling frustrated, what were you thinking that led to the frustration? Try to allow these thoughts to just flow without censoring them; sometimes this is difficult because we often censor our negative thoughts and feelings so as to protect our egos. However, to learn to challenge these negative thoughts we have to first be aware of them.

Step 2. Identify Inaccurate Thoughts. The article "How Do We Change Irrational Thinking" shows you how to examine these thoughts and to challenge them so as to improve mental focus.

In the meantime, practice the techniques that I have described. The more you practice, the more you will build the foundation for other skills that will make you a more effective martial artist whether your interest is competitive sparring or katas or whether your interest is for personal achievement. Please feel free to comment or ask questions regarding this article so as to allow me to more fully explain this information in future responses.



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