Performance Enhancement in the Martial Arts: A Review

By Monica A. Frank, clinical psychologist and founder of Behavioral Consultants.

Although sports psychology is still in its infancy, a tremendous amount of interest has been generated by the potential of psychological principles to enhance athletic performance. In particular, the dedication to empirical examination of the tenets of cognitive-behavioral theory has led to more effective clinical techniques which have been intuitively appealing to sport psychology consultants. As a result, psychological methods were implemented to enhance performance prior to solid research support. However, recent reviews of studies conducted in the last approximately fifteen years have shown the psychological methods to be useful in the area of sports performance enhancement (Greenspan & Feltz, 1989; Weinberg and Comar, 1994).

Much of the research in this area has focused on individual sports or individual skills for team sports as that allows for better experimental designs. As the research base has grown, it has become possible to select particular sports, especially those that are individually based, and examine the literature for the factors that influence performance. A number of studies have specifically focused on enhancing performance in the martial arts as the martial arts are conducive to empirical study given their nature and the reasons that individuals participate in the martial arts. Columbus and Rice (1998) examined written descriptions of reasons individuals participate in martial arts and found four themes:

  1. criminal victimization;
  2. growth and discovery including challenging self mentally, physically, or spiritually, and facing fears;
  3. life transition and wanting to get life in control;
  4. task performance and seeing martial arts achievement as contributing to achieving in other life situations and tasks.

Several of these themes involve a desire for life enhancement likely due to the view of the martial arts as a way of life rather than simply a sport. Many of the mental skills strategies used in sports psychology have been found to be effective in achieving peak performance throughout life’s experiences (Orlick, 2000). These strategies have frequently been used in the martial arts but may not have always been systematically taught.

For instance, Rodney Hard (1983) wrote a sparring principles manual based on methods taught to him by Joe Lewis, the World Karate Champion. He indicated that there were three stages of development to compete effectively in tournaments:

  1. physical skills training;
  2. application of the principles of sparring;
  3. the development and use of psychological skills to enhance performance.

The most important psychological skill according to Hard (1983) is focus, which he refers to as external focus. Generally, any internal focus on negative thoughts, future thinking, or fear will create anxiety and lack of confidence, which will interfere with competition performance. When an individual is externally focused, confidence and determination is more apparent and the individual’s movements flow without anticipation or conscious decision-making. The performance in the ring becomes automatic and focused on the present moment. The karate fighter is not focused on ego or self, but on perfecting skill and is detached from the outcome.

This state of detachment is consistent with the concept of flow, or being in the zone. An examination of the literature involving flow in athletics by Jackson and Csikszentmihalyi (1999), identifies a number of components that characterize flow. To achieve flow, a task has to be challenging but the person needs the level of skill to be able to meet the challenge; it doesn’t matter the particular skill level of the athlete as long as the challenge and level of skill is in balance.

During flow, action and awareness merge so that the body and mind function as one. To achieve flow, the athlete needs clear goals, unambiguous feedback, concentration on the task at hand, and a sense of control over the event. The experience of flow involves the loss of self-consciousness and transformation of time. Flow is an autotelic experience in that it is intrinsically rewarding in itself and is sought out because it is fun.

Fredrick (1999) identified twelve themes common to achieving peak performance, or flow, in karate competition through a qualitative study of seven highly experienced national competitors. During precompetition, common themes included unique person/situation experiences, mental skills training, the importance of confidence as a positive expectancy, and the development of physical skills. Themes common to the competition phase included transitions into and out of peak moments, the experience of altered states, applying mental skills, and experiencing confidence as power. Finally, the postcompetition phase included themes of reflections on experience, assessing and improving mental skills, and growth in confidence. This study shows peak moment in sport karate to be a dynamic process that involves transitions in and out of flow as well as growth over time. In addition, confidence is an important aspect to the attainment of peak moments during competition. The athletes studied indicated that achieving flow through peak performance was a goal in training and personally rewarding.

Interviews of martial artists by Hodge and Deakin (1998) indicated that martial artists tend to enjoy activities most relevant to improving their performance and that mental work and physical work are both considered important in the martial arts. The more relevant the martial artists found a task, the greater emphasis they placed on concentration. According to Fredrick (1999), mental skills used by martial artists during precompetition to achieve peak performance included visualization, raising emotion, warm-up routines, and focus. During the competition phase, the mental skills involved focus/concentration, relaxation, and a strong motivation to win. Postcompetition involved an assessment of performance and mental skills growth. Throughout the competitive process, confidence was a critical factor.

