By Dr Rebecca Hill
You may have heard of this mental technique. What you may not realise is that you probably already use it. If you quickly review your opening tactics in your head before a fight, if you watch your instructor demonstrate a technique then imagine how it would feel to perform the movements, if you think how happy you would be to hit a new submission in sparring, then that’s imagery (A.K.A. visualisation or mental rehearsal). It’s about using your mind’s eye to create or recreate BJJ experiences.
What can you use it for?
A whole host of things! From learning new jiu jitsu skills to managing your thoughts and emotions in challenging situations. In a survey of elite athletes, sport psychologists Terry Orlick and John Partington found that imagery was highly effective in supporting peak performance, and that 99% of athletes used the skill before competing at the Olympics.
What should I be imagining?
The content of your mental images depends on your aims. If you want to learn and correct specific skills, then you could use imagery to review that new guard pass you learned at last weekend’s seminar. This is a super way to focus on the details that contribute to effective and efficient jiu jitsu technique.
You could also employ visualisation to figure out your game plan. Research indicates that athletes who use mental imagery to prepare strategies also execute their performances more accurately. For example, rehearsing technique flows and observing yourself implement your game in sparring. This helps you to see the bigger picture and move beyond individual techniques to a more holistic understanding of jiu jitsu concepts.
Imagery also has benefits for learning and performance in BJJ, beyond the refinement of physical skills. Regularly using this psychological tool can help you gain awareness and control over the mental process that influence performance. Athletes who imagine achieving their goal tend to be more motivated, putting in more effort and sticking to training plans (which then becomes a positive self-fulfilling prophecy).
If you want to feel mentally tough then you might imagine yourself working through challenging situations – such as an injury or a bad call from a referee – in a confident way. Want to manage your emotions under pressure? Then picture just that. You can mentally rehearse your pre-performance routines long before you step on the mat so when the time comes, your calm and collected approach feels like second nature. You might feel anxious but in your mind you’ve already practised dealing with the nerves a hundred times over.
How does it work?
There have been various ideas over the years. Highlighting the strong link between the mind and body, a recent theory emerging from neuroscience research is functional equivalence. Brain imaging techniques using MRI scanners have shown that when a person images, they activate the same parts of the brain that are used when they actually perform the activity. Imagery is thought to strengthen the neural pathways that lead to improved technique and sporting performance.
Any tips for making the most of imagery?
Remember it is not just for reviewing discrete techniques. It has a whole range of uses. Realise that it is much more than just mental rehearsal or visualisation. Create images which use all of the senses. To make your imagery as vivid as possible, pay attention to the sights, sounds, smells, tastes and even emotions of BJJ. One sense that is crucial for physical skills is kinesthesis, the sensation of bodily motion. Having a kinesthetic awareness provides feedback on your movement and helps to reinforce the appropriate responses, so pay particular attention to the feel of jiu jitsu.
Like any skill, imagery is something that improves with practise. Used in isolation, it won’t get you where you’re going; research suggests that physical practise plus mental practise produces greatest benefits. Unless you’re the Miyao brothers, however, there’s a limit to the amount of physical training you can do. Imagery is a very effective psychological tool when you can’t be on the mats, before going to sleep, while travelling or when injured.
Don’t just take my word for it. Here’s what Braulio Estima, Jiu Jitsu Style’s very own BJJ Doctor, said just before winning ADCC 2011:
“I see myself doing what I was planning to do, and I see myself winning, and I see the crowd screaming for my name. And not only visualisation but the smell and the feel as well. I try to get my senses towards what I aim to do…like the taste of victory…the sweat…the feel of grabbing the technique I wanted to do…the feel of the achievement, how to control the fight, the feel of the crowd celebrating, my celebration.”
And things turned out pretty well for him on that occasion. If it’s good enough for the champion, surely it’s good enough for us too, right?
Dr Rebecca Hill is a Sport and Exercise Psychologist chartered by the British Psychological Society, and an Education Adviser at the University of Exeter. She is also a BJJ black belt competitor under Professor Victor Estima.
Don’t forget to check out Gracie’s new online instructional website, Roger Gracie TV