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Peak performance


Several research studies have examined the differences between experts and novices in the martial arts to determine the factors that contribute to peak performance. Many personality traits have been found to differentiate between superior and average martial artists.

Expertise and performance

A 1978 study, Duthie, et. al., found superior martial artists were higher on the scales on defensiveness, self-confidence, achievement, dominance, endurance, affiliation, heterosexuality, exhibitionism, and autonomy. They were lower on the scales of willingness to help, being humble, and counseling readiness. The study concluded that the differences imply that martial arts training changed the personal characteristics rather than being a product of self-selection.

Williams and Elliott’s review (1999) of visual search strategy indicated that the most efficient search pattern during sparring is one with fewer fixations of longer durations. They found that during sparring matches, the more expert fighter’s primary fixation was on the opponent’s head and central body while using peripheral scanning of extremities, the hands and feet.

The results indicated that the anxiety of competition caused an increase in search rate and an increase in the amount of time spent fixating on the periphery. The competition anxiety caused a decrease in viewing time overall and an increase in response accuracy. Under anxiety conditions, novices reduced fixation duration whereas experts increased the duration. Novices also tended toward more fixations and the number of fixation locations, which indicates that novices were more affected by the anxiety of competition than were the experts.

The study concluded that perceptual skill in karate seems to depend on task-specific skills acquired through experience and that the skills are developed by exposure to the same conditions as those experienced during competition. Martial artists need to be taught to focus attention on central areas and use their peripheral vision to pick up on arm and leg movement. In addition, they need to learn to cope with anxiety.

Ferrari (1999) observed how karate students learned a new task. Ratings of their final performance showed that experts and novices remembered the same amount of new material. However, the experts' performance was rated higher, they were better at judging how well they learned the material, and they used the learning material in a more sophisticated and efficient manner. The author also found that 75% of the novices focused on the difficulty of the task as opposed to 40% of the experts and the experts focused more on learning strategies.

Influences on skill development and performance

Many factors have been found to influence skill development and performance in the martial arts. These include methods of motivation, a context for teaching new material, the presence of music, presence of an evaluative audience or other participants, and perceptual skill.

Motivational climate

Theeboom, et. al. (1995) described two theories of motivation in youth sports:
  • Competence Motivation Theory. This theory indicates that those who see themselves as competent and as having internal control are more intrinsically motivated.
  • Achievement Goal Theory. This theory proposes that individuals are motivated to demonstrate high ability based on either ego goals which are ability oriented or task goals which are mastery oriented.
Their review of the literature indicates that a mastery climate in a sport setting is associated with greater perceived effort, greater enjoyment, and increased team satisfaction whereas a focus on performance outcome leads to greater worry and less team satisfaction.
To explore the idea that children have a more positive motivational pattern when they have a mastery goal orientation, Theeboom, studied two groups of boys and girls. One group was a traditional method group, which used basic drills for practice, had an authoritative teacher, focused on individual exercises, and based recognition and evaluation on performance.

The other group was a mastery method group, which used a variety of exercises, shared decision-making, utilized partner and small group exercises, and focused on effort and improvement. For example, the traditional method group may do repeated leg kicks whereas the mastery method group may kick a ball, a bag, or the instructor’s hand and students may suggest combinations and exercises.

Results showed that the mastery group enjoyed the class more although there was no difference in the participant’s perceived competence. The interview showed greater intrinsic motivation for the mastery group. Overall, the mastery group was rated higher in the performance of motor skills. The authors concluded that the more informal and flexible teaching style used for the mastery method group may be effective early on in training, but the later stages of training may require some traditional teaching exercises as well.