Several research studies have examined the differences between experts in the martial arts and novices in order to determine the factors that contribute to peak performance. A number of personality traits have been found to differentiate between superior martial artists and average martial artists according to a study by Duthie, (1978) using the Adjective Checklist and Martial Arts Questionnaire. In particular, superior martial artists were higher on the scales on defensiveness, self-confidence, achievement, dominance, endurance, affiliation, heterosexuality, exhibitionism, and autonomy. They were lower on the scales of succorance, abasement, and counseling readiness. Duthie, (1978) concluded that the difference between superior and average martial artists implies that martial arts training changed the personal characteristics rather than being a product of self-selection.

Another area of significant differences between experts and novices is in the area of search patterns during sparring. Williams and Elliott’s review (1999) of visual search strategy indicated that the most efficient pattern is one with fewer fixations of longer durations. During sparring matches, the more expert fighter’s primary fixation was on the opponent’s head and central body while using peripheral scanning of extremities, the hands and feet. They indicated that no previous research had been conducted examining anxiety’s effect on visual search strategy, although generally it has been shown that arousal causes a narrowing of the perceptual field potentially requiring a change in visual search strategy which could be detrimental to performance.

Williams and Elliott (1999) examined eight expert martial artists with an average of 5.6 years training and eight novices with no prior training by manipulating stress conditions during sparring. Having a competitive condition involving a ranking and a prize created anxiety. In addition, telling them their results were poor and would have to be discarded created an ego stressor. A manipulation check of anxiety indicated a difference in anxiety between the conditions. The results indicated that generally anxiety caused an increase in search rate and an increase in the amount of time spent fixating on the periphery. The competition condition caused a decrease in viewing time overall and an increase in response accuracy. “Anxiety causes an increment in effort in an attempt to increase the amount of resources available to invest in the task, thereby improving performance effectiveness (Williams and Elliott, 1999).” However, as this experiment was an artificial condition without much ego investment, the curvilinear relationship of an optimal level of arousal and too much arousal causing a decrease in performance may not have been recreated.

Overall, the results show that expert martial artists have greater anticipation skills which “suggests that perceptual skill in karate depends on task-specific knowledge structures acquired through experience (Williams and Elliott, 1999).” Under anxiety conditions novices reduced fixation duration whereas experts increased the length of fixation duration; there was also a trend toward increases in the number of fixations and the number of fixation locations for novices which indicates that novices were more affected by the anxiety condition than were the experts (Williams and Elliott, 1999).

The relevance of this research to training indicates “that in order to develop a reproducible but flexible ‘search system,’ performers must be exposed to the same constraints as those experienced during competition (Williams and Elliott, 1999).” Martial artists need to be taught to focus attention on relevant areas. In particular, they need to focus on central areas with the fovea and use their peripheral vision to pick up on arm and leg movement. In addition, they need to develop coping strategies to reduce effects of anxiety on visual search strategies.

To examine the intentional transfer of motor skills to a new situation and the influence of expertise on the transfer, Ferrari (1999) observed twenty karate students, ten at the black belt level and ten novices, as they were involved in learning a novel but related task, Tai Chi. Four strategies for practice were observed:

  1. they practiced the whole sequence (30%);
  2. they practiced cumulative sections by adding new sequences to previously learned sequence (20%);
  3. they practiced overlapping sections (40%); or
  4. they practiced independent sections (10%).

In addition, observation of the students use of the training video showed several methods of use:

  1. they watched the video without physically performing movements (75%);
  2. they imitated the sequence while video is playing (10-15%); or
  3. they stopped the video and mentally reconstructed the movement (10%).

Experts and novices did not differ in the strategies they used for practice or the way they used the video. Ratings of their final performance showed that the experts and novices remembered the same amount of new material; however, the experts performance was rated higher, they were better at judging how well they learned the material, and they used the learning material in a more sophisticated and efficient manner. The author also found in examining the self-talk of the participants that 75% of the novices focused on the difficulty of the task as opposed to 40% of the experts; the experts’ self-talk was more general and focused more on learning strategies.

A number of factors have been found to influence skill development and performance in the martial arts. These include methods of motivation, context for teaching new material, presence of music, presence of an evaluative audience or other participants, and perceptual skill.

