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"Mental Training"

Question: My teacher often talks about our karate, as well as other martial arts, as providing mental training in addition to our physical training. I'm never sure what this means. What does this refer to?


By Christopher Caile

When you talk about mental training in the martial arts, you are pointing to one of the main differences in the way the Japanese view training as opposed to those in the west. We all know, on some level, that the mental side of any activity is important. Anyone who follows basketball, tennis, golf or football can remember a game when something happened and the whole psychology of the game changed, and the outcome changed with it. But, despite this recognition, sports training in the west tends to focus on the physical -- power, technique, speed, etc. It was only in the 1950's that the concept of sports psychology even got started, and today, while there is more written on this subject, little actual mental training is incorporated into practice. In short, in the west we are more externally oriented.

This is very different in Japan (as well as some parts of Asia) where the internal aspects of martial arts always took precedence. It was always recognized that on the battlefield, where a psychological whirlwind of death and fear swirled around combatants, the quality of discipline, physical commitment, spirit, mental clarity and calm were as important, or more important, than training, skill and technique. During times of warfare young samurai were trained at birth to be totally committed to action without thought of the self or their own life. They lived a dedicated life of absolute discipline, austere training, and unforgiving practice mixed with psycho-religious practices (Mikkyo and Zen Buddhism) to prepare and train the mind.

In the modern age, while the samurai are little more than historical artifacts, and actual battlefield weapon skills are little practiced, the spiritual attributes of the samurai have been in part preserved, embodied into new forms of martial arts dedicated to the development of ethical values, discipline and personal development. These new arts, under many names -- some weapon based, others empty hand -- started in the 1600s and continue today. The most famous are the most modern -- kendo, judo, aikido and karatedo (actually adopted from Okinawa but infused with traditional values in Japan). An essential ingredient to each of these "do" forms ("do" forms, do meaning the way or path) was the concept of spiritual forging -- that is, hard disciplined, repetitious practice which both clarify and harden the mind as well as the body while perfecting technique. In the process the student was virtually transformed.

In the west, while this type of long term, hard practice is rarely seen, some parts of this training continue. Traditional martial arts schools continue to stress many things, all of which force the student to make difficult emotional decisions that build internal discipline, and strengthen him or her mentally and spiritually. One practice is etiquette, which forces the self (and ego) to become subservient to the school and training. There is also stress on developing the "non-quitting spirit" -- doing that extra push up, or extra exercise, or keeping your stance when it is painful. In freefighting (if it is within the art) students face their own natural fears and trepidations and learn how to deal with situations which are not comfortable, even threatening. Practice, too, often contains basics and more basics -- endless repetitions -- another method that forces the mind to let go and the body to take over as technique is internalized. And of course there is kata, which trains the body in automatic sequences of movement and technique and over time frees the mind of the body and movement, allowing it to achieve a heightened state of awareness and focus -- almost an impersonal observer sitting above and outside the action looking back at it. And the fact that many traditional martial arts schools incorporate meditation (or Zen training) and other spiritual practices into their curricula demonstrates the continued importance of mental development to martial arts practice.

When you compare hard martial arts training to western concepts of sports training there are several immediate observations. First, the western concept teaches technique faster. Thus, students immediately surge ahead in capability. But, increases in capability and technique tend to level off with time and to achieve the highest level of capability requires more than the physical. Thus, while eastern methods may at first be slower, over time they can provide that extra element of psychological training to transcend the pure physical plain.

Then there is the personal level. Traditional martial arts can also teach internal skills which provide students with a better ability of face themselves and the many problems and conflicts that life presents.

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