Mind training for martial artists

In combat sports, the higher the level of competition, the greater is the demand on the mind. AFP FILE PHOTO

In combat sports, the higher the level of competition, the greater is the demand on the mind. AFP FILE PHOTO

Without the help of the mind, the body cannot reach its full potential. In combat sports such as mixed martial arts (MMA), the higher the level of competition, the greater is the demand on the mind, “Although most fighters believe that the fight is 90 percent mental and ten percent physical, they train 90 percent physical and ten percent mental. That is going to have to change as MMA continues to evolve or those fighters will be left behind,” said former Ultimate Fighting Championship heavyweight and light heavyweight champion Randy Couture.

Because I am a certified Neuro-Linguistic Programming (NLP) practitioner and hypnotist, the bulk of the materials presented in this article are from NLP and hypnosis, two powerful disciplines that can be used for attaining peak performance. I have used both in my years of martial arts training. NLP was developed by Richard Bandler and John Grinder during the 1970s. Bandler is a mathematician and a computer expert while Grinder is a linguist. NLP according Bandler’s definition is: “The study of the structure of subjective experience and what can be calculated from it.” A fitting definition considering that he and Grinder created NLP by observing and emulating the structure of works of several excellent therapists the most prominent among them Virginia Satir, Milton Erickson and Fritz Perls.

Proper use of mind training techniques will boost the performance level of a martial artist.  Contributed photo

Proper use of mind training techniques will boost the performance level of a martial artist. Contributed photo

Hypnosis on the other hand, is an ancient mind science that allows the programming of the subconscious mind without the interference of the conscious mind. There are historical records describing its use in Egyptian sleep temples.  It was during the 1950s when hypnosis caught the attention of the American Medical Association after a thyroidectomy was successfully conducted using only hypnotic trance as anesthesia.

Brainwaves and suggestibility

Hans Berger, in 1929, used the Electroencephalography machine to record the different frequencies emitted by the brain. The beta state (12 to 15 cycles per second and up) is when we are fully awake. The second state is alpha (6 to 14 cycles per second), which is essentially a light trance, the condition desired in hypnosis and meditation. Brain activities further slow down at theta (4 and 8 cycles per second). Theta is the state desired when using hypnosis as anesthesia in surgery. The last state is delta (4 or 5 cycles per second), which is the characteristic of total unconsciousness.

The mind is said to be 200 times more suggestible in an alpha state that is why it is the state desired in hypnosis. Equate Alpha to the state you are in when watching TV, or when you have been driving for a lengthy period. When driving, your attention is focused on the elements of driving. Outside stimuli play a lesser role. Psychic experiences are also said to occur in alpha and theta ranges. “The fact is, we learn better when we’re in an altered state than we do when we’re in our normal state of consciousness,” wrote Bandler in his book Trance-Formation.

The most basic way to induce an alpha state is to assume a relax posture and perform deep abdominal breathing. One would notice that when we go to sleep, the progression is to slow down from beta through alpha and theta, and into delta.

Representational systems

Representational systems are the ways we think about the world. The three major representational systems are visual, auditory and kinesthetic. Visual people relate mostly to the things that they see, auditory people relate more easily to what they hear and kinesthetic people to what they feel. It is important to note that some people have more than one dominant representational system.

In addition to these three major representational systems, there are two more; olfactory (sense of smell) and gustatory (sense of taste).

We need to be aware of these representational systems to be able to optimize the mind-body connection.


State is the specific neurophysiological condition of an individual at a given moment. This encompasses the individual’s thoughts, internal representations, posture, breath rhythm etc.

There are enabling states and there are paralyzing states. Confidence is an enabling state while fear is a paralyzing state. The kind of state they’re in is the reason why top athletes perform well some days and dismally on other days.

The goal then is to elicit the desired enabling state at will.


Anchoring is a popular NLP technique and as its name implies has something to do with setting up something that will take a firm hold. There are varied applications of anchoring but for the purpose of this article; I will just focus on how a martial artist could anchor himself to a state of excellence and how to elicit that state at will.

An anchor (association) can be a gesture or a word or a combination of the two. Many top athletes have used anchoring knowingly or unknowingly. Take for example how some baseball players tip their hat before hitting the ball or boxers doing some odd rituals before a fight. Chances are they’ve already used those gestures in the past as a prelude to attaining a successful outcome. Those acts overtime, have become their ways of reconnecting to a powerful part of their being.