Motivational Climate
Theeboom, et. al. (1995) described two theories of motivation in youth sports: 1) competence motivation theory which indicates that those who see themselves as competent and as having internal control are more intrinsically motivated; and 2) achievement goal theory which proposes that individuals are motivated to demonstrate high ability based on either ego goals which are ability oriented or task goals which are mastery oriented. Their review of the literature indicates that a mastery climate in a sport setting is associated with greater perceived effort, greater enjoyment, and increased team satisfaction whereas a focus on performance outcome leads to greater worry and less team satisfaction.

In order to explore the idea that children have a more positive motivational pattern when they have a mastery goal orientation, Theeboom, (1995) divided 102 boys and 67 girls enrolled in a six week summer group into two groups:

  1. a traditional method group which used basic drills for practice, had an authoritative teacher, focused on individual exercises, and based recognition and evaluation on performance; and
  2. a mastery method group which used a variety of exercises, shared decision-making, utilized partner and small group exercises, and focused on effort and improvement.

For example, the traditional method group may do repeated leg kicks whereas the mastery method group may kick a ball, a bag, or the instructor’s hand and students may suggest combinations and exercises. Results showed that the mastery group enjoyed the class more although there was no difference in the participant’s perceived competence. The quantitative analysis did not show difference for intrinsic motivation but the interview showed greater intrinsic motivation for the mastery group. Overall, the mastery group was rated higher in performance of motor skills. The authors concluded that the more informal and flexible teaching style used for the mastery method group may be effective early on in training but the later stages of training may require some traditional teaching exercises as well.

Context in Motor Recall
Hodge and Deakin’s (1998) review of deliberate practice research showed that elite athletes and musicians tend to enjoy deliberate practice contrary to Ericsson’s (1993) definition of deliberate practice. The characteristics of deliberate practice as defined by Ericsson (1993) included:

  1. the greater the expertise of the individual, the more they engage in deliberate practice;
  2. deliberate practice elicits the greatest improvements;
  3. deliberate practice tends to be effortful and fatiguing which decreases the amount of time in which it can be engaged; and
  4. it is highly relevant to performance but is not considered enjoyable.

Athletes typically report that the activities closest to actual performance as well as their work with their instructor or coach are the most relevant activities to improve their sport performance. Research shows a “strong positive correlation between relevance and effort or concentration required (Hodge and Deakin, 1998).”

Hodge and Deakin (1998) examined the effect of context on motor recall in learning a kata by teaching a kata with and without context to a group of ten novice martial artists and a group of ten first degree black belts. The context the instructor used was a verbal description of a battle. Teaching in martial arts traditionally involves a whole-part-whole strategy in which the instructor will first teach the entire kata to give a sense of flow followed by breaking the kata down into parts to decrease the complexity of the learning requirements. Therefore, they used a three trial method in this research and examined improvement across the trials. Although the students rated the context-aided instruction as enhancing the memory process, the initial context trial showed decrease performance over the no context trial for the novices and no difference for the black belts. Interestingly, the black belt performance actually decreased in the third trial as compared to their second trial when context was present. The authors had not expected that black belt performance would be affected at all by context because their experience allows them to more easily recognize meaningful associations and interpreted this finding as indicating that the black belts’ internally generated context may be more meaningful than the context provided. Overall, they did not find support for pairing verbal context with motor information to enhance performance.

Music and Performance
Fergusan, (1994) studied the effects of music on performance of katas by karate students with one to 18 years of experience. Experienced observers used the Kata Evaluation Scale consisting of a seven point Likert scale measuring elements of performance to evaluate performance during each condition of positive music, negative music, and white noise provided on headsets for each performer. Overall, both negative music and positive music increased performance ratings over white noise; in addition, the subjects reported greater relaxation and comfort with the music.

Audience Effects On Performance
A review of the audience effects on performance literature by Bell and Yee (1989) indicated that consistent with social facilitation theory it is generally believed that an audience enhances the performance of a well-learned task whereas performance is impaired for a poorly learned task. However, the research examining athletic performance has been inconsistent possibly due to poor design. Bell and Yee (1989) examined eight females and 25 males with an average age of 24 years on a kicking drill. The subjects performed a roundhouse kick without setting the foot down as many times as possible in fifteen seconds with and without an audience. As expected, results indicated that skilled subjects generally kicked more accurately and with greater frequency. An audience impaired the performance of the unskilled subjects but didn’t affect performance by the skilled subjects. It may not have been possible for the audience to enhance the performance of the skilled subjects due to a ceiling effect given that they were already performing at three kicks per second.

