It was the beginning of last year when I didn’t train any Muay Thai. The lack of training partners and my decision to work more on my wrestling and BJJ made it hard to get a good Muay Thai session in. Still, I felt like my Muay Thai was improving.
How was that even possible? I didn’t even train physically, but I was teaching Muay Thai once a week at a gym in Berlin.
You might have heard the saying: “To teach is to learn twice”. I hated that saying because I was 100% sure that my improvement would be even better if I trained it properly. But still it was kind of true, I made improvements. And there was a reason why I improved:
I thought about the techniques I wanted to show. While imagining, I thought about ways to break down the movement into steps, putting it into words and explaining them to my students. For every technique I had an exact verbalization. This made the execution way easier. I was basically training mentally.
What is Mental Practice?
Mental practice is a planned imagination of movement and outcomes without physically executing it. It is a pretended experience that imitates, creates and regulates real experience.
The methods are far more than pure visualization. It means that you do the imagination repeatedly on a schedule. There is a whole system behind the visualization.
The effects are broad: Performance increase and development, movement optimization, focus control and a increased efficiency. Promising so much, this seems to be quite an effective method.
For real? Sport scientists say that if I do mental training, I have better control of my focus in competition. How does that work?
The Mechanism: Effect-Theories of Mental Practice
Curiously I wanted to know more about it. Why does it increase my performance? I found ten(!) different theories that all had a different approach to explaining how the effects of mental practice occur . Sometimes I hate science for its discrepancies.
Let me break it down to three theory groups and you choose what you want to believe:
- Classical theories: Due to the imagination, electrical signals with the same pattern as if you execute the movement stimulate the muscle. Movement sequences get saved in relevant structures of the brain.
- Cognitive theories: Once a word and image is saved in your brain, the chances are very high that you can use that information when executing the movement. The imagination itself changes psycho-physiological factors and creates new neural connections.
- Condition-based psychological theories: Imagination increases confidence in the movement. It also causes a psychological stimulation that helps finding the perfect arousal-level for the performance situation. Therefore, the performance increases.
I personally believe in a mix of the classic and psychological theories.
How to train mentally?
There are different methods of mental training. A few things you can do:
- External observation of movement: Sometimes it’s enough to watch other people executing moves. I like to watch fight videos and always learn a lot just by watching someone fighting.
- Internal observation of movement: That’s what most people know as visualization. You create your own image.
- Inner monologue: Here you put the moves into words and explain it to yourself. That’s what I did when preparing to teach.
- Imagination with environmental influences: Once you can imagine the movement, you can start to connect it with influences and feelings. I can imagine the noise of the crowd, the smell of the arena, the feeling of the rough canvas and how all this affects my emotions in a fight.
The last option has the biggest benefits in terms of self-efficacy. By including the imagination of environmental influences and connecting them to the senses and emotions you can stimulate a broad area of your brain.
To mentally practice a move, you can use the steps I give you and adapt it to what works for you:
- Create a script.
Put the movement you want to train into words and write it down. It’s always better to write it down. Writing it down is the slowest and safest way to explain something. Try to be as detailed as possible.
- Watch footage.
You can either use footage of yourself doing the move or you watch the optimal execution by someone who is really good at it. Try to find more details that make the move special.
- Optimize with your script.
After watching the videos, you can now add the details that you notice or correct your written imagination. This is the first correction you make and it can prevent you from making mistakes while physically executing.
- Present your script.
Try to learn the most important points of your script by heart and present it. It doesn’t matter who you present it to. Whether it is to a class, to your friend or to yourself, it doesn’t matter. The only thing that matters is that you speak it out loud. Talking about a technique in detail is also a kind of mental training.
- Break your move down.
Right now you still see your move as a whole concept. Try to break it down. There are points at some phases of your move that are significant for successful execution. Break your move down into phases and important points with the important details.
- Add intensities.
When you got a feeling for the phases of the move, you can add intensities. You can scale intensities, but I find it easier to find words that describe it. If something is very intense for me, I call it “burning” or “killing”. If it’s not very intense, I simply call it “easy”.
- Connect it to emotions.
How do you feel when executing the different phase of your move? What does the intensity do to your emotions? Do you get a rush of happiness when you connect with your fist while executing a punch? Be aware of your emotions and add them to your script.
Mental Practice has proven effects!
A control-study  showed the effects of mental training for two different tasks, a pursuit rotor task and a pegboard task, both cognitive and motor tasks. In both tasks there was a significant improvement between pre- and post-test of the group that only did mental training compared to the control group that didn’t practice at all.
The study also shows clearly that physical training can’t be replaced with mental training. But, the result of the pursuit rotor task is very interesting: The group with 75% physical practice and 25% mental practice showed the most improvement.
What we can learn from this:
- Mental practice is better than no practice at all.
- Physical practice is superior to mental practice.
- Mental practice can supplement physical training to increase performance .
Now imagine you are injured. You can still practice your moves and prevent making steps back. You can even become better and learn something new without executing any movement. Being injured is the perfect situation for you to use mental training.
If you feel that your body needs a long time to recover from a hard training session, you can supplement your physical training with mental training. But keep in mind that your psychological system also needs time to recover.
Psychological recovery takes longer than physical recovery.
With that said, I would advise mental training only when you are recovered, but hindered to attend to a physical practice. I train mentally for fight situations. You can practice your fight moves in the gym, but you can’t practice your reaction to environmental influences. With imagination, I can prevent overwhelming feelings and emotions in competition. Therefore, I can go into a fight with more focus on using the moves I’ve learned.
Take it easy,
- Mayer, J & Hermann, H.-D (2011).Mentales Training. Springer-Verlag: Berlin.
- Hird et al. (1991). Physical practice is superior to mental practice in enhancing cognitive and motor task performance. Journal of Sports and Exercise Psychology 13(39): 286-287.
- Schmidt, R. & Lee. T.D. (2005). Motor Control and Learning. Human Kinetics: Champaign.