A Mindful Approach to Martial Art Performance

The qualities of your movement are a manifestation of how your thinking mind expresses itself through your body at that moment. Your body moves as your thinking mind moves.

This means that as a coach, you can gain insight into your clients’ mind by observing their postural expression and movement. In the same light, you can change the quality of your own thinking mind by the intention behind how you use and express your body.

Body and mind work as a feedback loop. They are interrelated, and not separate as the French philosopher Descartes proposed in his famous mind-body split. How you choose to move your body and express yourself can change the quality of your thinking mind. And it works the other way, too: The quality of your thinking expresses itself through your body. The way we feel is the way we think. Feeling and thinking are embodied, and will be expressed in movement or postural expression in some way.
For example, in martial art sparring, our thinking mind may label a feeling as “anger.”  That emotion may then be automatically expressed through body movement directed at one’s sparring partner. In other words, while a feeling may arise, and may be interpreted by the thinking mind as anger, it is then held, and will likely be expressed, through the expressive body.

However, this expression of anger through body action, can have unintended consequences through the feedback loop back to the thinking mind.

For instance, if the burst of physical aggression (driven by the feeling your thinking mind has defined as “anger”) does not have the desired outcome, either in neutralizing the opponent’s movement, or is not reacted to (the opponent fails to panic or pull back his attack), the feeling you initially labelled as anger may change to frustration, loss of confidence, or even fear. This, in turn, becomes a somatic state, affecting present and future movement, thereby becoming embodied, feeding back to one’s mental state, causing even more psychological conflict.

This understanding is backed up by the work of psychologists Carl Jung and Wilhelm Reich. They noted that one’s neuroses (or mental blocks) are recreated every moment through our current attitudes. However, as Sigmund Freud pointed out, our attitudes are rooted to a large degree in our past, and it is the attachment in the present to our past memories that then create the neurosis or mental block we are experiencing now.

Clearly, in martial arts one wants to perform at one’s best. Especially in sparring, where making a mistake could result in injury. Knowing that the way you are thinking will be expressed in your movement, and that your movement will in turn affect your mental state, what then is the most desirable approach to achieving peak performance?

Beyond Control

To perform at your best requires first that you give up the illusion of control.  This may seem paradoxical at first. Surely, if you are  “out of control”—mentally, emotionally, or physically—in sparring, finding a way to control your mind, emotions, or body, should result in better performance?

Yet the opposite is true.

Let’s take thoughts for example. Thoughts are not real. All thoughts are approximations of what we think is real. Our thoughts are contingent on previous thoughts we have had. In other words, our thoughts are deeply embedded in our personal embodied history.

If you are sparring, but you feel your edge slipping, you might have thoughts about why this is happening. While these thoughts might seem to be related to what is happening now against your opponent, those thoughts are in fact related to, or triggered by, a similar or approximate experience you had previously. Your current thoughts, then, may not be related at all to your current sparring experience.

For example, let’s say you were bullied as a child, and now face an opponent that approximates your image of what bullies look like. There is a very good chance that your embodied history of that image will affect the outcome of the sparring match you are now involved in. So when someone feels fear or anxiety, etc., and then interprets those feelings in their thinking mind, it is almost always related to some previous embodied history.Your thinking mind takes you out of the present moment, and in doing so, disconnects you from your body.

The more you seek to control your thinking mind, your emotions, or even your body, the more out of control you become. You begin to attach to the story line happening inside your head, which takes you further and further away from the actual experience you are engaged in now. You could attempt to change the negative thinking you are engaged in to a more positive one, but this may only further intensive the negativity. Despite your best intentions, whenever you try to turn a negative into a positive, it still reinforces the negative because by its very nature the “positive” has to be contrasted with its opposite. If you use your thinking mind to interpret what you are feeling as “fear,” and then you tell yourself  “I am not afraid,” the context of that statement reflects back to “I am afraid”—otherwise, why would you be saying to yourself, “I am not afraid” unless you are actually afraid to begin with? That’s the paradox.

I propose, therefore, that to perform at your best in sparring (or anything, for that matter) it is best to give up the illusion of control. Bruce Lee knew this all too well when he noted: “emotion can be the enemy, if you give into your emotion, you lose yourself. You must be at one with your emotion, because the body always follows the mind.”

Being at one with your feelings and your thinking requires a completely different approach to peak performance. You need to be mindful of your thoughts, emotions, and movements, without trying to control their outcome.

To be mindful, as psychospiritual teacher Jon Kabat-Zinn defines it, is “paying attention, on purpose, in the present moment, as if your life depended on it, non judgmentally” (Kabat-Zinn, 2006).

What stands out for me is the phrase “as if your life depended on it.”  This is an apt metaphor when discussing sparring (and, of course, in real-life self-preservation encounters it is often more than metaphor!). When sparring is a practice aimed at performance on the mat or, in more extreme cases, as a foundation for self-preservation, mindfulness could make the difference between life and death. In less extreme, and much more common instances such as sparring in the studio, sparring can bring up intense emotional and mental responses, where second guessing oneself could lead to injury.

To approach sparring from a perspective of “as if your life depended on it” means to completely immerse oneself in the experience. It involves paying full attention to what is happening in the present moment—and not judging one’s performance as it unfolds.


This is what the Samurai meant by surrendering to death (both literally and psychologically).Togo Shigekata, a Samurai, proclaimed: “One finds life through conquering the fear of death within one’s mind. Empty the mind of all forms of attachment, make a go-for-broke charge and conquer the opponent with one decisive slash.”