To determine the effects of other participants on performance, Layton and Moran (1999) examined 11 male karate black belts with an average of 15.8 years training while performing a kata as a group. They found that even though the participants had refined the kata over years of practice with their own timing, the timing became more consistent when the kata was performed as a group.

A review of perceptual abilities in athletes by Williams and Grant (1999) indicates that elite athletes do not have superior visual ability and that training vision does not improve sports performance. However, skilled athletes have better perceptual skills and are more capable of selectively attending to, recognizing, analyzing, and interpreting incoming visual information; they can recognize and recall playing patterns more quickly and accurately; they are better at anticipating their opponent’s behaviors through efficient visual search strategies; and they are more accurate in their expectations of their opponent’s reactions. Williams and Grant (1999) indicate that perceptual abilities can be trained by using simulation such as watching videos from the competitor’s perspective, stopping the video prior to critical interactions, and having the viewer predict the reaction or have the viewer react physically based on the prediction.


Training Perceptual Skill
Anxiety can affect sports performance positively or negatively. Terry and Slade’s (1995) review of anxiety in the sports literature indicated that anxiety is a multi-dimensional construct which includes both somatic and cognitive components; cognitive anxiety has an inverse relationship with performance such that an increase in irrational thoughts related to anxiety will decrease performance whereas somatic anxiety has an inverted U relationship with performance such that an optimal level of anxiety improves performance whereas too much anxiety will decrease performance. Taylor (1996) emphasizes the importance of conceptualizing anxiety as intensity because competitors may misunderstand the terms anxiety, nervousness, or arousal. Accordingly, problems can be created for athletes by both overintensity and underintensity; therefore, each athlete needs to develop the ability to find and maintain their prime intensity level that is most optimal to performance. Research has found that not only can level of anxiety predict outcome of competition, but that martial arts training appears to decrease overall anxiety.

Predicting Competition Results
Terry and Slade (1995) examined state measures in predicting martial arts competition results. Their review of the mood literature indicated that the Profile of Mood States is ineffective in differentiating between athletes of different abilities and achievement, that athletes tend to have more positive moods than the general population, that mood seems to discriminate between winners and losers only when there is little difference in their ability, that preperformance mood measures discriminate only when performance is of short duration, and that individual sports may be more influenced by mood than team sports. Using the Profile of Mood States and the Competitive State Anxiety Inventory 2 with 104 brown belts with an average age of 22 and 104 black belts with an average age of 29, Terry and Slade (1995) found that 92% of the winners could be predicted based on mood and 93.5% of winners could be predicted on the basis of mood and anxiety. Administering the Competitive State Anxiety Inventory 2 to 142 Tae Kwon Do novices through black belts one hour prior to competition, Chapman, (1997) found that anxiety scores could predict 63% of winners and losers. The winners were lower on both somatic anxiety and cognitive anxiety.

Effect of Martial Arts on Anxiety Reduction
Several studies support the impact martial arts training has on reducing anxiety. Using college students in physical education classes, Foster (1997) found that compared to Aikido and golf, only karate decreased trait anxiety significantly as measured by the State-Trait Anxiety Inventory; however, there was no change on state anxiety. A study by Layton (1990) examining anxiety in karate students ages 16 to 54 from novices to 5th degree black belt using the State-Trait Anxiety Inventory showed that non-black belt grades were significantly higher on both state and trait anxiety. With age controlled, it was found that the number of years of training was negatively related to both trait and state anxiety. The author suggests the need for longitudinal studies to determine whether karate training reduces anxiety or whether it is a product of self-selection so that those with lower anxiety are more likely to attain black belt status.

Weinberg (1981) indicated that studies examining methods of reducing precompetitive anxiety have been equivocal. They examined the effects of visuo-motor behavior rehearsal (VMBR) on performance in karate using 32 male karate students aged 18-24 who were matched according to skill level and assigned to a relaxation condition, a VMBR condition, an imagery condition, and an attention-placebo group. The VMBR group involved relaxation training, visualizing karate performance during a stressful situation, and then performing the skill during simulation of a stressful situation. During the six weeks of training, all four treatment groups showed a decrease in trait anxiety with no difference between the groups. However, the relaxation and VMBR groups showed less precompetitive state anxiety than the imagery and attention-placebo groups. The VMBR group performed better in sparring than all the other groups which was not just a matter of the low state anxiety since the relaxation group also had low state anxiety. Apparently, imagery prepares the mind and body for the competitive performance. “Thus, being in a relaxed state combined with the imagery appears to allow the athlete to develop a relaxed concentration and focus on the relevant cues in the sports environment (Weinberg,, 1981). However, the simpler skills did not differ between groups possibly because there is a broader range of optimal arousal for the simpler skills than for the difficult skills.


