Mental Training for Martial Arts—The Missing Link!

In the six years since starting JMT and becoming a full-time coach, I’ve learned that mental training is probably the most neglected aspect of martial arts for most students. Ironically, it’s probably the element of martial arts that can best be applied to sports, school, work and other aspects of life. It’s also this neglect that’s holding many people back from performing at their true potential.

But this “missing link” is not as elusive as it seems—it can and should be trained just as much as the physical elements. I’ve told many of my students this fact. I’ve explained that it’s their missing link. I’ve harangued them, berated them, cajoled them. And they still won’t do it. Why is it so hard for students to recognize the need for this type of training?

I believe the reason is twofold:

1In our society, mental illness holds a stigma that physical illness does not. While not a mental illness, lack of mental preparation causes problems many students are unwilling to admit. In addition, I’ve found that most coaches are unable, or unwilling, to delve into the mental aspects of training.

2Mental training and sports psychology can seem overwhelming and confusing. People mistakenly think they need to become a monk and sit on a mountaintop, or purchase the latest sports psychology audio set that requires two hours a day for listening and practice.

Mental Lessons in Physical Performance

My own journey into the mental side of sports performance started when I was in my early teens and racing motocross—talk about a sport that quickly reveals your mental weaknesses!

I painfully realized two things early on:

•When you’re speeding along a narrow track at 50 miles per hour and there’s a rock in the trail, if you focus too long on not hitting the rock, you’re all but guaranteed to hit it! What you focus on, you attract!

•When you’re attempting to clear a large double jump, unless you fully commit with no hesitation, you’re crashing! Make a decision and commit one hundred percent!

While I got better at handling these two issues over the course of my five-year racing career, I never fully mastered them. At age 19, after many serious crashes, I switched back to the relatively safer world of martial arts. In the process I learned my next valuable lessons in mental training.

• You’re your own harshest critic and your own worst enemy.

• You can look and feel great in training but perform terribly in competition.

And the two most important lessons I’ve learned about the need for mental training? After years of high-level martial arts competition, I foolishly thought I was mastering my mental state. A couple of violent encounters in the street quickly revealed my mental deficits. I took a job as a nightclub doorman and learned these two crucial lessons:

• It’s your body, and your mind—you’d better understand how they work under stress!

• If you can master yourself, you can master anything or anyone!

Over the years I’ve developed the simplest process for mental training I possibly can—something even the most reluctant fighter can follow. It’s a two-pronged approach that applies to every training session, as well as daily life. The first part deals with the brain’s Software and the second part the body’s biological Hardware.

The Software—Programming the Machine

Learn effective self-talk Fighters are often their own harshest critics and their own worst enemies. They don’t realize that negative self-talk is counterproductive and actually programming them to fail. Remember the rock on the track: you are drawn towards what you focus on. If you focus too much on how much you suck, you’re going to suck.

I don’t mean you shouldn’t be honest with yourself, acknowledging the shortcomings in your poor performance. But there’s a big difference between identifying an issue that needs work, and blowing it out of proportion. You’ll wind up derailing your entire belief system with too much negativity.

The key to constructive self-critique is speaking to yourself the way you would your best friend. You can use what my daughter would call a compliment sandwich. First say something positive that came out of that training session or fight: “I landed my left kick well.” Then identify the issue that needs work: “I could have moved forwards more effectively.” End with another positive: “I pulled off some great checks!” This type of self-talk helps you grow as an athlete rather than breaking you down.

Have a really—and I mean really—strong Why! This one takes some serious soul searching, but it’s well worth the time and effort. I regularly ask my fighters in hard training, “Why are you fighting?” They need a clear, concise, powerful answer ready every time. Once we’ve reached a strong reason “Why,” I will regularly remind them of it. The “Why” is different for everyone. For some it’s a desire to prove themselves. For others it means facing their fears.

So how do you uncover your true “Why”? I encourage you to act like a persistent three-year-old child; once you come up with one answer, ask “Why?” again. When you come up with a second answer, ask again. Repeat until you feel you’ve really gone as deep as you can. Even so, you may find out many years later that you still haven’t gotten to your true Why. Whatever your Why is, at this moment in your life, make it really clear and concise. Have it ready so that you can call on it whenever you feel like quitting, or not giving 100 percent!

