A side of combatives that I have a deep interest in is the mental aspect, or the role of the mind in self defence. The physical stuff is obviously important, but so to is the psychology surrounding it all. I think we all know that by now. Despite this, mental training never seems to me to be given the attention it deserves. It is often talked about in theory, but not much reference is ever made to actually doing mental training techniques alongside the physical training.
I mean yeah, the physical training helps a great deal in training the mind. You can’t change one without the other right? So if you train the physical stuff long enough you can’t help but develop certain mental attributes, not to mention cultivate a fair degree of mental toughness in the process.
However, what if the mental training was given more focus and attention, with mental training exercises and drills integrated into the physical training? Would this approach not be beneficial to any combatives practitioner? Would it not help to accelerate their progress?
I think it would, which is why I’m writing this article, to outline an approach one might take to integrating specific mental training drills into your usual physical training.
The fact is, there is nothing new in what I’m proposing here. Athletes from all kinds of different disciplines have been using mental training techniques for many years. Mental training is in fact a vital part of their game and a massive contributing factor to their success. Ask any successful athlete if they regularly do mental training exercises and they will all without fail tell you that they do. Every successful athlete has their own mental rituals that they use in training and before big events. Most of those rituals are also all based on just a few basic principles, principles that must be adhered to if mental training is to have the necessary impact on the athlete’s performance.
Psychological Skills Training
In sports psychology they talk about PST, or Psychological Skills Training. This is a form of training that has been designed to specifically work the mental aspects of an athlete’s game. Certain mental habits and psychological traits have been identified over the years by sports psychologists as being of pivotal importance when it comes to success and failure in sport. Some of these traits include confidence, self-efficacy, resilience, not being afraid to fail etc. These are traits you would expect every successful athlete to have, and as we have said already, some of these traits will naturally develop just through physical training and event experience. However, if these traits and mental habits are more focused on and worked on, they will obviously develop at a faster rate than they will through indirect development by itself alone.
There is plenty of source material available on-line that relates to PST so I’m not going to get into a whole technical discussion here. The purpose of this article is to see how PST can help us in combatives training and self defence in general. How can we integrate PST into our usual physical combatives training?
Well first we must take a look at what exactly makes PST work. Why is it effective and how is it done?
There are basically three key elements to psychological skills training that researchers have identified as being vital components in any mental skills training program or exercise/drill and these are: Breathing, Relaxation, and Self Talk. These three elements will generally form the backbone of any mental training drill, combining together to produce an effect on the athlete that is greater than what any of the individual elements could create by themselves.
We’ll take a moment here to look at each of these elements in turn before we discuss how to integrate PST into our own combatives training.
Breathing is again one of those things we just take for granted and pay very little attention to. In fact, unless you have done some kind of meditation it is unlikely you will be aware of the power breathing has to focus you.
Like I said just concentrating on your breathing for a short time can do wonders for your focus. It can also help control adrenaline levels in the body, which is obviously useful under stress.
So basically any kind of mental training exercise has to start with the breathe, with focused, rhythmic breathing. This is the beginning of the process and the way to initiate a change in state that will be more conducive to better performance.
The second component in this process is relaxation of the mind and body, but the body especially. Focusing on the body will help to relax the mind. Tension is not good for your performance and in all its forms it will contribute big time to you fucking up or not performing to your best and beyond. Tension is a performance killer, which is why it needs to be eliminated or greatly reduced through the use of relaxation exercises.
Again, there are plenty of resources on-line that can teach you how to relax your body in the way we are talking about here. It’s a very simple process and one which takes less and less time to do the more you actually practice it. You want to get to the stage where you can relax your entire body almost instantly, which isn’t as hard as it sounds. Like I say, all it takes is practice and the right trigger.
The focus on the breathing and the relaxing of the body will combine to expel any tension you might have. You won’t be fighting against yourself anymore. The goal is to get everything working in smooth unison, a state of naturalness…or as close as you can get anyway.
What you are actually trying to do with this process is bring about an alpha brain wave state. Most people spend their time in a beta brain wave state, which isn’t very conducive to good performance. The beta state actually puts a block on your natural instincts which will prevent your training from coming through and doing it’s job. An alpha state will remove that barrier and allow your training instincts to come through. What we want is the optimum performance state, and alpha is that state.
I’ll be discussing the alpha state in another article, specifically how it can improve your training and help you better manage stressful events, such as aggressive or violent confrontations. For now I just want to get across the idea of mental training in general.
This is the final main component in any mental training exercise, self talk— what you actually say to yourself throughout this process, from beginning to end. You might start by just telling yourself to focus, to breathe and to relax, to deeply relax. Once your mind and body are relaxed then you begin to positively encourage yourself. You counter any kind of negative self talk with more positive affirmations.
Imagery, or visualisation is also important here as well. The use of positive imagery in this state can really help to prime you and trigger whatever feelings or emotions you need to succeed and perform at your best.
All this will help to maintain a good positive mental state and a higher degree of self-efficacy, all of which will help you handle situations better.
The Drawback Of PST When It Comes To Self Defence
Psychological skills training is primarily designed to aid athletes in competition. It seems built on the assumption that you will have time to prepare yourself before the big event. In combatives and self defence, this poses somewhat of a problem, that problem being that you won’t exactly have time to prepare in a self defence situation.