Managing Anxiety During Competition

Beliefs and performance
The cognitions, or thought processes, in which an athlete engages can be critical to performance. Several assumptions underlie the use of cognitive-behavioral inventions: 1) Cognitions can affect athletic performance; 2) These thought processes can be changed; and, 3) This change can influence behavioral change, and therefore, improve performance (Williams & Leffingwell, 1996). Williams and Leffingwell (1996) identified several areas of irrational beliefs that can affect the athlete’s performance. In particular, they indicated that perfectionistic demands may cause a poor self-concept or feelings of inadequacy which increase the likelihood of failure. However, they distinguish between perfectionistic demands and perfectionistic desires indicating that a perfectionistic desire, which is achievable and not judgmental, may increase the likelihood of success. Other irrational beliefs include catastrophizing about failure, basing self-worth on achievement, focusing on fairness in competition, and generalizing from a single performance to overall competence.

For the purpose of examining goal orientation and performance, King and Williams (1997) had novice martial arts college students complete the Task and Ego Orientation in Sport Questionnaire and rate their satisfaction and performance; in addition, their instructors rated their performance in basic skills, effort, persistence, and consistency. Task orientation is a mastery approach that focuses on hard work, learning goals, improving skills, and gaining understanding, whereas a performance orientation is focused on ego, competition success, gaining recognition, establishing superiority over others, and a belief in natural ability rather than hard work. Generally, traditional martial arts is focused on mastering self-defense and perfecting techniques which is consistent with a task orientation approach whereas contest-oriented martial arts is focused on tournament preparation and is consistent with a performance orientation. King and Williams (1997) found that a task orientation predicted performance and was positively correlated with enjoyment.


Goal Orientation and Performance

Effectiveness of Interventions Generally in Sports
Greenspan and Feltz (1989) reviewed studies that used regular athletes and that measured performance and examined interventions including relaxation training, behavioral techniques, and cognitive restructuring. Of the 23 studies reviewed, causality could be determined in 11 and eight of those demonstrated improvement in performance as a result of psychological skills training. The interventions examined were primarily educational rather than remedial, the majority were multicomponent and included relaxation, and those that used cognitive interventions usually had education, relaxation or visualization along with a coping procedure. The majority of the relaxation studies used VMBR and two-thirds used a progressive muscle relaxation technique which may be more appealing to athletes than a passive approach. Of the five studies providing a direct comparison of different intervention approaches, three showed that a combined treatment procedure was superior to relaxation or imagery alone and the other two studies were inconclusive. The authors concluded that educational relaxation-based interventions and remedial cognitive restructuring are effective for enhancing sports performance. They suggested that more studies need to use manipulation checks to determine if relaxation and cognitive restructuring were having the intended effects. In addition, they expressed concern of a possible bias towards publishing studies with positive results, with the lack of examination of ethnic/cultural issues, with the effects of the interventions on nontargeted performance areas, and with the lack of attention to the maintenance of effects. They recommend that if single subjects are used in future research, the researchers need to use appropriate designs and controls in order to infer causality. In addition, interventions need to be standardized and compared directly to one another.

A review by Weinberg and Comar (1994) of previous reviews and research conducted since the reviews examined 45 studies looking at the effectiveness of psychological skills training (PST) in competitive sport, of which causality could be inferred from twenty. Of these studies, 85% showed significant effects for PST and the more recent reviews showed an even higher percentage of positive effects perhaps because PST has become more developed utilizing more individualized, systematic methods over a longer time period with a variety of psychological techniques.

Weinberg and Comar (1994) suggested that: 1) future research needs to use manipulation checks to assure that the manipulation was effective; 2) the publication biases against research with no effects be considered in evaluative reviews; 3) follow-up assessments are necessary to determine the long-term effectiveness of PST; 4) control groups should be used routinely; and 5) more diverse samples need to be used.

To determine factors that affect Olympic performance, Gould (1999) interviewed four U.S. Olympic teams that met the National Governing Body’s (NGB) expectations and four teams that failed to meet the NGB’s expectations. They conducted interviews separately with coaches and in focus groups with several team members from each team. Generally, they found that teams that failed to meet performance expectations reported that they did not spend enough time in mental preparation or did not stick to a mental preparation routine. In addition, they tended to lack planning or follow through on plans such as having more travel problems. Often there were team cohesion problems, coaching problems, lack of Olympic experience by athletes and coaches, lack of focus and commitment, and problems with overtraining. Whereas teams that met performance expectations were more likely to have trained together prior to the games, felt support from the crowd, were mentally prepared to deal with stress, had families who were educated on how to support the athlete, and felt a total commitment and ability to reframe negative events more positively. Interviews with the successful athletes indicated that the coping skills needed to be so well learned that they were automatic; learning psychological skills immediately prior to competition was not effective.

