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
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
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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