In a competitive event you know exactly when you will have to perform, so you can take time just beforehand to prepare your mind with the techniques just described. In most self defence situations you don’t normally have the luxury of time to prepare your mind for action. In a competition you also have nothing else to think about, nothing to really distract you from your goals (which we will talk about in a minute). In a self defence scenario you may have many distractions, the most important and the most pressing being yourself. You will likely be occupied doing something or other when these situations arise, be it drinking in a pub, talking with friends, listening to your ipad, thinking about a thousand other things other than what you are going to do if attacked. When you become the focus of someones aggression it can be hard to think of anything else but what is immediately happening. It seems like a bit of a tall order then, to expect to just relax in that moment and immediately shift into a different physical and mental state. You will have little time in which to do so and likely won’t have the capacity for the concentration required to make that shift, at least not in that moment of confrontation.
So what’s the solution? How do we change state in an instant without having to really think about it? Well the answer to that seems to me to be training, shockingly enough. You would have to recondition your mind in training so that you either shift into a different state without thinking (or by using a trigger action), or try to stay in that state permanently. The former option seems a more likely solution to me, at least in the beginning. The state we are talking about here is a ready-for-action state, but one of relaxed mindfulness, nothing too intense, although it is easy to ramp up the intensity if need be. I can think of worse states in which to exist in. A confident awareness. Trust in your own abilities. Instinctual action. All good traits to have in daily life.
Integrating Mental Skills Training
I’m still at the very early stages with all this, which means I’m still working on what to include in training and how to include it. My thinking is this though: If you don’t have much time to use the techniques described earlier then you need to find a way to instantly access those techniques. What would be even better would be for you to utilise those techniques without any real conscious thought. You would just automatically fall into the desired state, without consciously having to try and put yourself there. The only way to achieve that however, is to make the mental training techniques a part of everything you do in your regular training sessions. You have to practice the fuck out of them alongside all your physical stuff.
Let’s take breathing and focusing on the breath. This would be pretty simple to integrate. Before you do a drill or a technique, anything at all in fact, you take a moment to focus on your breathing and consciously relax yourself. I’m only talking about twenty or thirty seconds here, but you can do so for longer if you want. It’s been my experience that the more you do these kinds of techniques the less time it will eventually take you to reach a good level of relaxation and focused attention. The goal here would be to get this down to just a few seconds or less. It can be done quite easily with practice.
Once you are in that state you would then do your drill or whatever as normal. Just by taking that moment before you start can have a real impact on your performance. It’s actually quite astounding sometimes the difference it can make. You become more focused, less rushed, more deliberate, more limber and more powerful. You are in effect getting out of your own way to allow your instincts and your training to do their job and accomplish the goal you have set for them, whatever that may be. You are tapping the professional mindset I’ve discussed on this blog before.
Goal setting is a part of this process as well. You must know what you want to do and what you need to focus on to get the job done. In training that could just simply be hitting a pad three times with power and good technique. In a full-on confrontation, the goal can be to talk the other person down, find an escape route or hit an attacker before they hit you. Having a goal in mind will keep things focused.
Although I haven’t been integrating this breathing/relaxation exercise into my training for too long, I believe that it is possible to shift into that ideal state almost automatically given enough training. Like everything else you do in training, the state change should become second nature in times of stress. Like I said though, you must do the breathing/relaxation/self talk exercise before every drill, fight or scenario that you do in training. Eventually the desired state will become a part of everything you do. Even if, through years of physical training and experience, you already automatically shift state, by doing the specific mental training I’m talking about, that state can be enhanced further still. And if you are just beginning, think of how much quicker you will be able to learn to access the optimum performance state if you do mental skills training from the start.
It’s been proven already that this stuff works. The US military (and the Navy Seals in particular) have been integrating such mental skills training into their own programs for years, and anecdotal evidence from soldiers suggest that such training is making a difference to how they handle stress and confrontation in the field, not to mention the enhancement of skills. Athletes have also been doing this stuff for many years. It just seems to me that more of an effort should be made to make this stuff more a part of regular combatives and self defence training, especially when you consider the very real benefits that can come from such training.
The problem with mental training in the self defence/martial arts world is that most people subscribe to the belief that mental skills cannot be taught and are only a by-product of physical training. That’s just a very lazy assumption, in my view. Mental skills can be taught. We just need to think harder and work harder on actually making such training not only practical and useful, but also an essential part of regular training. I think it’s time we started to go beyond the rather ill-defined concept of the “combative mindset” and shift into something a bit more defined and concrete, practical and workable. Most importantly, learn-able.
So that’s basically where I’m at right now, and it’s where my focus will stay in 2014. I’ve made good progress on this already and I’m starting to develop a training program based around what I just talked about.
Like I said, it’s fine talking about this stuff, but it’s no good if you can’t find a way to train it.
Since I wrote this article I have done a lot of research into the whole area of mental skills training and sports psychology in general.
Well I am sorry to say that the vast majority of this stuff is bullshit with a capital B.
If you want to know why you can read the relevant chapter in my book, Self Defense Solutions.