Effectiveness of Interventions Specifically in Martial Arts
Generally, case studies have shown that individualized psychological strategies may be more effective for performance enhancement because the various techniques may be helpful to some individuals and not to others. For example, relaxation techniques work well for athletes who are overly anxious but may be detrimental to those who are not anxious. Seabourne, (1985) examined the difference between individualized interventions, nonindividualized interventions, and packaged intervention strategies. The individualized intervention involved assessment, teaching strategies in a group format, and instructor suggestions as to the most appropriate strategies for each individual. The participants in the non-individualized intervention condition were each yoked to a participant in the individualized condition and were taught the same methods as that participant. The packaged group participants were taught a variety of techniques and chose the particular methods they preferred. The placebo control group memorized Chinese writings whereas the control group received no treatment. The training method used was based on Suinn’s manual “The Seven Steps to Peak Performance” which provides instruction on relaxation training, stress management, positive thought control, self-regulation, mental rehearsal, concentration, and energy control. The participants included 43 male college students enrolled in beginning karate classes. Performance was rated at the 5th, 10th, and 15th weeks by a 2nd degree black belt on a five point Likert scale for form, intensity, power, and flexibility. The results indicated that both the individualized group and the packaged group performed better than the other conditions. In these two groups, the participants played an active role in choosing strategies which likely gave them a sense of responsibility and commitment to the learning process. In addition, the individual needs assessment may have increased the benefit of the interventions for the individualized condition whereas the packaged program’s ease of use may have been helpful for the packaged condition.

Seabourne (1984) also examined the effects of individual practice and visuo-motor behavior rehearsal (VMBR) on karate performance. Previous research on VMBR and performance had been equivocal possibly because the technique had not been individualized. Eighteen males and 26 females enrolled in 16-week karate classes at a university were either taught VMBR or were in a placebo control group in which they discussed, memorized, and meditated on Chinese writings. VMBR involved attaining a relaxed state and then engaging in mental imagery of a sports event. The participants in the VMBR group were taught relaxation meditation techniques which they used for ten minutes and then practiced ten minutes of karate imagery. During each class they practiced with the instructor for ten minutes and were given the opportunity to ask questions in order to individualize the technique. A black belt instructor rated performance of both groups at the 5th week, 10th week, and 15th weeks on basic technique skills, combinations and sparring. In addition, anxiety measurements were taken. The VMBR showed significant decreases in state anxiety while showing better performance in all aspects of the karate even thought the VMBR group was initially poorer in the sparring and combinations. The authors suggest that the difference in the results between this study and previous research may be the longer time period of 16 weeks instead of eight weeks as well as the more individualized approach within a group setting.

Based on research conducted in collaboration with Weinberg using martial artists, Seabourne (1998) concludes that:

  1. relaxation and imagery together are more effective for martial artists than either alone;
  2. martial artists practicing relaxation and imagery ten minutes a day performed better than those who do it immediately before competition;
  3. individualized techniques even when taught in a group format are better than standardized group techniques;
  4. there is no difference between instructor guided imagery and self-guided imagery; and
  5. individualized cognitive techniques improve performance.

He recommends the use of diaphragmatic or focused breathing, muscle relaxation and body awareness, meditation, and internal imagery rather than external imagery. Internal imagery is visualization from the perspective of the athlete whereas external imagery is from the perspective of watching the athlete perform. Overall, the research focused on martial artists suggests that the techniques found useful for athletes, in general, are effective for enhancing performance in the martial arts, both in katas as well as sparring.

Based on their 1994 review Weinberg and Comar suggest that a PST program should involve teaching the basic skills and systematically practicing them during special training sessions. These training sessions should be the first or last 15-30 minutes of physical practice sessions; most new mental skills require 15-30 minutes training three to five times a week and it takes approximately three to six months, to fully learn new skills, practice, and integrate them. Most psychological training should be during supervised practice unless the athlete is fairly self-motivated. As quickly as possible the PST should be integrated with physical skills training and tried during simulated competition. A very specific and detailed precompetition and competition plan for controlling emotions, developing a routine, and dealing with unexpected events should be part of each athletes training and PST should continue as long as the athlete is involved in a sport in the same way as physical skills training is conducted.

