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A Combat Mind: Mental Conditioning and Meditation

by Alicia Lu


Photo Credit: George Shahda, Flickr user

“When the swordsman stands against his opponent, he is not to think of the opponent, nor of himself, nor of his enemy’s sword movements. He just stands there with his sword which, forgetful of all technique, is ready only to follow the dictates of the subconscious.” —Zen master Takuan Soho

Many of the world’s most effective fighters share one common trait. It’s a proven method for improving one’s skills and focus in combat. However, this practice involves no physical activity. In fact, it requires the absence of physical activity. According to Michael Raposa, the author of Meditation and the Martial Arts, “Meditation is one of the practices in which martial artists engage in order to prepare for combat.”

Take Aikido, for instance, Raposa observes, which uses one’s encounter with an enemy as an opportunity to achieve a state of total self-awareness. This kind of mental state is what many fighters strive to achieve across all the martial arts. But that kind of self-awareness and mental focus can only be gained through some form of mental conditioning.

Today mental conditioning can take many forms, one of the most popular of which is yoga, and applies to just about any given field or practice, not just martial arts. According to Sara Lazar, a Harvard Medical School Instructor in Psychology, “Although the practice of meditation is associated with a sense of peacefulness and physical relaxation, practitioners have long claimed that meditation also provides cognitive and psychological benefits that persist throughout the day.”

Mental conditioning has never been more necessary than now, in the modern digital age, when people’s attention spans have been shortened by factors like technology, entertainment, and social media. In an effort to tune these distractions out, many turned to yoga and meditation to help calm their mind and body and improve their focus. While the word “meditation” conjures images of Buddhist monks or New Age hippies sitting in an incense-filled room, any experience that brings you to a level of self-awareness can be considered meditation, and anyone can benefit from it, including fighters.

Going back to meditation and combat, it is crucial to establish that the key to becoming a physically adept fighter starts with the mind. Strength, speed, and technique are rendered useless if your mind is not focused, especially under pressure. Legendary basketball coach Bobby Knight once said, “Mental toughness is to physical as four is to one.” Sam Sheridan echoed this in his book The Fighter’s Mind:

“There’s always a point at which people will break. That’s why you train mental toughness. Everyone will break — there’s not a man alive that can’t be broke. Your job, with all that mental training, that suffering, is just to push your own line of mental breaking so far back your opponent can’t find it. Then you take your opponent and get him to cross his line.”

Think of physical force as a vehicle and mental strength as the driving and navigating force. Meditation can help hone your mind to become the best driver for your body, and apply yourself to the best of your abilities.

Some of the main benefits of meditation include increased focus, awareness, and concentration, as well as decreased stress and anxiety. These mental states help to form a strong and resilient mind, that doesn’t entertain self doubt, dwell on past experiences or anything other than the task in hand.  

In the words of Mike Tyson’s trainer, Cus D’Amato, “But it ain’t how hard you hit; it’s about how hard you can get hit and keep moving forward.” This thinking can be applied to dealing with most challenging aspects, including physical danger. A combat mind, conditioned through mental conditioning, can make the difference between winning or losing, reaching your goals or not, and in the arena of self-defense training, survival and death.


Photo Credit: Take Back Your Health Conference, Flickr User

Rooted in Eastern culture and Buddhism, meditation has evolved into a contemporary practice used by people from all walks of life. According to a Harvard Health Publications article on meditation, one of the most common forms of meditation, mindfulness meditation, is defined as follows:

“Mindfulness meditation is the practice of paying attention to what you’re experiencing from moment to moment without drifting into thoughts about the past or concerns about the future and without analyzing (or making judgments about) what is going on around you.”

This is one type of meditation that can help a fighter gain razor-sharp focus. Your mind will not allow stress to force you to second-guess what your training has instilled in you and will replace analysis of what’s happening in the moment with action. Your goal is to no longer think, just do, allowing yourself to flow like in Krav Maga stress training drills. You are fully present and focused on the task at hand.

The discrepancy between physical ability and mental strength becomes crucial when stepping out of martial arts classes and into real-life situations. Often times martial arts practitioners will excel in the classroom, where exercises are organized, safety measures are enforced, and it’s understood that they will not be subjected to any real harm. They leave the classroom feeling invincible. But when faced with a real-life situation, where the threat is unpredictable and potentially fatal, that same fighter whose physical stature and technical ability is the envy of the entire class could easily panic and get hurt. In other words, physical strength and technique can be undermined by mental afflictions, like stress, panic, and distraction.

This stark contrast between competition fighting and real-world fighting forms the basis of Krav Maga training. The streets are less forgiving than even the bloodiest cage fight, thereby throwing those involved into heightened states of stress and, ultimately, shock. However, to be truly effective, physical training must be accompanied by appropriate mental conditioning. Just as physical exercise trains the body, mental conditioning like meditative practices train the mind to perform to its full potential when it really matters.

Krav Maga Master Eyal Yanilov has embraced meditation in his Krav Maga training. “It is clear that all the ‘regular’ practices, physical self-defense, fighting, and protection of others improve and prepare you mentally to a confrontation,” Yanilov says. “This mental preparation is mainly due to the fact that while we are training physically, our mind is being exercised too. But in addition to this training and in order to further improve, there is a great need for special mental training.” This is why Yanilov incorporates a customized form of meditation in his curriculum that complements the regular Krav Maga techniques and conditioning. You can supplement your training by following his visualization exercise below:

Imagine an attack incident in its different stages. First, allow your imagined assailant to succeed in his attack, and see yourself “injured.” “Feel” the attack injuring you and causing you pain, as you are the “loser” in this violent confrontation.

The next three, four times that you imagine the incident do it with maximum number of visualized details, and each time improving your position, performance, efficiency and success.

Each time you imagine the incident, apply more and more effective defenses, execute better counterattacks that become stronger and faster each time. Each time you get heart less and succeed more.

The last couple of incident that you visualize you should see and feel yourself as the winner, overcoming the assailant with your effective defenses and counterattacks. You no longer suffer any damage or failure.

Your main point of visualization should be as one who is taking part in the incident. However, it is also beneficial to visualize it from an outside point, like looking at a TV screen and also from the point of view of the attacker.

It takes 5-8 stages to visualize the incident from losing to winning. Then most of the focus should be on visualizing yourself as the “winner” to engrave this outcome in your mind, to ensure that in a real-life situation you will be conditioned to strive for your survival. At this stage, visualization of successful action should be practiced several times. Depending on your desire to excel you can visualize the incident and your successful counter-actions from 5 to 50 times or more.

The very fact that you are aware of the possibility that you will “lose” and get hurt, will lessen your fear of getting hurt and significantly improve your ability to function under pressure. Once you have reached the stage that you have defeated the aggressor in your imagination and visualized it time and time again, you have completed the cycle of that drill and can go for the next drill.