Learn to reprogram limiting beliefs. Every time those inner voices send negative messages, shut them down quickly and counter them with a positive response. You need to become a master of your own inner smack talk and excuses. If an inner voice tells you, “You’re tired. It’s OK to quit,” counter it straight away: ”I’m just getting started. Winners never quit!” I like to remind myself what members of the special forces know: Most people only use 40 percent of their true physical capacity. They quit with 60 percent still in reserve, just because things started to get uncomfortable! Learning to give 100 percent is, once again, where a really strong Why is vital.

Another concept I learned recently also stems from the special forces. Retired U.S. Navy SEAL David Goggins discusses the idea of keeping a Cookie Jar in his autobiography “Can’t Hurt Me.” Here’s how it works: Think of all the situations in which you’ve overcome the odds to achieve what you or others thought impossible. Store these memories in your Cookie Jar. When things get really tough, reach into your Cookie Jar and pull out a memory of a time when you’ve succeeded against great odds. This technique, like many other forms of mental training, is surprisingly powerful if you take the time to practice it.

Follow the One-Second Rule. It’s tough to admit, but as a species humans are inherently lazy. It’s part of our mechanism for long-term survival. We must often override this tendency to achieve success. For example, studies have shown that if you take more than one second to get out of bed when your alarm goes off for your 5 a.m. run, there’s a very good chance you won’t do it. After one second you’ll start getting all kinds of messages from your body that it’s ok to stay in bed. “You need a rest day.” “You don’t want to overtrain.” “One day off won’t hurt you.”

It goes without saying that you must ignore these messages and get the hell up. It’s a lot easier to get going if you don’t even give these messages a chance to start. If you need to do something, as the slogan says, Just Do It. Don’t think—just DO!

The same rule applies in fighting. If you take more than one second to think about doing something, you’ll freeze up.  I sometimes see the freeze happening in new amateur fighters. They look like they’re stuck to the spot, or they walk forwards blindly without throwing any strikes. If it’s time to act—then ACT!

Learn to quiet your mind. Those inner voices that make excuses for you and produce negative self-talk can be thought of as Monkey Mind. Their incessant chatter is often negative and distracting. In order to become an effective martial artist, you need to silence the meaningless chatter and live in the moment.

For many people, quieting the mind is the hardest part of training. It takes practice—preferably on a daily basis. The key is frequency and consistency. Ten minutes every day is a lot more effective then 30 minutes twice a week.

Learning to breathe correctly will make this practice much easier and more effective. Practice deep abdominal breathing whenever you get a moment during the day. Once you get the hang of it, you can practice while driving, walking or standing in line at the store. Take deep inhalations through the nose to the lower belly, hold for a moment, and follow with long exhalations through the mouth. A simple place to start: breathe in for a count of four, hold for a count of four, exhale for a count of four.

After a week of practicing your breathing, you can add seated meditation. Recent studies have shown what monks have known for millennia: The early morning is the optimum time for meditation practice. It’s best to start simply in a quiet place, sitting cross-legged on the ground with a folded cushion under your sit bones. Place your hands comfortably on your knees and close your eyes. Start your deep breathing practice and focus on your breath. As thoughts come into your mind, acknowledge them but don’t attach to them. Let them float on by. Keep bringing your focus back to your breath.

Another effective way to quiet the Monkey Mind throughout the day is to focus 100 percent on the task at hand. It may be brushing your teeth, folding laundry or drilling your rear leg kick. No more multi-tasking! If you pour all your effort into the task at hand, even washing the dishes becomes an important martial arts practice.

At the other end of the spectrum, Steven Kotler discusses how extreme danger helps individuals get in the Zone in his book “The Rise of Superman.” He attributes the groundbreaking progress made by extreme sports athletes over the last few decades to the power of knowing one’s life is on the line. The monthly bills and work projects quickly fade along with the chatter when that fear factor enters the picture.

You don’t necessarily need to take up extreme sports, but if you add the fear factor into your sparring, you’ll find it easier to enter the Zone. I tell my fighters in sparring, “That’s not your friend Zach or John in front of you. That’s World Champion Yodsenklai or Buakauw (fill in the name of the scariest fighter you can imagine facing).” If you mess up or drop your hands, they’ll knock you clean out! Without going any harder, your sparring will dramatically change, and so will your ability to get in the Zone.

The Hardware—Mastering the Machine

Understand how the body reacts under extreme stress. This process is one of the most important, but least discussed, aspects of peak performance. I believe this stems from a reluctance to admit feelings associated with fear. However, everyone experiences them, with the exception of psychopaths. They are a totally normal, physiological reaction to stress or pressure. Most often referred to as “fight or flight” response, the rapid release of adrenaline, cortisol and other stress hormones in the body should more accurately be called the “fight, flight or freeze” response.