Serious martial artists devote a great deal of time to learning the physical aspects of their sport. Information Hodge and Deakin (1998) obtained from interviews indicated that their sample practiced an average of 35 hours a week during the first year of training to approximately 58 hours a week the year prior to obtaining the black belt. It is interesting to note that this is very similar to the practice times reported by other elite athletes and elite musicians. Therefore, the couple of hours a week to practice psychological skills to enhance performance can be well worth the investment.

A number of practical resources exist that provide “how to” information for the athlete desiring to enhance performance. However, it is important for the athlete to recognize that, as the research suggests (Seabourne,, 1984, 1985), the techniques need to be tailored for the individual. Sport psychology consultants can help the athlete with developing a plan. A review of qualitative studies of effectiveness of sport psychology consultants (Weinberg and Comar, 1994) suggests that athletes generally see consultants positively and as being helpful. The most desirable characteristics of consultants are accessibility, flexibility in scheduling, knowledgeable, likeable, and a good fit with the team or athlete. Athletes prefer more numerous contacts, follow-up sessions, and an appropriate use of the athlete’s strengths. Undesirable characteristics of sport psychology consultants are poor interpersonal skills, lack of understanding of specific sport, insensitive to the individual athlete’s needs, and inappropriate application of skills on site.

Comprehensive Plans for Interventions
Terry Orlick (1986), in his book Psyching for Sport, suggests setting performance outcome goals by imagining unlimited potential, setting realistic goals based on history, skill, and motivation for improvement, and setting a goal of self-acceptance no matter the outcome of the event. During competition it is important to focus energy on what is under the athlete’s control and not to think of winning or losing but to focus on achievable performance goals. A precompetition mental plan should include confidence that the preparation is adequate, methods of avoiding self-defeating thoughts, methods of developing an optimal arousal state, positive performance imagery and mental suggestions such as “I have prepared…I am capable…I am in control…I am ready.” During competition, the athlete should be prepared to push the limits and should have particular focus words to use during different aspects of competition. Often athletes don’t pay enough attention to refocusing during precompetition and competition. Orlick suggests that if the athlete is not feeling up to his or her usual level to “keep it secret from your body. Your body won’t know and it will perform as it has been trained.” He also indicates that based on his personal experience it takes one to three years to refine a psychological plan enough to help performance consistently; the athlete needs to evaluate the plan after each competition in order to refine it further.

In his book, Mastering Your Own Game, David Kauss (2001) suggests a plan to improve athletic performance. He suggests that when using imagery to focus on all five senses and that imagery should not involve thoughts but can be a visualization of actual past events or of participating in a planned event. In addition, it is useful for an athlete to find a “spot” that is a physical place that is private with easy access and only used for working on the mental game; when in this spot the athlete can build the right internal environment for practicing psychological skills. Once this spot is obtained, the athlete can assess factors affecting his/her sports performance by examining the influence of significant people in his/her life, reviewing the important sports-related events such as falling in love with the sport, peak performances, nightmare performances, obstacles that were overcome and growth events, and identifying places of power that are significant to the individual. The athlete can also assess his or her daydreams about their sport by engaging in self-guided daydreams, journaling about the daydreams and examining the themes that are found such as need for achievement, need for affiliation, and need for power. He also suggests that the athlete keep a daily event diary to include recording events, thoughts, feelings, and actions in order to examine the patterns. Finally, he recommends practicing techniques of relaxation, body awareness, mental rehearsal and visualization, concentration building, and cognitive skills and to develop a personal psychological skills pack based on the overall assessment and personal effectiveness of the different techniques; the techniques in the pack should be assessed and changed based on what works and what doesn’t.

In order to control anxiety, Kauss (2001) suggests a worry spot technique of providing a time and place for worry rather than it being out-of-control. He espouses the Rule of Peak Performance: “Compete with the maximum amount of arousal that you can control.” Prior to performance, Kauss (2001) recommends a focus on the following factors: the last practice should be clearly identified, the importance of a rest period, a psychological skills pack review, a normal sleep schedule, attention to nutrition, dressing ritual, use of the psychological skills pack, and a physical warm-up prior to the final “go” signal.