Shigekata knew all too well that  attachment to thoughts, emotions, and one’s physical performance can lead to defeat. Here, Shigekata’s notion of  “empty the mind of all forms of attachment“ serves as a mindful approach to sparring. To die to the past and the future, to be present, non-judementally, being fully in the sparring experience as it unfolds now, is to accomplish the “conquering of fear of [making mistakes] in ones own mind.”

Mindfulness training, or what I call mindfullness-in-action allows you to center in the present moment. It assists you to develop the capacity to uncouple from your thoughts and emotions, to self-regulate your attention, and to expand your personal awareness.

Mindfulness-in-action, the act of being present, non-judgementally in sparring,  opens you to self-awareness, making you aware of your automatic behaviors. As you learn a new way of relating to your thoughts and emotions, the practice of mindfulness-in-action will lead to changes in behavior—from automatic to mindful—that will lead to more functional performance in sparring.

The purpose of mindfulness-in-action is to develop your ability  to notice your internal processes (thoughts/emotions/sensations/feelings) non-judgmentally, and then have the ability to re-focus on purpose to the task at hand. By giving up control, you find the stability of peak performance in the present moment.

Mindfulness-in-action allows you to remain focused in the present. One of the important benefits of learning to be mindful in action is that it will allow you to recognize distractions when they occur and then use your mindful attention to re-focus  on performance cues that bring you back to the task at hand—which means to be fully present in the moment while you spar with the person in front of you.

Mindfulness-in-action is not a form of relaxation, nor is it a form of positive thinking. Its main premise is to promote and enhance self-awareness. Mindfulness facilitates the capacity to notice and be free from habitual reactions.

Mindfulness is not a way for you to avoid your in-the-moment experiences, but rather to become more aware of your experiences as they occur moment by moment. Again, as Jon Kabat-Zinn notes, mindfulness is “paying attention, on purpose, in the present moment, as if your life depended on it, non judgmentally.”

Mindfulness-in-action, is an “active” approach that allows you to fully experience your sparring, without being mindless, which is to be caught up in irrelevant thoughts and labeled feelings, that take you away from the only time you really have control, which is right now!


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  1. Very true, play is the way! Hence why BJJ & wrestling are so successful in comparison to traditional western boxing & most traditional martial arts, it’s either too much or not enough. Thanks to the CMDP I no longer loose my cool when sparring & my sparring partners don’t feed off any negative energy. So we all get loads more out of every session!

  2. Fantastic article. I think this article can go beyond martial arts. Having this guide lines to perform in martial arts, business and life can give at least give me more freedom to be creative and finding solutions at the moment. This happens I think is because I am being an observer from moment to moment, distancing myself from past experience and future expectations.Without attaching myself to the past and future can give me the right ability to find the right response to deal with whatever issue I am facing at that moment. At least, that is how I felt.

  3. Great article, Rodney. This is something I personally have to work on both on and off the mat. THank you!

  4. A great article which now makes great sense….something that I have really focused on within myself and clients. This is a fantastic peice to share with not only Martial Artists but everyday people for their everyday living.

    Thank you 🙂

    CM Australia

  5. I’m a mental health nurse and use mindfulness techniques with clients to reduce anxiety and help them overcome past experiences. The application of mindfulness to sparring makes sense, as it will get rid of the thinking which could put the brakes on a reaction to a stimulus – punch etc., and allow you to react to whats happening quicker. That stillness within is where the magic happens…

    Fantastically insightful article

    West Yorkshire UK

  6. Great article. Happening everyday in my life(workplace and outside work).keeping my cool all the time gets me thru the day. Thanks a lot Rodney.

    Cm -Isle of Man

  7. Awesome article! Great information that anyone can apply and benefit from. I will continue improving my mindfulness in everything I do, and share the knowledge to my clients, friends, and family!

  8. Thanks all…appreciate all the kind comments:)

    Bottom line this approach to functional, modern martial arts is unique. Very different to the kill or be killed attitude so prevalent today in modern martial arts.

    Martial arts training should in my view always transcend the superficial, the neurotic needs of the ego, and one way to do this is to bring the ART back into the Martial. Mindfulness training, or what I call mindfulness in action, is one way to achieve this!

  9. Great article! Terrific expose of the Cartesian dualism we in the West are so attached to. I’ve found that one of the biggest barriers some clients have is over thinking any given process, be it a single technique or a round in the ring. The downward performance spiral you sometimes see when a client takes a hard shot or two disappears with applied mindfulness. Bruce Lee spoke of “no-mind”, Musashi spoke of “resolute acceptance of death”, so the importance of mindfulness-in-action has long been recognized. It is an essential for peak performance, and yet so often ignored or forgotten these days.

    Solid, important stuff, Rodney. Thanks!

  10. Nice article Rodney. The mindfulness you write about here takes me back to a book called Zen Keys by Thich Nhat Hanh that I read many years ago. Mindfulness is such an important part of life and as life drags us into the day to day routine, mindfulness can be forgotten. This article is a timely reminder for me.

    Thanks for that Rodney.


  11. As I read each sentence it became so clear to me that changing a few words, concepts, and context you have written a wonderful essay on the “martial arts of everyday life” or how what happens on and off the mat virtually always reflect each other.

    Mindfulness (and some form of meditation to cultivate it—and meta-cognitive awareness and skills) is a fundamental life skill. Yet it remains ignored in our educational systems, and perhaps in many martial arts schools. The notion the “we” are not our thoughts continues to seem bizarre to a majority of people. We do not–through any formal school or program—teach our children the importance of “proper” breathing. How can we expect kids to understand the essential need for harmony between breath and movement.

    Rodney, you write so well about the fundamentals. Somehow I wonder whether we collude to deny there are fundamental life skills, knowledge, rituals, and tradition. Keep sounding the bell.