Context in motor recall

Hodge and Deakin’s (1998) review of deliberate practice research showed that elite athletes tend to enjoy deliberate practice contrary to the Ericsson (1993) definition of deliberate practice. The characteristics of deliberate practice, as defined by Ericsson (1993), included:
  • The greater the expertise of the individual, the more they engage in deliberate practice.
  • Deliberate practice elicits the greatest improvements.
  • Deliberate practice tends to be effortful and fatiguing which decreases the amount of time in which it can be engaged.
  • Deliberate practice is highly relevant to performance but is not considered enjoyable.
Athletes typically report that the activities closest to actual performance as well as their work with their instructor or coach are the most relevant activities to improve their sports performance.

Hodge and Deakin (1998) examined the effect of context on motor recall in learning a kata by teaching a kata with and without context to a group of ten novice martial artists and a group of ten first degree black belts. The context the instructor used was a verbal description of a battle. Teaching in martial arts traditionally involves a whole-part-whole strategy in which the instructor will first teach the entire kata to give a sense of flow followed by breaking the kata down into parts to decrease the complexity of the learning requirements. Therefore, they used a three-trial method in this research and examined improvement across the trials. Although the students rated the context-aided instruction as enhancing the memory process, the initial context trial showed decrease performance over the no context trial for the novices and no difference for the black belts.

Interestingly, the black belt performance decreased in the third trial as compared to their second trial when the context was present. The authors had not expected that black belt performance would be affected at all by context because their experience allows them to easily recognize meaningful associations and interpreted this finding as indicating that the black belts’ internally generated context may be more meaningful than the context provided. Overall, they did not find support for pairing verbal context with motor information to enhance performance.

Music and performance

Ferguson, (1994) studied the effects of music on performance of katas by karate students with one to eighteen years of experience. Experienced observers evaluated performance during each condition of positive music, negative music, and white noise provided on headsets for each performer. Overall, both negative music and positive music increased performance ratings over white noise; in addition, the subjects reported greater relaxation and comfort with the music. 

Audience effects upon performance

A review of the audience effects on performance literature by Bell and Yee (1989) indicated that consistent with social facilitation theory it is generally believed that an audience enhances the performance of a well-learned task whereas performance is impaired for a poorly learned task. Bell and Yee (1989) examined karate students on a kicking drill. The subjects performed a roundhouse kick without setting the foot down as many times as possible in fifteen seconds with and without an audience.

As expected, results indicated that skilled subjects generally kicked more accurately and with greater frequency. An audience impaired the performance of the unskilled subjects but did not affect performance by the skilled subjects. It may not have been possible for the audience to enhance the performance of the skilled subjects due to a ceiling-effect given that they were already performing at a high level.

To determine the effects of other participants on performance, Layton and Moran (1999) karate black belts while they performed a kata as a group. They found that even though the participants had refined the kata over years of practice with their own timing, the timing became more consistent when the kata was performed as a group.

Training perceptual skill

A review of perceptual abilities in athletes by Williams and Grant (1999) indicates that elite athletes do not have a superior visual ability and that training vision does not improve sports performance. However, skilled athletes have better perceptual skills and are more capable of selectively attending to, recognizing, analyzing, and interpreting incoming visual information; they can recognize and recall playing patterns more quickly and accurately; they are better at anticipating their opponent’s behaviors through efficient visual search strategies; and they are more accurate in their expectations of their opponent’s reactions.

The review indicated that perceptual abilities can be trained by using simulation such as watching videos from the competitor’s perspective, stopping the video prior to critical interactions, and having the viewer predict the reaction or have the viewer react physically based on the prediction.

Anxiety and performance

Anxiety can affect sports performance positively or negatively. Terry and Slade’s (1995) review of anxiety in the sports literature indicated that an increase in irrational thoughts related to anxiety will decrease performance and that an optimal level of anxiety improves performance whereas too much anxiety will decrease performance. Each athlete needs to find their prime intensity level that is most optimal for performance. Research has found that not only can the level of anxiety predict the outcome of competition, but that martial arts training appears to decrease overall anxiety. 

