Wednesday, February 2, 2011

The Importance of Visualization

Mental focus, concentration and visualization are some of the most important parts of your training. Most people are familiar with the saying that sports is 90% mental and 10% physical. Despite that, many people fail to spend as much time practicing in their heads as they do practicing on the floor. Yet again and again, top level athletes and performers in every field credit their success to mental preparation.

Jerry West, former Guard for the Los Angeles Lakers, had such a penchant for hitting buzzer beaters he was nicknamed ‘Mr. Clutch’. In one memorable game in which his team was trailing the Knicks with a few seconds left in an NBA Finals game, West took an inbound pass and shot from 60 feet at the buzzer. Knicks guard Walt Clyde Frazier recalls thinking: “The man’s crazy. He looks determined. He thinks it’s really going in!”. Of course, it did go in, sending the crowd reeling and the game to overtime. One time, when asked about his ability to frequently hit the big shot, West revealed the root of that confidence Frazier witnessed. West explained that he had already made those shots time after time in his mind. Jerry West, like so many other legends such as Michael Jordan, Larry Bird, Phil Jackson, Tiger Woods, Wayne Gretzky and countless others, realized the power of visualization.

What is Visualization?

Visualization is a form of guided mental imagery, where the performer imagines himself succeeding at his physical tasks. A popular visualization for athletes is the mental rehearsal of sporting events while ‘intending’ a desired outcome. Amazingly, research has revealed that visualization can actually enhance performance to nearly the same extent as physical practice. A study conducted by Dr. Blaslotto at the University Of Chicago is an intriguing example.

The goal of Dr. Blaslotto‘s study was to determine the effects of visualization on sports performance. As a performance measure for this experiment, the researchers chose the free throw percentage of a group of basketball players. First, to establish a basis for the study, the current free-throw success rate of each of the subjects was tested and recorded. Three groups were then established, and the athletes were assigned to one of the groups at random. After 30 days of testing and retesting, the results were as follows:

The third group, who neither physically practiced or visualized shooting free-throws, showed no increase in percentage.

The first group which physically shot free-throws for an hour daily, collectively improved thier free-throw shooting by 24%.

The second group, which practiced daily by visualizing shooting and making free-throws, collectively improved their free-throw shooting by a shocking 23% without having physically shot a basketball!

Another similar study was done by the Cleveland Clinic Foundation exploring the effects of visualization on muscle strength. The results of that study also astonishingly revealed increases to muscle strength through visualization, further reinforcing the fact that mental training is actually as impactful a tool in performance enhancement as physical training. In one of the most well-known studies on Creative Visualization in sports, Russian scientists compared four groups of Olympic athletes in terms of their training schedules:

Group 1 - 100% physical training;
Group 2 - 75% physical training with 25% mental training;
Group 3 - 50% physical training with 50% mental training;
Group 4 - 25% physical training with 75% mental training.

Group 4, with 75% of their time devoted to mental training, performed the best. In explaining the results the Soviet scientists involved concluded that, "mental images can act as a prelude to muscular impulses."

With each imagined repetition, a neural pathway is formed. Neural pathways in short, are clusters of neurons in the brain that work together to create a memory or a learned behavior. Dr. Blaslotto explained, “As your brain conceives of an act, it generates impulses that prompt neurons to ‘perform’ the movement being imagined by transmitting those impulses from the brain to the muscles.” This in turn creates a habit, or neural pathway in the brain, programming your body’s actions as if you physically performed the activity.

Studies show that the human mind has difficulty separating reality from imagined reality. If you’ve ever had a dream that felt “so real,” you understand. This happens because much of the brain is unable to differentiate between "real" events and "imagined" ones, and so treats them both the same in terms of chemical and physiological response. That's why when a person reads a sad story they cry, even though no actual sad events have occurred, or when they watch an action movie their temperature, heart rate, and adrenaline levels will increase, even though they are sitting perfectly still in a safe, dark movie theater.

We can use this to our advantage in our training. Visualization can help us to rehearse combative, dangerous, and challenging situations in order to prepare us for a violent encounter. It can also help us to improve our technique performance. The basketball study above showed almost the same improvement in groups that imagined practicing as in groups that actually hit the floor. If we combine both aspects of our training, we can see massive advances in our skill level.

It is also important to visualize an opponent when we perform our techniques. Any time you are practicing your kenpo in the air, imagine an opponent who you are intimidated by. See yourself hitting that opponent in the face, in the body. Put the situation into a context where you might be forced to defend yourself. You are safe in the school, but imagine you are having to do your kenpo in a dark, rain slicked alley late at night in a bad part of town. You will find that your mindset and your performance will be drastically affected by this kind of visualization.

When I am focusing on learning the proper anatomy of targets and weapons, I visualize a solid blue human body form, like this,
It helps me to visualize exactly what I am hitting, what effect it will have on my opponent, and how the surrounding anatomy will be affected.

But when I am practicing my techniques for self defense performance, I visualize a big, bad, scary looking man who intends to do terrible, terrible things to us all. It helps me to use the face of actor Danny Trejo.
You can use whatever images you like. Maybe someone from your past, maybe someone you saw on television. Maybe it helps you to see the image of something you find frightening like a monster from your childhood. The key is to select images which cause a visceral reaction for you, and then to train against that imagery and within that chosen context.

Everything that you experience takes place within your mind. Everything you perceive to be real, the things you touch, taste, see, smell, and hear, is actually just a highly detailed projected environment created by the computer in your head. It receives input from all the sensory organs and then compiles that into a hologram so real you never question it. But much of what you think you see is actually just the brain filling in holes in the information its receiving from one source with information it's receiving from another.

A particular blind spot known as the punctum caecum in medical literature is the place in the visual field that corresponds to the lack of light-detecting photoreceptor cells on the optic disc of the retina where the optic nerve passes through it. Since there are no cells to detect light on the optic disc, a part of the field of vision is not perceived. The brain fills in with surrounding detail and with information from the other eye, so the blind spot is not normally perceived. Even though you know it's there, and you can “see” it, it's actually just your brain telling you what it expects to be there. We can take advantage of this. Since our reality is only happening in our minds, we can create alternate realities, practice a number of scenarios within them, and benefit from that training. The brain can't tell the difference, and neither can the body.

So train hard. And think hard. Kenpo is a mental pursuit as much as a physical one. And the student who focuses on his performance and visualizes his success will find his reality matching what his brain expects to see.

Drills -
Beginner: During every technique repetition in the air, imagine a real, aggressing opponent. See your strikes hit real, vulnerable targets.

Intermediate: Perform a technique on the body. Close your eyes, and visualize yourself performing the technique perfectly, from start to finish, ten times against a real opponent. Now open your eyes and perform the technique on the body again. Pay attention to anatomical repositioning and accurate targeting.

Advanced: Imagine an attacker at 12 o'clock. When the opponent attacks, defend the original attack and then begin a counter offensive striking combination. Continue that action to a takedown and then a finishing move. Begin again with a standing opponent.

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