What is Visualization and Why Should I Care?
Visualization (properly called "Creative Visualization" or if you prefer "Mental Rehearsal") is a technique whereby we can improve our martial arts techniques without physically practicing the techniques. That is, we can practice, and improve, our technique in our minds.
Through this series, we will learn strategies and processes that will enable us to refine techniques that we already know, internalize new techniques more quickly and ideally make some pretty big leaps in our training, not just in controlled environments like one-two drills but also in less structured events like sparring.
While there are many articles out there that discuss the benefits of visualization, I have yet to see one that provides a solid explanation of the processes involved, especially in a martial arts context. Make no mistake, visualization works and is a powerful tool, but it does require diligence and learning some techniques of its own before you can use it effectively. Fortunately, these basic techniques are simpler than you might think. Unfortunately, they require thinking in ways that many people are not used to.
This article will get us started with basic terminology (i.e. nerd talk) and exercises that will develop basic visualization skills. Subsequent articles will focus on more complex strategies in a martial arts context.
Visualization is not a replacement for putting in the rounds and doing the repetitions, but rather an addition.
Why call it visualization?
As noted above, there are other terms commonly used to describe the same process. New Age types are familiar with Creative Visualization and Neuro-Linguistic Programmers (NLP) often refer to it as "Mental Rehersal." Other terms include imagining and hallucination (and not necessarily derisively!). Visualization seems to be a relatively neutral term that gives us the most room to build on.
Despite the name, visualization is not limited just what we see, but encompasses all of our senses. We'll refer to these with the NLP terms of visual, auditory, kinesthetic and olfactory/gustatory modalities. Submodalities govern the particulars of these modalities (e.g. color or black and white are visual submodalities, loud or quiet are auditory submodalities, hard or soft are kinesthetic submodalities, etc.). This page lists sample submodalities. This page gives a technical explanation.
Most people rely primarily on one modality to process information in their daily lives and may find operating within (or even understanding those who use) a different modality difficult. Most situations we find ourselves in assume a visual modality and expect us to operate in that way - this works out well because most people rely on the visual modality. However, as martial artists, it is paramount that we learn to operate in a primarily kinesthetic modality. The troubleshooting section below lists a couple different strategies for enhancing your kinesthetic aptitude.
For visualization to be it's most effective, we want to be able to process information from all modalities simultaneously.
The ultimate goal with our visualization exercises is not merely to watch ourselves going through the action, like we were watching a video of ourselves, but rather to "experience" the event as if we were actually performing it. That is, seeing and feeling it as if we were there, in the first person rather than the third person.
Perhaps we can sum it up by saying, "don't just see it, be it."
Like any complex skill, visualization can take some time to perfect. We'll start with some relatively basic (but not necessarily easy!) exercises and then make them more complex as we build our skillz.
Should you find that you consistently have difficulty working with a given modality, check out the Troubleshooting section at the end of this article. Though it applies specifically to kinesthetics, one can easily adapt it to the other modalities.
Recreating a space
This drill is to help develop a sense of recall and will give you a means to "check" your answers as you go along. Try this drill next time you're in a familiar place and you can work undisturbed for a few minutes - while at home = good; while riding the bus = good; while driving the bus = bad.
Close your eyes. Take a few deep breaths and mentally try to recreate the room you're in. Things like, "smooth, red table in front of me...the walls are white...there are maps on the wall..." The auditory and olfactory components should be pretty easy to replicate since even with your eyes shut they'll be apparent to you. If you're having trouble placing things in the room, open your eyes, look at the object and then close your eyes again, specifically focusing that object.
How exact should one be with this? Well, the more detail the better but as a guideline, I'd say if you're confident enough that you could walk through the room with your eyes closed and not trip over anything, that's probably good enough.
As you get good at recreating spaces that you're familiar with, try it with some less familiar places.
Trip to the dojo
Using the same methods as you did in the exercise above, try to recreate, insofar as you are able to, a trip to your dojo. Start with leaving your house, getting on the bus or in your car, and go all the way to the front door.
The more details that we can bring evoke, in as many modalities as we can use, the better. What kind of day is it outside? How does the door open? Does anyone greet you? Is there music playing? Is there a class just getting out? Where do you change your clothes? When you get to the mat, you realize no one is there - you're early. Walk around, feel the mat under your feet. What does it smell like? Do the heavy bags creak when you push them?
Try this exercise before you go to your school again. Then, next time you do go to class, see how close you were. If you find that you've got some little bits that didn't quite fit in, note those things and work on them again for next time. If you've got a good handle on the scene, walk around and try to notice fine details that you can incorporate next time. If you need to, use the "recreating a space" exercise above to really get precise.
You may need a couple tries to get things the way you want them. You may find that you can recreate the space while you're there but not while you're at home. Draw a map or take notes if you need to.
Many of the exercises that we'll be working with later in the series will require you to visualize your dojo and areas within it, so spend as much time as you need to in order to get an especially clear visualization of this.
When you think you've got that, we'll increase the difficultly a little bit and move on to working the bags.
Working the bags
Before we get into working with techniques and improving them through our visualization, let's try something a little bit more difficult than just walking through spaces we're familiar with - let's visualize working on the bags. We'll go through the same process that we did when we were taking the trip to the dojo, but this time go a step further than we did before and feel your fists connecting with the bag, the weight moving, the springs squeaking and the bag doing whatever it does when you hit it.
This is much more freeform than the previous drill in that we're projecting action where none really exists. The bag moves, how do you move with it? How does how heartbeat change while working with the bags? Incorporate feedback, both in terms of what your body is telling you and what the bag is doing.
This drill can get a little more difficult than the previous one, so if you need to help it along at first by standing up and actually shadowboxing, go for it. Give it a "round" and then try doing it again with fewer/shallower movements. At this point, the movement is just to aid your visualization skills and get you "in the mode." If you can, reduce the movements even further until you're just barely twitching the muscles.
Our ultimate goal will be to work these visualizations while remaining still, or nearly still. If you have a hard time with this, check out the section "how can I become more kinesthetic" above, breathe with your stomach and pay attention next time you work the bags.
That's all for this introduction to visualization. Next time we'll examine how to improve our martial arts techniques using visualization.
How can I become more kinesthetic?
If you are having trouble thinking in terms of the kinesthetic modality, give the following exercises a shot:
- Use kinesthetic submodalities in your daily life. In everyday speech or writing, try to describe things in terms of feeling - hot/cold, heavy/light, etc.
- When breathing, try to breathe deeply and from your stomach or diaphragm. NLP types call this an "accessing cue" for kinesthetic modalities. It's awfully similar to where your instructors are telling you to breathe from, isn't it? There's a reason for that.
- Pay extremely close attention to a physical action the next time you do it. Then try to remember it a few minutes later. And again a few hours later. Start by doing something relatively simple that you can do quickly and easily - let's examine "knuckle draggers" (aka Hindu Squats).
- Feet are shoulder width apart, I can feel a little give in my mat and also the pebbled texture under my feet. I feel my weight shifting as a get a strong base.
- Chest expands as I take a couple deep breaths and I can feel the air rush past my face as I bring my hands up to my chest.
- Arms, thighs and then upper body drop in succession as I start the movement. The quads are tight on the first few reps and I have to remember to keep my knees from flaring. Inhale on the down movement, exhale on the way up.
- Come up on my toes while dropping and push off my heels while coming back up.
As an aside, this is a good exercise for figuring out what all those people mean when they tell you to "get in the now." As we get better with visualization we'll be able to get that "now" whenever we want it.