Once you learn to recognize the physical manifestations of a stress hormone release, and accept that they’re totally normal, you can learn to control them and eventually become desensitized to them.

Identify the physiological symptoms of stress. Some physical sensations you can expect with the rapid release of stress hormones are:

1. Butterflies in the stomach, or, in more extreme circumstances, severe stomach issues and the feeling that you’re going to “crap” yourself.

2. A feeling of heavy legs, leg shakes and tremors. Under some circumstances you may feel like you’re literally glued to the ground.

3. Hand shakes or tremors and the inability to perform complicated movements with your hands and fingers.

4. Dry mouth and the feeling that you can’t speak properly, swallow, or breathe. These sensations are often accompanied by the desire to drink water.

5. Short shallow breathing and tightness in the diaphragm. This will often lead to shortness of breath and a feeling of oxygen deprivation, which then leads to more tightness.

6. Feeling like you need to urinate even though you don’t. Loss of bladder or bowel control under extreme circumstances.

7. Tunnel vision and a tunnel thought process. You become fixated on one point or one thought. This tunnel vision affects peripheral vision and thus limits ability to pick up movement. It often causes issues with depth perception.

8. “Gassing out.” The overall tightness in the body and inability to breathe effectively will often cause rapid fatigue.

9. The Monkey Mind goes wild. Negative destructive thoughts start to invade your mind and can cause you to freeze up.

10. A desire to either run away or avoid the situation. In some circumstances, a desire to cover up and accept whatever is going to happen.

Do the opposite of what your body tells you it wants. One of the most effective ways to deal with the feelings of rapid stress hormone release is to consciously perform the opposite physical action to what your body wants to do. For example, one of the most destructive manifestations is the tightness in the diaphragm and chest caused by the adrenal dump. Shortness of breath follows, resulting in a feeling of panic, thus leading to more tightness in the chest and diaphragm. The counter to this tightness is something you’ve already practiced—deep abdominal breathing!

Training yourself to take long, deep, relaxed breaths through the nose will have the most immediate effect on negating many of the feelings associated with stress hormones. Try looking upwards and opening your chest while taking the deep breaths. Many top fighters will lean back on the ropes and bounce a few times before the fight starts. This simple act forces you out of the defensive stressed posture of tucked chin and closed chest and “opens” you up.

Another couple of my favorite tricks are:

If your legs feel heavy, consciously bounce up and down or shake out your legs.

If your hands are shaking, touch them together in a thoughtful praying position.

Loosen your jaw. When we’re stressed we unconsciously clench our jaw. By loosening the jaw we cause a corresponding relaxed feeling through the body. Practice loosening the muscles by moving the jaw side to side, and opening and closing the mouth. You’ll often notice top fighters doing this. Another favorite trick is to massage the muscles at the top of the jaw under the cheekbones. I’ll often do this for my fighters, but I encourage you to learn how to do it yourself.

Expand your peripheral vision. Tunnel vision can put you in “fight, flight or freeze” mode. We counter tunnel vision by increasing our peripheral vision. Practice by staring at a fixed point in front of you. Stretch your hand to the periphery of your vision and move it around slowly until you can see it using only your peripheral vision. Then move it to the other side, or down, or up, keeping it out at the periphery at all times.

The Hakalua Meditation technique from Hawaii is a very simple practice to expand your peripheral vision in order to calm your mind and body. Focus on a fixed point straight in front of you. While only looking at this point, use your peripheral vision to gradually take in more of what lies to the sides of you, and below and above you. Eventually, you want to feel like you can ‘see’ behind you and above you even though this appears physically impossible, this requires visualization as well as an expansion of your peripheral vision.

The best fighters have noticeably superior peripheral vision, which allows them to pick up movement. Bruce Lee’s training journals make reference to him training his peripheral vision whenever he got a spare moment.

Anchor the feeling of calm strength. A modern neurolinguistic programming technique, this tactic has been used by top performers for millennia. The practice involves selecting a physical or verbal “anchor” that you use to retain a certain physical/mental state.

