When you use mental imagery or visualization you produce vivid pictures or experiences in your mind and this is a useful skill for students to develop in order to enhance their practical effectiveness. Students can use mental imagery to practice skills and helps you to decide what to do in a given set of circumstances by having already thought about the options, “If he does that I will do this.”
You can practise techniques and responses in your mind as well as with your body. Practised properly you can see and feel yourself training. You can use imagery to learn new skills, practice old ones just as one imagines other situations in life such as that upcoming job interview or date. An inability to visualize can mean that we lack the ability to complete ideas. If we cannot create an accurate mental image of what we want to achieve, then it’s unlikely that we will achieve it. And without that certain insight it’s hard to make progress even if we are using appropriate training principles as the two concepts need to be employed in tandem. If we train our mind to analyse our current and potential performance in Ju Jitsu it will help us to perfect our technique and application.
It works because visualisation has a measurable, physiological effect on our body. When you visualise doing a movement, punch, kick, throw or kata, there is a measurable response by the specific muscles used in that activity in response to your imagined movements.
For instance, in order to do a half shoulder throw in reality, a specific ‘program’ of neuro-muscular circuits has to fire in order for that to happen. However, if I just vividly imagine doing a half shoulder throw, it’s been found that micro-muscular stimulation occurs in those same muscles used to do the throw in ‘reality’.
In fact, neurologically, your body can’t tell the difference between a ‘real’ experience, and a vividly imagined one. You consciously know one experience is real and the other is imagined, but at the cellular level, your body can’t tell the difference. Its like dreaming although in using imagery skills we consciously choose the subject and use it for a purpose. In a dream the things we experience are ‘real’ whilst we are in that state, perhaps you even jerked your arm up in the dream in response to the imagined events! It was only a dream, but your body still responds like it was real.
Because there is this muscular response to visualised activity, it makes it possible to ‘program in’ desired shots, strokes, plays, movements, behaviours, and even emotional responses prior to doing them. In other words you can begin to prepare your body at a cellular level, developing a ‘muscle memory’ of what you want your body to do.
Further, visualisation allows you to practice your techniques perfectly – without error, without risk of injury and without breaking sweat and so train the optimum neural pathway for future successful performance.
As we train more and more we can continue to develop our imagery skills. Like any skill the more we use it the better we should get. Last year I took and passed my 4th Dan in Ju Jitsu, it was a massive test and a huge challenge, it was 8 years since I last graded. So whilst I had effectively been training for 8 years I had also been teaching more and more especially since I took over the club in 2014.
In April 2016 I crashed a motorcycle and sustained a long lasting injury to my right foot, just as that was clearing up I was injured, unintentionally by my training partner, and my right bicep was in a pretty bad way for a couple of months, then 3 weeks before the grading I picked up a pretty aggressive chest infection.
My training schedule was erratic to say the least but I did manage to train in a limited capacity. Thankfully our black belts rallied round and put in some extra shifts for me to throw them around. The trouble was as the grading approached I was not confident that what I was doing was of a high enough standard, yes I listened to and took advice, yes I tried and experimented with different defences to attacks, most of which were random. However, with a couple of weeks to go I was still unsettled and needed to think carefully about what I was doing. It felt too mechanical.
I needed to rationalize and deal with my inner doubts and I did some serious thinking. I came to the conclusion that my problem was that I was not trusting myself enough so I examined each defence and each technique using my imagery skills, well not each one individually because this is what happened.
I started to go through the attacks in my mind and imagined how I would respond, where and how I would move, how I would strike and throw. I closed my eyes and watched. I started doing this with one set of techniques and then modifying my physical response and things started to become smoother, they made more sense and I was seeing not remembering, the thing is I was seeing it as the attack came in, my body seemed to be getting its shit together fast. It was an interesting experience, I stopped worrying about my performance and just decided to trust that my body, governed by my subconscious mind and many years of practice, would make things work.
I knew the theory, I had been teaching others but it took the impending pressure of being examined by my peers to make me practice what I teach others to do.
Well, it worked pretty damn well, if I say so myself I put in a pretty good performance and was complemented by the examiners, including a 6th dan owner of another Ju Jitsu club, and Ukis, I even pulled off some stuff during the grading that I had not tried out in preparation, I surprised myself to be fair. It just happened, I went with the flow and it felt good, you know when it is working and you are expressing yourself well.
Developing imagery skills is good for the mind and body, my experience, and I am really keen to hear of other peoples, was that the practical application was possible during the act of training. Not just stopping the physical act and creating images in the mind but during the physical act, yes as the punch or kick is coming in. Seeing it immediately before application, well that is what it felt like. I am pretty convinced that this is in part due to the vast amount of hours spent on the mat and in preparation along with all the research and even reading and writing about martial arts, self defence, training and many other affiliated topics. Nevertheless, it was an interesting experience and a valuable one.