Predicting competition results

The Terry and Slade (1995) review of the mood literature indicated:
  • Athletes tend to have more positive moods than the general population.
  • Mood seems to discriminate between winners and losers only when there is little difference in their ability.
  • Pre-performance mood measures discriminate only when performance is of short duration
  • Individual sports may be more influenced by mood than team sports.
In a study of 104 brown belts and 104 black belts, they found that 92% of the winners could be predicted based on mood and 93.5% of winners could be predicted on the basis of mood and anxiety. In a study of 142 definitions novices through black belts, Chapman, et. al (1997) found that anxiety scores could predict 63% of winners and losers.

Effect of martial arts on anxiety reduction

Several studies support that martial arts training can reduce anxiety. Layton (1990) found that with age controlled, the greater the number of years of training, the less anxiety. Layton suggested that more study is needed to determine whether karate training reduces anxiety or whether the reduction is a result of those with lower anxiety being more likely to attain black belt status.

Managing anxiety during competition

Weinberg et. al. (1981) indicated that studies examining methods of reducing pre-competitive anxiety have been inconclusive. They examined the effects of visio-motor behavior rehearsal (VMBR) on performance in karate using 32 male karate students who were matched according to skill level and assigned one for four groups: a relaxation group, a VMBR group, an imagery group, and an attention-placebo group. The VMBR group involved relaxation training, visualizing karate performance during a stressful situation, and then performing the skill during simulation of a stressful situation. During the six weeks of training, all four treatment groups showed a decrease in anxiety. The VMBR group performed better in sparring than the other groups. Apparently, imagery prepares the mind and body for the competitive performance.

Cognitive skills and performance

Beliefs and performance

The cognitions, or thought processes, in which an athlete engages, may be critical to performance. Several assumptions underlie the use of cognitive-behavioral inventions:
  • Cognition can affect athletic performance
  • These thought processes can be changed
  • This change can influence behavioral change, and therefore, improve performance.
Williams and Leffingwell (1996) identified several areas of irrational beliefs that can affect the athlete’s performance. In particular, they indicated that perfectionist demands may cause a poor self-concept or feelings of inadequacy which increase the likelihood of failure. However, they distinguish between perfectionist demands and perfectionist desires indicating that a perfectionist desire, which is achievable and not judgmental, may increase the likelihood of success. Other irrational beliefs include making failure a catastrophe, basing self-worth on achievement, focusing on fairness in competition, and generalizing from a single performance to overall competence.

Goal Orientation and Performance

For examining goal orientation and performance, King and Williams (1997) had novice martial arts college students rate their satisfaction and performance; in addition, their instructors rated their performance in basic skills, effort, persistence, and consistency. Task orientation is a mastery approach that focuses on hard work, learning goals, improving skills, and gaining understanding, whereas a performance orientation is focused on ego, competition success, gaining recognition, establishing superiority over others, and a belief in natural ability rather than hard work.

Generally, traditional martial arts are focused on mastering self-defense and perfecting techniques, which is consistent with a task orientation approach whereas contest-oriented martial arts are focused on tournament preparation and is consistent with a performance orientation. King and Williams (1997) found that a task orientation predicted performance and was positively correlated with enjoyment.

Effectiveness of psychological interventions for performance enhancement

Effectiveness of interventions generally in sports

Greenspan and Feltz (1989) reviewed studies that used regular athletes and that measured performance and examined interventions including relaxation training, behavioral techniques, and cognitive restructuring. The authors concluded that educational relaxation-based interventions and remedial cognitive restructuring are effective for enhancing sports performance.

A review by Weinberg and Comar (1994) of previous reviews looking at the effectiveness of psychological skills training (PST) in competitive sport. Of these studies, 85% showed significant effects for PST and the more recent reviews showed an even higher percentage of positive effects perhaps because PST has become more developed utilizing more individualized, systematic methods over a longer time period with a variety of psychological techniques.

To determine factors that affect Olympic performance, Gould et. al (1999) interviewed four U.S. Olympic teams that met the National Governing Body’s (NGB) expectations and four teams that failed to meet the NGB’s expectations. Generally, they found that teams that failed to meet performance expectations reported that they did not spend enough time in mental preparation or did not stick to a mental preparation routine. In addition, they tended to lack planning or follow through on plans such as having more travel problems.

