The Importance of Mental Training

The draw for the 50th All Japan open tournament in the Shinkyokushin organisation has just been announced.

In my competitive days, viewing the draw was one of the most nerve-racking aspects of the competitive process, seeing the potential match-ups that may occur on the way through the tournament, and imagining how the bouts with specific opponents will play out.

Depending on the proximity of the draw release, or announcement of a fight in the case of a one-match event, to the date of the competition (which in even the Shinkyokushin organisation can differ between 2-3 months in Japan, to the night before in Europe), viewing the draw may often coincide with the switch to a more specific phase of preparatory training, or the transition into a competition phase of training. In addition to the change in physical training process, this is also a period where mental training methods should be emphasised.

The integration of supplementary mental training (referred to as psychological skills training, or PST) has a strong base of practice, and has been shown to improve athletic performance in a variety of different sports1. PST was first integrated into the training systems of athletes in the former Soviet Union, and these days is used to some degree by the majority of elite-level athletes.

There are a numerous methods of PST targeted at developing different abilities or addressing specific issues with athletes. We will briefly discuss 3 of them here.

Visualisation to Achieve Optimal Arousal

To perform any task effectively, one requires a mental environment conducive to the execution of said task, and we often refer to this state in terms of arousal. Arousal is the state of alertness of the system, and is controlled primarily by the Reticular Activating System (RAS) in the brain2. The level of arousal depends primarily on emotional and psychological factors related to a person’s interpretation of an event or situation3. However, as the amount of arousal experienced is driven by the activity of different neurotransmitters, other influences on the activity of these neurotransmitters, such as food and medication, may also influence arousal level. Optimal Arousal is based off of Yerkes-Dodson Law4, which states that there is a certain level of arousal that is optimum for the performance of a task. If arousal levels fall below this level, alertness and responsiveness will not be sufficient to perform the task. If arousal levels are above this level, coordination and decision-making will be impacted to the point where performance is decreased.

Whilst it is possible for an athlete to experience under-arousal, the more common experience for most athletes is one of over-arousal. One exercise that is effective in addressing over-arousal is combining visualisation with progressive relaxation. Progressive relaxation is just one of many techniques that can be used to achieve a more relaxed state. This exercise involves firstly scanning the body, either from the head down or the feet up, and noting the level of tension in each muscle. From here, sequentially contract each muscle group before attempting to relax completely. Each contraction and relaxation can be combined with a deep extended diaphragmatic breath to increase the effectiveness of the technique.

Once you have used this technique to initiate the relaxation process, try to create an image of a relaxing environment; lying on a beach etc., whatever works for you. Once you have used this image to become as relaxed as possible, you will move on to the actual competition imagery, but keep this relaxing image handy as you will come back to it later. Now, move into imagery of the bout itself. Start wherever you like, but try to make the images as vivid as possible. Try to imagine not only the visual aspects but also the crowd, the smell, the feel of the fighting surface on the feet etc. For me, the most stressful moment of the fighting experience was when the decision was being made in the match before mine. If you have a specific point in competition which you find particularly stressful, then focus on that for a period of time whilst alternating back to your relaxing image. Repeating this process will help desensitise this stressful stage, and reduce the anxiety that occurs at the actual event.

Changing Attentional Focus

Like focusing the lens of a camera, the focus with which we view an athletic scenario can be narrow or broad. The broader the focus, the less detailed the information captured will be. As the focus narrows, the amount of detailed information available to the athlete increases. The focus used must be functional to the task at hand. In most cases, for combat scenarios, the focus needs to be fairly narrow. The athlete needs to be able to block out excessive stimuli, both external; from the crowd, opposition corner etc., and internal; pain, negative self-talk etc. However, focus shouldn’t be so narrow that it impedes the athlete’s ability to react to the movements of the opposition or changes in the dynamics of the bout. Part of this ability to adjust focus is genetic and enhanced organically through competition experience. However, focus may also be improved through specific exercises.

A simple exercise to train focus is to sit in a room with a TV and a stereo etc., set at the same volume. Start watching the TV whilst listening to the radio. After a prescribed amount of time, switch to watching and listening to the TV. You can make this more difficult by using a partner or an alarm, as a cue to change concentration as quickly as possible. Progress the exercise by including more frequent changes in focus, and a greater variety of timed intervals. You may start off with a minute of each, for 10 minutes, then progress to intervals of 10-30seconds. Once this becomes comfortable, in that the athlete feels they are able to completely change focus in a short amount of time, the interval lengths should be changed randomly.

Positive Affirmation to Improve Self-Efficacy

The specific type of confidence related to performance is called self-efficacy ,and is defined as “your belief in your ability to do what is necessary to obtain a certain outcome5. Self-efficacy is related to a person’s belief in their ability to achieve a particular task or goal. If this belief is deep enough, it can overcome periods of poor performance and short-term failures, and keep an athlete on track to accomplishing their goals. Losses, and poor performance can be defining moments for athletes. Those with lower self-efficacy and self-worth are likely to engage in negative self-talk in these instances, and, if this occurs too many times, the athlete’s confidence may be depleted, and any chance of them reaching their goals becomes more and more unlikely. Athletes need to create self-worth regardless of result, and be able to view losses objectively and positively.

Using positive affirmation can assist in improving self-efficacy, as well as centering focus. For athletes who tend to let self-doubt and negative self-talk interrupt their focus, having a positive affirmation to fall back on and help re-focus can be invaluable. As an exercise, take a statement such as “I am strong, and I deserve to win.” and repeat this for 2 minutes without the mind wandering. As this gets easier, try extending the repetition to 10 minutes. Once you are able to focus on a single thought for this amount of time, you will find it much easier to bring this thought into focus during training and competition.

Athletes should structure their mental training in the same way they do the physical aspect of their preparation. Psychological skills training, including many more example exercises, as well as a structured guide to goal-setting, is in featured in the “The Science of Striking”, set for release in early November. Stay tuned for further details.

Perhaps this athlete needed to prioritise his mental preparation!


1.           Birrer, D. & Morgan, G. Psychological skills training as a way to enhance an athlete’s performance in high-intensity sports. Scand. J. Med. Sci. Sports 20, 78–87 (2010).

2.           Steriade, M. Arousal: revisiting the reticular activating system. Science 272, 225 (1996).

3.           Kerr, J. H. The experience of arousal: A new basis for studying arousal effects in sport. J. Sports Sci. 3, 169–179 (1985).

4.           Broadhurst, P. L. The interaction of task difficulty and motivation: The Yerkes-Dodson Law revived. Acta Psychol. (Amst.) 16, 321–338 (1959).

5.           Bandura, A. Self-efficacy: toward a unifying theory of behavioral change. Psychol. Rev. 84, 191 (1977).

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