Think big and your deeds will grow

Think small and you’ll fall behind

Think that you can and you will

It’s all in the state of mind

I first read those words when I was nine or ten years old. Written by a late nineteenth century poet and inscribed on a small wooden plaque that hung on the wall of my grandfather’s attic, in Easton, Pennsylvania. Now that plague sits perched on a windowsill in my dojo.

Think positive, visualize success and it will follow. The mind influences every aspect of our lives, including our martial arts, and the mind is the source of visualization. Visualization is governed by the breath-mind-body connection.

Learning to visualize a muscle under stress not only increases the strength and development of that muscle and the tendons that attach the muscles to the bones but is also a solid starting place for learning to positively visualize any movement, technique or circumstance that affects our strength, timing, and ability to control the outcome of a situation.

Martial Artists Have Used Visualization for Centuries

visualization martial arts

The Heian (peaceful/calm mind) katas of Japanese Shotokan karate were a method of teaching breathing and movement that originated in China, then passed to Okinawa and from Okinawa to Japan. Breath and movement is at the heart of every technique, every exercise. Without visualization, martial arts become an empty dance, the skin without the snake.

So how does it work?

Stress of any kind, mental or physical, including visualizing an opponent attacking or defending, activates the nervous system, particularly the sympathetic – fight or flight – system and causes the release of hormones: adrenaline, cortisol, testosterone and human growth hormone. These hormones accelerate the heart and increase speed, strength and intensity.

In a study done at the Cleveland Clinic Foundation in Ohio participants increased their physical strength by 13.5 percent by mentally visualizing exercise, with no actual exercise at all.

Visualization of a contest, fight or kata (form) aids in the technical performance and positive outcome of the event.


visualization martial arts

Visualization is the factor that divides random movement from movement with intent. In other words, a punch thrown to the Jodan (face) area of the body may be one of two things: a callisthenic, an exercise or simply a movement of the arm to a position that is level with the face…  or a movement with the intent of damaging an opponent.

The difference is the visualization of the opponent. I have seen many karate-ka with beautiful dojo technique, high kicks and fluid movement, and they couldn’t fight their way out of a paper bag. They were no more than dancers. And one of the greatest karate-ka ever, my Sensei Keinosuke Enoeda, had technique that looked, to me, not as pretty as some of his pupils yet Sensei possessed more power and ferocity that any man I have ever seen in a dojo.

Master Enoeda said, “It does not matter if you have had one hundred fights and cannot remember what happened during any of them. Win or lose, it does not matter. You have learned nothing. The outcome has no meaning in your development as a person or martial artist. What matters is when you remember what technique was successful and what was not. Then you can see how you won and how to win again.”

Study on Visualization

visualization martial arts

In a respected Russian study on visualization, scientists compared 4 groups of Olympic athletes with respect to their training regimens. (This study is described in Karate Of Okinawa: Building The Warrior Spirit by Robert Scaglione)

  • Group 1 trained exclusively with physical training.
  • Group 2 used 75% physical training with 25% mental training, visualizing the movements that were relevant to their events.
  • Group 3 trained 50% physically and 50% using creative visualization, mentally creating their event.
  • Group 4 trained with a ratio of 25% physical to 75% mental.

At the end of the study, Group 4 performed best.

Nose Breathing is Key

visualization martial arts

In a study at the Northwestern University Feinberg School Of Medicine in 2016 it was discovered that nasal breathing (inhalation in particular) – not mouth – stimulates brain cells, particularly in the area known as the limbic system, the system that, along with the formation of memories, is responsible for our emotional life. Perceiving and processing images and other data that trigger reactions like fear and anger, connecting directly to our central nervous system to stimulate the fight or flight response.

This explains why the sight of a coiled rattlesnake (or thought of a coiled rattlesnake) can cause a burst of the stress hormones that elevate heart rate, raise blood pressure and increase metabolism – to produce the strength and energy necessary to fight or run.

The same thing applies to the imagined image of a fierce opponent attacking. You defend and attack according to your opponents imagined movements. This prepares your body for quick response and conditions your nervous system for a real event.

visualization martial arts

Nose inhalation is key. The nose provides deeper breath, more calm, more intensity and a stronger connection to the brain. Mouth exhalation is fine, especially when using kiai or ‘spirit shout’ to focus a technique.

Use imagery, or visualization, when performing kata or hitting a heavy bag. Without the visualization of a living opponent, all kata is just empty movement, form without function; it is the skin without the snake. When hitting a heavy bag, or shadow boxing, the bag must be visualized, as an opponent, and shadow boxing, like kata, must be practiced with an imagined opponent in mind. Otherwise the practice is not martial art but just another aerobic exercise.

Inhale through the nose, visualize the objective then exhale as you release the energy through the technique. Load and release… Focus…

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