How to Use It to Boost Your Learning and Performance, by Itamar Shatz
Have you ever gone over a certain BJJ move in your head, because you felt that doing so can help you learn it? If so, then you’ve engaged in something called “mental practice”, which is the act of visualizing actions in your head in order to improve your ability to perform them in reality.
Research on the topic suggests that mental practice can be highly effective when it comes to various domains, including sports, and many BJJ practitioners already use this technique intuitively. However, not everyone is aware of this technique, and not everyone who uses it does so in the best way possible.
As such, to order to help you take advantage of this technique yourself, the following article will give you a brief introduction to the research on the benefits of mental practice, and then show you how you can use mental practice to improve your BJJ as effectively as possible.
The Benefits of Mental Practice in BJJ
First, an important caveat: relatively little research has been conducted on the effectiveness of mental practice in the context of martial arts, and little to no work has been done on mental practice in BJJ in particular.
Nevertheless, much research has been conducted on the use of mental practice by athletes in other sports, and such research strongly suggests that mental practice can be beneficial when it comes to the acquisition and training of various motor skills.
For example, a study on golfers found that mental practice can help them improve their golfing skills, and its findings suggested that “mental practice promotes the cognitive adaptation process during motor learning, leading to more elaborate representations than physical practice only”.
Furthermore, mental practice has been shown to help when it comes to other domains, such as strength performance, and has also been shown to help practitioners in entirely different fields, such as music and surgery.
All in all, given the abundance of evidence on the benefits of mental practice, there is strong support for the generalizability of those benefits to BJJ, despite the limited research that has been done on mental practice in BJJ in particular. This means that mental practice is likely to help BJJ practitioners looking to improve their skills.
How to Use Mental Practice in BJJ
At its core, mental practice is so simple and intuitive that many BJJ practitioners end up using it without being taught to do so, when they visualize moves that they want to perform better.
However, there are various ways to go about doing this, and finding the one that works best for you, based on your circumstance, personal preferences, and goals, can help make your mental practice more effective.
For example, if you’re trying to learn a new move that you just encountered for the first time today, it’s generally important to make sure to visualize all the small details that the move involves, so you can perform it properly later.
Conversely, if you’re just trying to sharpen your reflexes when it comes to remembering to use a certain counter that you already know, it’s generally preferable to only briefly go over it in your head, to remind yourself to use it where appropriate, since anything more than that will be redundant.
In addition, there are other ways in which you can vary the way you engage in mental practice, in order to make the most of it. For example, you can:
- Visualize the mental practice from different perspectives, including the first-person perspective (through your own eyes), the second-person perspective (through your partner’s eyes), and the third-person perspective (through an external observer’s eyes).
- Visualize yourself performing the necessary motions solo or with a partner.
- Visualize yourself performing the motions in different contexts, such as in a drilling situation or in a rolling situation.
In addition, note that you can also use mental practice when it comes to various BJJ-related activities, that don’t revolve primarily around improving your performance of a specific BJJ move.
For example, if you’re an instructor, you can mentally practice the explanation that you plan to give students during an upcoming class.
Similarly, if you’re a competitor who feels nervous about an upcoming match, one recommendation is to “visualize using the techniques [you] may use in the match… working towards victory in a step-by-step methodical manner” which can “interrupt the debilitating run-away anxiety cycle that is so counter-productive to optimal performance”.
When and Where to Use Mental Practice
The biggest advantage of mental practice is that it requires nothing more than your concentration; you don’t need things such as mats, a gi, or a partner in order to do it.
This makes mental practice particularly useful during times when you can’t otherwise train, which includes, for example:
- Times when there’s no gym available.
- Times when you’re sick or injured.
- Times when you can’t train for other life reasons (e.g. family or work).
In addition, even if you’re currently actively practicing BJJ, you can still benefit from complementing your regular practice with mental practice where possible.
For example, you can engage in mental practice during relatively unproductive times when there’s nothing else for you to do, such as when you’re riding public transportation.
Similarly, you can engage in mental practice shortly after learning new techniques that you want to remember, such as when you’re stretching and cooling down after class.
Important Caveat about BJJ Mental Practice
Just as you don’t want to drill moves incorrectly when it comes to physical practice, you don’t want to do this when it comes to mental practice either!
This means that if you’re not sure about how a certain move is performed, you shouldn’t try to mentally practice it, to avoid instilling bad habits. Save mental practice until after you’ve developed basic competency in that technique. This is especially important for beginners to keep in mind, since they’re generally more likely to make mistakes during mental practice, and are less likely to notice those mistakes, just like in regular practice.
Mental Practice Itself Takes Practice.
The ability to engage in mental practice is a skill in itself, meaning that some people are naturally better at it than others.
Similarly to physical practice of BJJ, what generally matters most in the long-term isn’t your innate ability, but rather your willingness to put in the necessary effort and to do things in a smart way.
As such, if you start using mental practice but feel that it’s not working well for you, try giving it some time, and test out different variations of mental practice until you find the one that works best for you. If you do this, you will likely find that your ability to engage in mental practice improves over time, as does the degree to which you benefit from it.
About the Author: Itamar Shatz is a BJJ blue belt and a PhD candidate at Cambridge University. He writes about psychological and philosophical concepts that have practical applications at Effectiviology.com