The anchor you choose should be a unique physical gesture or word that you don’t use in general daily life. I use two different anchors for two different states. To gain a feeling of looseness and flexibility, I tap my right palm three times on the front of my left shoulder. This gesture helps me visualize the practice of swinging my leg up so that my thigh hits the front of my shoulder. Using this anchor I attain enough flexibility to kick maximum height with absolutely no warm up or stretching.

For my second anchor, I thoughtfully rub my hands together in front of my chin, a prayer-like position. This anchor automatically calms me and makes me feel stronger when in a stressful situation. I used a similar position when de-escalating situations as a nightclub doorman. It’s similar to the Wai (position of respect) in Muay Thai.

Once you’ve selected your unique anchor, put yourself into your desired state. Now you need to draw on some acting skills. Physiology affects psychology, so stand how you would stand if you were already in the desired state. Breathe how you would breathe, move your arms and legs how you would move them. Change your facial expression, your mouth and your eyes. Work on every detail. Would your hands be relaxed or clenched? Would you nod your chin or clench your jaw? What would your eyes do?

Once you feel you’ve entered the desired state, anchor that same feeling. Then exit that state by moving differently for a moment. Call on your chosen anchor to see if you can get back to the desired state. This process takes some practice so stick with it!

Once you’ve gotten the hang of entering your desired state, it’s time to try it under some stress. First replicate the stress: Visualize yourself in a stressful situation and use your anchor to get to your desired state. Gradually increase the manufactured stressors in training until you can try it in a real situation.

Top performers in just about any sport have rituals to follow before each competition, even if they’re not fully aware of of them. These rituals serve as their anchors, their individual ways of getting in the Zone. The legendary Saenchai follows the same ritual at the start of each fight. He kneels to face his corner and bows his head, even if the ref is trying to rush him. He stands, leans backward on the ropes, and bounces. He then turns and waves to the crowd before walking confidently to the center of the ring and smiling at his opponent. In the many dozens of his fights I’ve watched, he never changes this pattern.

Practice desensitization. It’s very possible to become desensitized to the feelings associated with a rapid release of stress hormones. And we can also become desensitized to the stressor itself—in this case, fighting!

Placing oneself in the situation that causes stress is one way to become desensitized. This approach takes time and patience. But we can use a few tricks to speed up the process.

On a side note: Some gyms treat each sparring session like a fight in an attempt to desensitize their fighters to the aggression and hard contact of a fight. However, in my experience, the risk of injury far outweighs any benefits.

Some tricks I prefer to use in our gym without going too hard:

•That’s not your friend or training partner in front of you! While we don’t encourage uncontrolled contact, we need a serious attitude and intent in sparring. I encourage my students to visualize one of their Muay Thai heroes in front of them, an absolute legend who they know could knock them out with one punch or kick. They are forced to be more disciplined and focused immediately.

With this tactic, you can’t be lazy with defense, expecting your training buddy to let you off the hook. You’re facing not your friend but 6x world champion _______ (fill in the blank.) You’ll know you’ve done a good job visualizing someone scary in front of you if you get any of the feelings associated with stress hormone release.

•Trigger the stress hormones and breathlessness. Hold your breath for an extended period right before the round of sparring starts. Even better, have a training partner hold a glove over your nose and mouth for 30 seconds to cause a feeling of panic. The stress hormones will kick in and you’ll start the round already breathing hard.

•Prepare for heavy legs and breathlessness with an intense anaerobic exercise such as burpees or squat jumps right before the round starts. You can also hold a low squat position for an extended period of at least 1 minute so that lactic acid and the feeling of wanting to quit rises up. When you begin sparring, your legs will feel really heavy and you’ll feel mentally unsettled.

•Prepare for confusion or being rocked with spinning exercises. My students hate this exercise, but it’s worth suffering through the disorientation and unpleasantness if you plan to fight. Bend your knees, tuck your chin and look at the floor. Spin around as fast as you can for at least 30 seconds right before the start of the sparring round.

Practice Over Training

Mastering one’s own software and hardware can seem complicated and overwhelming. But by incorporating these steps into daily life and martial arts training, I’ve found they become second nature. If we think of our training in terms of consistent practice, rather than simply training, we can improve our lives both in and out of the gym. By mastering ourselves, we can master any challenge life throws our way, in or out of the ring!


‘Bruce Lee The Art of Expressing the Human Body’  John Little 1998

“The Rise of Superman” Steven Kotler 2014

“Watch My Back,” “Fear- The Friend of Exceptional People’ Geoff Thompson

“Can’t Hurt Me,” David Goggins 2018

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