Often there were team cohesion problems, coaching problems, lack of Olympic experience by athletes and coaches, lack of focus and commitment, and problems with over training. Whereas teams that met performance expectations were more likely to have trained together prior to the games, felt support from the crowd, were mentally prepared to deal with stress, had families who were educated on how to support the athlete, and felt a total commitment and ability to re-frame negative events more positively. Interviews with the successful athletes indicated that the coping skills needed to be so well learned that they were automatic; learning psychological skills immediately prior to competition was not effective.

Effectiveness of interventions specifically in martial arts

Based on research conducted in collaboration with Weinberg using martial artists, Seabourne (1998) concludes that:
  • Relaxation and imagery together are more effective for martial artists than either alone
  • Martial artists practicing relaxation and imagery ten minutes a day performed better than those who do it immediately before competition
  • Individualized techniques, even when taught in a group format, are better than standardized group techniques
  • There is no difference between instructor guided imagery and self-guided imagery
  • Individualized cognitive techniques improve performance.
He recommends the use of diaphragmatic or focused breathing, muscle relaxation and body awareness, meditation, and internal imagery rather than external imagery. Internal imagery is visualization from the perspective of the athlete whereas external imagery is from the perspective of watching the athlete perform. Overall, the martial artist research suggests that techniques found useful for athletes, in general, are effective for enhancing performance in the martial arts, both in katas as well as sparring.

Suggested plan for interventions

Based on their 1994 review, Weinberg and Comar suggest that a psychological skills training (PST) program should involve teaching the basic skills and then systematically practicing them during special training sessions. These training sessions should be the first or last 15-30 minutes of physical practice sessions; most new mental skills require 15-30 minutes training three to five times a week and it takes approximately three to six months, to fully learn new skills, practice, and integrate them.

Most psychological training should be during supervised practice unless the athlete is self-motivated. As quickly as possible the PST should be integrated with physical skills training and tried during simulated competition. A very specific and detailed pre-competition and competition plan for controlling emotions, developing a routine, and dealing with unexpected events should be part of each athletes training and PST should continue if the athlete is involved in a sport in the same way as physical skills training is conducted.

Serious martial artists devote a great deal of time to learning the physical aspects of their sport. Hodge and Deakin (1998) interviews with martial arts indicated that they practiced an average of 35 hours a week during the first year of training to approximately 58 hours a week the year prior to obtaining the black belt, which is very similar to the practice times reported by other elite athletes. Therefore, practicing psychological skills a couple of hours a week to enhance performance can be well worth the investment.

Comprehensive plans for interventions

Terry Orlick (1986), in his book Psyching for Sport, suggests setting performance outcome goals by imagining unlimited potential, setting realistic goals based on history, skill, and motivation for improvement, and setting a goal of self-acceptance no matter the outcome of the event. During competition, it is important to focus energy on what is under the athlete’s control and achievable and not to think of winning or losing. A pre-competition mental plan should include confidence that the preparation is adequate, methods of avoiding self-defeating thoughts, methods of developing an optimal arousal state, positive performance imagery and mental suggestions such as “I have prepared…I am capable…I am in control…I am ready.”

During competition, the athlete should be prepared to push the limits and should have focus words to use during different aspects of competition. Often athletes do not pay enough attention to refocusing during pre-competition and competition. Orlick suggests that if the athlete is not feeling up to his or her usual level to “keep it secret from your body. Your body won’t know, and it will perform as it has been trained.” He also indicates that based on his personal experience it takes one to three years to refine a psychological plan enough to help performance consistently; the athlete needs to evaluate the plan after each competition to refine it further.