I’ve also seen this thing among elderly escrimadores. How many times have you seen an old escrimador, wrinkled and stooped with age suddenly explode into a blur of motion when asked to demonstrate his art? He was he able to do that despite his weak physical condition because picking up those sticks reconnects him to a part of himself that is excellent.

While anchors can occur naturally as in the aforementioned, the good thing is they can be installed and reinforced systematically.

Before practicing visualization or installing anchors, first assume a relaxed position and perform deep breathing to induce a light alpha trance.

Now, with your eyes close, remember that time in your life as a martial artist, when you feel excellent, when your attributes like power, speed, stamina etc. were at their peak.

While doing this, involve the three major representational systems when recreating the scenario in your mind. The goal is to make it pulsate with colors, sounds and feelings.

When the experience is at its peak; make the OK sign by touching the tips of your right thumb and index finger together and saying the word, “Excellent.” Then slowly open your eyes.

You have just installed an anchor for excellence. So the next time you’re feeling inadequate as a martial artist, you can elicit that state of excellence by making an OK sign and saying the word “Excellent.” You may have to repeat the procedure several times to reinforce the anchor. If you’re doing that, try using another gesture or word; choose something that has special meaning to you. You may further reinforce this anchor by making the OK sign and saying the word “Excellent,” every time you’ve accomplished something exemplary in your martial arts practice.

Optimized visualization

Visualization is a powerful tool. It improves performance because visualization creates neural patterns in the brain for any particular act as if you are physically practicing the act. It has been proven scientifically that the mind cannot distinguish between a mental and physical experience, hence, a neural pattern is a neural pattern whether it is ingrained by a mental act or a physical act.

Any visualization exercise can be greatly enhanced by involving the representational systems taught in NLP.

Let’s say you’re visualizing winning a stick fighting tournament; instead of just purely concentrating on creating the picture of the event in your mind (visual), involve the other two representational systems as well. Hear the cheering of the audience, the shout of your coach and the sound of the stick as it hits on your opponent’s head (auditory). Then feel the weight of the armor on your body, the thickness of the stick in your hand, the hardness of the floor and the aggressiveness welling up inside you as you size up your adversary (kinesthetic). As you gain skill in doing this, note your dominant representational system then make necessary adjustments on which one you want to resonate the most.


One of the major teachings of NLP is that excellence has a structure and can be replicated by modeling. The components of structure to watch out for are behavior, strategy, beliefs and internal representations. If these components were identified and emulated, excellence can be replicated. The following are practical tips on how to effectively model excellence plus accompanying quotes from experts:

Observe your chosen role model in person or via video recordings.

“Spend as much time as possible studying your role model in the flesh, on videotapes, or on DVD recordings. Simply relax while watching them, softening your vision and hearing and seeing the flow of the performance.” (Richard Bandler, Trance Formation)
“Some unique aspects of physiology —special looks of tonalities or physical gestures—can be found in people of great power, like John F. Kennedy, Martin Luther King Jr., or Franklin Roosevelt. If you can model their specific physiologies, you’ll tap into the same resourceful parts of the brain and start to process the way they do… A movie or video of them would be ideal. For a moment, mirror just their postures, facial expressions, and gestures as accurately as you can. You will begin to feel similar feelings. If you remember how that person’s voice sounds, you might say something in that tone of voice.” (Anthony Robbins, Unlimited Power)

In a spot where you can constantly see it, hang a photo of your role model performing a martial art technique in perfect form.

“We suggest that you hang pictures of athletes performing your event to perfection where you can see them as often as possible. This will continually create the perfect picture in your mind, a feeling in your body or important sounds or words and will keep you connected with what it will take for you to be the best you can be.” (Kay Porter and Judy Foster, The Mental Athlete)

If available, read the autobiographies of your role model.

“And one of the great advantages of reading a book by someone like John Kennedy, Benjamin Franklin or Albert Einstein is that it puts you in a state similar to theirs. You start thinking like the authors, creating the same kind of internal representations. But by duplicating their physiology, you can feel like them in the flesh and even behave as they did.” (Anthony Robbins, Unlimited Power)


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