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Using Sport Psychology Skills to Improve Martial Arts Training:
Setting Goals to Maximize Performance

by Monica A. Frank, Ph.D.
"By developing a set of specific goals and a plan for reaching those goals, athletes can more effectively use their practice time and even reduce the time required in practice to attain their goals."
The following article is the first in a series of articles that will 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.

Training “smart” is more important than the amount of daily practice. Too often an athlete believes that the more he or she practices, the more proficient he/she will become. However, this plan is not only ineffective, but it can also be detrimental to achieving the desired outcome. An athlete who practices frequently and hard without an overall plan will be more likely to suffer the effects of overtraining such as burn-out, exhaustion, and increased injuries rather than actually improving performance. By developing a set of specific goals and a plan for reaching those goals, athletes can more effectively use their practice time and even reduce the time required in practice to attain their goals. Obviously, this does not mean that the martial artist can achieve rank or win tournaments with little practice; it means that the athlete does not need to waste time through ineffective practice and through the harmful effects of overtraining.

Setting performance goals is beneficial for a number of reasons. In addition to improving the quality of practice, it reduces boredom and increases motivation. When the martial artist is able to observe progress towards a goal on a daily or weekly bais, he or she is more likely to remain interested in achieving that goal. If instead, he/she engages in routine practice towards a belt rank that is six months away, it is easier to become discouraged. In addition, goal setting helps the athlete know what is expected which allows for greater attention to a particular skill that needs to be developed. Thus, practice becomes more focused and efficient. Finally, setting realistic, achievable goals increases the athlete’s self-confidence which is crucial to the ultimate outcome of success. Self-confidence increases because his/her attitude regarding success becomes more positive as goals are accomplished.

This issue of goal-setting is especially important when developing complex skills such as required by sparring. Sparring is one of the most complex of athletic endeavors because it requires the development of numerous skills that must be smoothly integrated with one another to achieve a successful performance. In addition, it is an individual sport so there is no reliance on other team members. The martial artist needs to be completely committed to the outcome and able to see him/herself as capable of achieving that outcome. If all the intermediate goals can be viewed as leading progressively towards the final outcome, the martial artist can believe not only the possibility, but of the probability of success.

How to Set Goals

1) To set effective goals, the difference between performance-oriented goals and outcome-oriented goals must be understood. Performance-oriented goals which focus on achieving specific skills are more effective than outcome-oriented goals which focus on winning or achieving an outcome. Such goals are more effective because they are under the control of the athlete which improves problem-solving ability and increases persistence. In addition, the athlete becomes more likely to value learning over the risk of making mistakes. The outcome-oriented martial artist will try just hard enough to or achieve rank while trying to avoid the risk of error or loss. This prevents martial artists from truly challenging themselves to achieve their greatest potential. Outcome-oriented goals do have their place, however, in identifying what the martial artist ultimately wants to achieve such as obtaining the black belt or winning a tournament. However, the performance-oriented goals give him/her the steps to reach that goal.

2) The next step in goal setting is to assess the martial artist’s current skill level and to identify what specific skills need to be developed further to achieve the desired outcome. For instance, if the martial artist’s outcome-oriented goal is to win at a point-sparring tournament, he needs to determine what performance factors need to be improved. Through observing his performance of tape and getting feedback from others, he might determine that that he needs to throw faster, higher kicks.

3) Once the specific goal has been identified, the goal should then be stated in a positive, measurable way that is realistic, but challenging. For example: “My goal is to increase the height of my kicks by six inches.”

4) Target dates are then identified: “My goal is to increase the height of my kicks by six inches in the next six months. To do so, I will need to increase the height of my kicks by one inch a month.

5) The martial artist should then determine what are the methods to achieve this goal. For the above example, she might decide to increase flexibility training and to practice higher kicks on a target bag which allows her to measure the height.

6) As the martial artist works toward his goal, he should record his progress and share it with others. The process of sharing the goal and progress with others increases his commitment and allows others to give him encouragement.

7) Finally, the martial artist should have a reward system in place when goals are achieved. This encourages follow through and the development of future goals.

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