Cognitive Principles to Enhance Performance
Williams and Leffingwell (1996) suggest that self-talk can be used to correct bad habits, to focus attention, to modify intensity level, and increase self-confidence. To identify self-talk, they recommend that the athlete review previous events and imagine events in order to have access to their internal processes; written logs can be helpful in analyzing the self-talk identified. In addition, if the athlete has difficulty identifying self-talk, observations by a sport psychologist can be useful. Once the self-talk has been identified, the athlete can analyze it for irrational content by asking a series of questions: “Are the beliefs based on objective reality? Are they helpful to the athlete? Are they useful in reducing interpersonal conflicts? Do they help the athlete reach goals? Do they reduce emotional conflict? (Williams and Leffingwell, 1996).” If the answer to these questions is “no,” the athlete needs to work on modifying the irrational self-talk. Several techniques can be useful:

  1. Firmly and deliberately stopping a thought;
  2. Changing negative thoughts to more realistic or positive thoughts;
  3. Countering negative self-statements; and
  4. Reframing the irrational thoughts (Williams & Leffingwell, 1996).

Goal Setting Principles
To achieve peak performance and competitive success, Weinberg (1996) suggests the importance of setting specific goals with target dates and strategies for achieving goals. He suggests that these goals should be written down and should include both long and short-term goals as well as goals for both practice and competition. The goals need to be realistic, but challenging, and need to be focused on performance, not winning. Finally, the athlete needs to develop concrete plans for achieving the goals with periodic feedback to assess effectiveness of the plan. Some common pitfalls to setting goals include not recognizing individual differences in setting goals, not setting measurable goals, and setting too many goals (Weinberg, 1996).

Gould and Damarjian (1996) indicate that imagery requires extensive practice similar to physical skills. An athlete can’t expect performance to be enhanced by using imagery just prior to competition and not practicing it otherwise. To enhance imagery, visual, auditory, tactile, and kinesthetic senses need to be utilized; in particular, dynamic kinesthetic imagery, which is the internal experience of movement, needs to be emphasized. The athlete should learn to control the content of the images as well as to take both the internal and external perspectives and to use real time images. Imagery can be facilitated by being in a relaxed state which can be attained by the use of video or audiotapes. If the athlete is experiencing a particular physical skills problem, imagery can be used to imagine the problem area and to develop methods in overcoming it. Common problems in imagery training include having unrealistic expectations, lack of commitment to practice, and lack of coach support (Weinberg, 1996).


Guidelines for Using Imagery to Enhance  Performance
The general literature has clearly shown the effectiveness of psychological skills training to enhance performance in sports. Although martial arts is a specialized area, there is a sufficient research base to conclude that sports psychology can assist martial artists with achieving peak performance in both katas and sparring. In particular, skills training can aid with regulating intensity in the martial arts as well as improving the physical skills required to be competitive.

This literature review indicates that important skills to teach in order to enhance performance in the martial arts include: concentration and focused attention (Fredrick, 1999; Williams & Elliott, 1999), confidence (Fredrick, 1999), relaxation, regulation of intensity level, and controlling anxiety (Chapman,, 1997; Fredrick, 1999; Taylor, 1996; Terry & Slade, 1995; William & Elliott, 1999), visual search strategies (William & Elliott, 1999), and self-talk (Ferrari, 1999).

A number of methods have been shown to be beneficial to teach these skills. Initially, a needs assessment can determine for each athlete how to individually focus psychological skills training (Kauss, 2001; Seabourne,, 1985). Cognitive restructuring can help manage intensity level, improve concentration, and build confidence (Williams & Leffingwell, 1996). Focused breathing, muscle relaxation and awareness, and meditation can be used to regulate anxiety, or intensity level (Seabourne, 1998; Weinberg,, 1981). Visuo-motor behavior rehearsal has been effective for improving physical performance of martial arts skills (Gould & Damarjian, 1996; Seabourne, 1984; Weinberg, 1996). Also, it is generally recommended to keep self-talk logs, a daily event diary, and to develop a written competition plan (Kauss, 2001; Weinberg, 1994; Williams & Leffingwell, 1996).

The recommended structure for psychological skills training is 15-30 minutes several times a week throughout physical training (Weinberg & Comar, 1994). An individualized program that teaches the participants skills that they can incorporate into a personal plan is most effective (Seabourne,, 1985).


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Monica A. Frank is a clinical psychologist and founder of Behavioral Consultants, P.C., a psychology practice in St. Louis, Missouri.  She is currently receiving additional training to certify as a sports psychologist and teaches a Sports PsychSkills class at the Martial Arts Center  ( For additional articles on sports psychology and other topics visit her website at


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