In solo martial arts training, visualization can be a very powerful tool. This is not some new revelation. In almost all forms of sport, dance, combat or other physical challenges, visualization is used to focus the participant’s mind on an idea or outcome. However, this type of mental exercise is particularly important when you are training alone for combat since that fight, if it ever occurs, will be with another person. Traditional martial arts exercises are often labeled as unrealistic by people who do not understand the mental aspects of training. Kata in particular can appear abstract and unrelated to fighting.

Many that make these claims also feel that kumite (sparring) is the better means to prepare for a real fight since another person (the opponent) is present. What they do not acknowledge is that along with that person comes rules. All forms of kumite in a civilized society have rules whether they are point sparring and self-defense drills or professional, full contact, mixed-martial arts fighting. Rules are a good thing. Rules keep us relatively safe so we can compete and train within an accepted level of risk.  But, unfortunately, there are no rules in the real-life situations we want to be prepared for. Kumite is a valuable exercise that teaches many lessons but if we spend all our time training within a certain set of parameters, we will not be ready when something “else” is needed. For example, if you never strike to the groin, eyes and neck, never break arms or legs, never bite or scratch for that matter, it is unlikely that you will instinctively consider these self-defense techniques in a serious altercation.

On the other hand, all these techniques from the softest controlling movements to killing blows are contained in kata, and visualization can be a great tool towards finding these techniques and training with a real-life mindset. There are a number of ways to use visualization while practicing kata. I intend to discuss more of these ideas in the future but let’s start with “seeing” and reacting to specific attacks. To do this, I slow down whatever I am working on and visualize an opponent and an attack before I make each move in the kata. This is a little like playing jeopardy since you have to figure out the question based on the answer; you have to look at what you are doing and ask yourself what attack might elicit this response. Then you have to backtrack, visualize the attack, and commit to the move in the kata with the intensity and focus of someone defending his life.

Visualizing specific attacks in this way is useful but can also be complicated. Often we resort to “seeing” the same attacks again and again because our understanding of what we are doing in kata is limited to what we have been shown. The key is to break things down to their smallest components. Do not worry if a series of techniques do not flow well based on one attack. Train each one movement (or each small sequence) as if it exists independently from the whole kata. The key here is to think outside the box and see more possible attacks as well as more possible responses within your movements. Good visualization skills open many doors to discovering useful technique and, at the same time, allow us to freely train for all possible scenarios.

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