Fighter Performance Training For The Mind
Train Your Mind As Hard As You Train Your Body
Do you perform perfectly in the gym but have difficulty during competition? Do you get so nervous or over-anxious before the competition that it seems like you forget everything you have trained so hard for? Have you felt unprepared against an opponent you know you should confidently defeat? If so, then it’s time you start training your mind as hard as you train your body.
Mental training has been the defining factor that has separated the greatest fighters in the world from the rest of the pack. Most combat fighters know how to maximize training for their body, but how many know how to maximize training for their mind?
The answer falls into the category of sports psychology. Sports psychologists have developed a technique called “Mental Imagery” to help MMA Fighters optimize performance in training and, more importantly, during competition.
How Mental Imagery Works
There are a few theories that attempt to explain how mental imagery can improve performance.
The Psychoneuromuscular Theory
The first theory is called psychoneuromuscular theory (Jacobson, 1931). For instance, when we throw a left hook, our brain develops a specific nerve pattern to the appropriate muscles. According to the psycho-neuromuscular theory, our brain would generate the same specific left hook nerve pattern similar to when combat sports athletes imagine the movements without actually performing them.
This is sometimes called “muscle memory”. Therefore, MMA athletes can strengthen their “muscle memory” by having muscles fire in the correct sequence without physically executing the movement. This can allow a fighter to learn new movements quicker by practicing mental imagery techniques.
Symbolic Learning Theory
The second theory is called symbolic learning theory (Sackett, 1931). This is often called the “blueprint” theory because it suggests that our central nervous system must have a specific plan or code for every movement pattern.
Therefore, mental imagery can strengthen the specific sequence of movement patterns (a specific takedown) that require greater cognitive, as well as movement, skills. Mental imagery can make the specific skill more automatic for the MMA fighter.
The Bioinformational Theory
The third is called bioinformatical theory (Lang, 1977, 1979). This theory states that mental imagery is an organized set of propositions stored in the brain’s long-term memory. In other words, if you have just “stunned” your opponent and are preparing to end the match with a sequence of learned behaviors (combination punches or submission hold), often the MMA fighter becomes over-anxious, executes incorrectly, and loses their opportunity for victory.
This is a very common problem among boxers and mixed martial artists. Mental imagery can help prepare the MMA athlete to stay calm and focused in these situations and not let the crowd’s reaction or the fighter’s over-excitement (increased heart rate and respiration) interfere with executing correctly.
Let’s look at some basic components of mental imagery.
Components Of Mental Imagery
Relax: Mental imagery is best performed when you are in a relaxed state. Take the time to create a relaxed environment or use relaxation techniques to prepare the mind and body.
Imagery Perspective: There are two ways in which you can practice imagery. One is from an internal perspective and the other is from an external perspective. External perspective means you are viewing yourself from outside your body as with a movie camera.
Internal perspective means that the combat fighter sees the image from their own eyes as if they were inside their bodies. Studies have shown that elite combat athletes are more likely to practice imagery from an internal perspective as opposed to non-elite MMA athletes who are more likely to practice mental imagery from an external perspective.
Vividness: This factor could be the most crucial component in effective mental imagery training. Vividness refers to the “details” of the situation. You must incorporate all the senses of real life (sight, sound, smell, emotions, etc…) for mental imagery to be effective.
For instance, imagine yourself in the middle of the ring at your next competition. Look around and notice every single detail. Try to experience this from inside your body (internal perspective). Look around and see your coach, your family, your teammates, and your opponent. Hear the sounds of the crowd, your teammates, and your coach’s pre-competition advice. Re-create the feeling of excitement and anticipation.
Visualize the entire match. Imagine executing correctly and countering against your opponent’s strengths. Visualize the speed and precision of your movements. The greater attention to detail, the more effective mental imagery will be for you.
This may not be an easy task, so do not be discouraged if you have a difficult time creating a vivid mental image.
Positive Outcome: You can only achieve what you believe. Therefore, always imagine a positive outcome. If you have difficulty with nervousness or anxiety, then re-create the exact vivid experience but imagine yourself calm and focused.
If you have difficulty executing a specific movement in situations where you lose your concentration, then imagine yourself staying focused and executing correctly in that particular situation. This is how athletes such as Tiger Woods consistently perform well under pressure.
Practice: The amount of practice depends on the level of athlete you are. Practicing 10 minutes every day is a good start.
Where to get more help? Today, there are many different ways to get help with mental imagery. A variety of good books, videos, and various practices are available that can guide you through mental imagery exercises. There are also mental imagery coaches who can create customized plans to help you address your specific needs.
Most colleges have qualified people designing mental imagery programs for individual sports athletes and teams. For professional guidance, consult a certified sports psychologist. Check your local psychologist association for a referral list in your area.
Mental imagery is a powerful training tool to help you prepare for competition, learn new tasks, and maximize your performance under pressure. Always consult a qualified professional for further instructions.
Start paying attention to your body, notice subtle signs in your training, start asking questions, seek experienced answers, and, most importantly, don’t settle on your performance – there is always room for improvement!
Reference: Williams, Jean. M., Applied Sport Psychology. Mayfield Publishing Company