Visualization and Self Defence Training by Paul Donnelly

One of the first things they teach you in emergency vehicle operation courses, during skid control training is to aim for the horizon- focus on where you want to be, not what you want to avoid. When snowboarding or mountain biking down a hill, one of the common strategies is to pick your line and imagine a path past the obstacles in front of you. If on the other hand you focus on the obstacle, more than likely you will run into it.  You drive down the highway and you hit a patch of black ice and  end up in a skid. You see a telephone pole in your path and think to yourself- don’t hit that telephone pole, don’t hit that telephone pole, don’t hit the telephone pole- what happens? you hit the telephone pole!! Why ? Because you replayed the mental imagery over and saw your self hitting the pole  Messed up right?
What am I talking about? Mental visualization to improve performance, and specifically how it applies to us as self defence athletes.
Since the Russians started mental training programs at the 1984 Olympics, many more athletes have adopted the practice, and even some law enforcement agencies have started mental training.
We hear about sports being 90% mental and 10% physical but what does that really mean?
Here’s an analogy from one of my favourite books, “ The Secrets of Mental Marksmanship”, on the power of the subconscious mind.
Imagine yourself walking on a 4 inch beam on the gym floor- all ya gotta do is walk  from one end to the other. Now imagine that same beam and it is now spanning between two sky scrapers. Fundamentally the physical techniques required have not changed, but the consequences of failing to perform them are dramatically different between the two scenarios. When you imagine the second beam, you play over and over in your conscious mind the image of the consequences of falling off the beam, because on the first beam the consequences of falling were no big deal.
How does that happen?
The subconscious is where your “muscle memory” really is. The subconscious allows you to perform complex tasks without having to consciously focus on every individual aspect of the movement.
There was a study on visualization and muscle power by comparing people who went to the gym and people that mentally rehearsed work outs. It found that there was a 30% increase in muscle in people that went to the gym, but it also found that there was a 13.5% increase in people who just visualized the work out.
There is another study that has gained a lot of mileage on the internet, related to basketball free throws that is quoted as saying there was only a 1% difference in performance improvement between a month of visualization for 1/2 hour every day  (23% improvement)  and a month of actual practice (24% improvement) for a half hour every day- unfortunately I have not been able to find the original publication for this study, but there is obviously something to positive visualization.
How does this apply to self defence athletes?
If you aren’t the gym to practice techniques and don’t have a training partner at home, it does not mean that when you have a spare moment, you can’t visualize them in mental practice instead. At KPC Self Defence, since we focus a lot on defending in ambush type attacks, the important part is to visualize properly-  instead of visualizing yourself over and over in a negative outcome (getting hit or stabbed etc.) you visualize performing that self defence technique properly- we visualize positive outcomes not negative ones.
In fact, if recognize that you are making a mistake in physical practice, you can actually improve the technique through mental visualization without breaking a sweat and by doing mental reps- by slowing it all down and visualizing each aspect of the technique being performed correctly in slow motion- if there is that one sticking point that you consistently have problems with in physical execution, go over performing that aspect over and over in your mind. Visualize doing it right. Actually visualize individual reps!  When you do it, correct the mistake positively- with positive self talk or a positive mantra- not negative- instead of saying “don’t lock your elbow straight”, say “bend your arm outside 90” to yourself.
The goal is to develop a mental program, like repeating a mantra to yourself for example, as you are performing the task- it could be something like “clear-control-counter” for a weapon disarm, or it could be something like wrap my arm above the elbow for a swimming lock, etc.
If you can’t visualize the technique step by step, then you probably don’t understand the technique fully and you might want to get a bit more physical practice in to understand that one sticking point maybe that you are having trouble with-  but once you recognize it, you can visualize it.
Tying it all together, when you are using a mental program, what you are doing is still consciously training. But what you are doing is repeating something consciously until it becomes subconscious- or to put it more scientifically:
“Conscious activity becomes subconscious through repetition.”
– The Secrets of Mental Marksmanship
Eventually, whatever the new technique you are working on is is performed unconsciously without thought.
There is obviously a lot more on this than can be covered in a blog post, but now you have something to think about!
Train hard and stay safe!!

“A good martial artist does not become tense, but ready.Not thinking, yet not dreaming. Ready for whatever may come. When the opponent expands, I contract; and when he contracts, I expand. And when there is an opportunity, “I” do not hit, “it” hits all by itself.”

– Bruce Lee- Enter the Dragon (1973);




The Secrets of Mental Marksmanship- Linda K. Miller and Keith A. Cunningham
Neuropsychologia. 2004;42(7):944-56.

From mental power to muscle power–gaining strength by using the mind.



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