Karate and the Inner Game


October 2018


In Martial Arts it is important to develop the ability to move from perception into action without passing through cognition. This means responding to what we see, hear, feel or sense without thinking about it. Thinking about anything in our usual way takes time, and in a situation where one’s life may be on the line, time is of the essence. The problem for most of us is that we think in words. For example, beginners in karate, when questioned about how they are considering a technique will admit that they are talking their way through it, thus: “step back with the left foot, raise the right arm, twist across the body with a blocking movement and follow up with a reverse punch, not forgetting to twist the hips.” While this process works enough to let them struggle through the elements of the movement in roughly the right order, it completely negates the experience of harmonious movement in action. A better strategy altogether is to make an internal movie, a visualization of the whole move, based upon the example of the instructor. They need then just run the inner movie a few times, imagining how it would feel kinesthetically to move like the mental picture and they can begin to practice with ease.
UKC Newsletter October 2018 002Thinking in pictures allows the Martial Artist to take all of the elements of a situation into account simultaneously, and at the same time, anticipate extentions or other specific variables as they arise. On a neurological level, normal verbal thinking takes place in the left hemisphere of the brain, while visulaization is a function of the right hemisphere. Activity in one hemisphere tends to inhibit activity in the other. By paying attention to visualization and visual thinking, the Martial Artist automatically takes attention away from the linear sequential, inner talking process of the left hemisphere, while at the same time, focusing attention on the functions of the right hemisphere. Controlling one’s mind in this way, it is possible to learn more quickly and excute more precisely the skills of the Martial Arts.
When we consider the question, “what is thinking?,” many of us might assume it is like talking to ourselves inside our heads. Most thinking may follow this pattern, but there are other ways to think. Perhaps the most obvious alternative to inner talking is inner picturing or visualization. Thinking in pictures has some distinct advantages over thinking in words. At the same time, teachers and parents sometimes discourage this mode of thinking, giving it the label “day dreaming,” and thus, stifling its development. The major problem with verbal thinking is that it limits us to having one thought following another. Just as you would not be able to read this sentence if each letter was printed one on top of the other, so, to think in words, you must think one word after the other to make sense of the sentence. Thinking in pictures, on the other hand, allows us to consider several variables and their relationship to each other, simultaneously. This kind of thinking is essential in karate training.Sometimes a student will try to talk their way through a move and I notice that the attention that they give to the detail of the movement usually reduces the other elements of the technique. The result can be a robotic caricature of what they should be doing. A student who is working, even at a reduced speed, from an accurately visualized perception of a move, can execute the technique smoothly with an all inclusive harmony of form and power.

During a sparring match, the inner talking student can fall into complete disarray as his mind jumps around wondering, “what punch should I do?, should I kick now?, what is he going to do?, what will my friends who are watching think?,” etc. The visualizing student concentrates upon picturing connections and patterns of movement relative to himself and his opponent. He is simultaneously aware of his stance related to his opponents, the play of distance between them, the timing and rhythm of his opponent’s movement relative to his own, and the messages his opponent is sending him through his body language. As a result, the visualizing student is in touch with himself, his opponent and other environmental variables simultaneously and in the moment. The verbal thinker, on the other hand, is stuck in conceptual abstractions that obstruct and interfere with his perception of what is going on. His responses may be slow and robotic, and limited to the specific analytical moment he notices at the time. In short, he is out of touch and easy to defeat.

Visual thinking can be seen to be essential for success in karate training. It is important in many other areas of life as well. Think about it!

Shihan Robert H. Mason ©2018