In his book, Mastering Your Own Game, David Kauss (2001) suggests a plan to improve athletic performance. He suggests that when using imagery to focus on all five senses, that the imagery should not involve thoughts, but can be a visualization of actual past events or of participating in a planned event. In addition, it is useful for an athlete to find a “spot” that is a physical place that is private with easy access and only used for working on the mental game. When in this spot the athlete can build the right internal environment for practicing psychological skills.

Once this spot is obtained, the athlete can assess factors affecting his/her sports performance by examining the influence of significant people in his/her life, reviewing the important sports-related events such as falling in love with the sport, peak performances, nightmare performances, obstacles that were overcome and growth events, and identifying places of power that are significant to the individual. The athlete can also assess his or her daydreams about their sport by engaging in self-guided daydreams, journaling about the daydreams and examining the themes that are found such as the need for achievement, need for affiliation, and need for power. He also suggests that the athlete keeps a daily event diary to include recording events, thoughts, feelings, and actions to examine the patterns.

Finally, he recommends practicing techniques of relaxation, body awareness, mental rehearsal and visualization, concentration building, and cognitive skills and to develop a personal psychological skills pack based on the overall assessment and personal effectiveness of the different techniques; the techniques in the pack should be assessed and changed based on what works and what doesn’t.

To control anxiety, Kauss (2001) suggests a worry spot technique of providing a time and place for worry rather than it being out-of-control. He espouses the Rule of Peak Performance: “Compete with the maximum amount of arousal that you can control.” Prior to performance, Kauss (2001) recommends a focus on the following factors: the last practice should be clearly identified, the importance of a rest period, a psychological skills pack review, a normal sleep schedule, attention to nutrition, dressing ritual, use of the psychological skills pack, and a physical warm-up prior to the final “go” signal.

Cognitive principles to enhance performance

Williams and Leffingwell (1996) suggest that self-talk can be used to correct bad habits, to focus attention, to modify intensity level, and increase self-confidence. To identify self-talk, they recommend that the athlete reviews previous events and imagine events in order to have access to their internal processes; written logs can be helpful in analyzing the self-talk identified. In addition, if the athlete has difficulty identifying self-talk, observations by a sports psychologist can be useful.

Once the self-talk has been identified, the athlete can analyze it for irrational content by asking a series of questions: “Are the beliefs based on objective reality? Are they helpful to the athlete? Are they useful in reducing interpersonal conflicts? Do they help the athlete reach goals? Do they reduce emotional conflict?” If the answer to these questions is “no,” the athlete needs to work on modifying the irrational self-talk. Several techniques can be useful:
  • Firmly and deliberately stopping a thought
  • Changing negative thoughts to more realistic or positive thoughts,
  • Countering negative self-statements, and 
  • Reframing the irrational thoughts.

Goal setting principles

To achieve peak performance and competitive success, Weinberg (1996) suggests the importance of setting specific goals with target dates and strategies for achieving goals. He suggests that these goals should be written down, and should include both long and short-term goals, as well as goals for both practice and competition. The goals need to be realistic, but challenging, and need to be focused on performance, not winning. Finally, the athlete needs to develop concrete plans for achieving the goals with periodic feedback to assess effectiveness of the plan. Some common pitfalls to setting goals include not recognizing individual differences in setting goals, not setting measurable goals, and setting too many goals.

Guidelines for using imagery to enhance performance

Gould and Damarjian (1996) indicate that imagery requires extensive practice like physical skills. An athlete cannot expect performance to be enhanced by using imagery just prior to competition and not practicing it otherwise. To enhance imagery, visual, auditory, tactile, and kinesthetic senses need to be utilized; in particular, dynamic kinesthetic imagery, which is the internal experience of movement, needs to be emphasized. The athlete should learn to control the content of the images as well as to take both the internal and external perspectives and to use real-time images.

Imagery can be facilitated by being in a relaxed state which can be attained using video or audiotapes. If the athlete is experiencing a particular physical skills problem, imagery can be used to imagine the problem area and to develop methods for overcoming it. Common problems in imagery training include having unrealistic expectations, lack of commitment to practice, and lack of coach support (Weinberg, 1996).

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