This is the third part of my fascinating interview with the famous Dr. Lucio Maurino; several times Italian, European and World Champion in Karate (team kata and individual kata speciality), conducted in his beautiful traditional dojo in Italy. If you haven’t read the second part, shame on you!
J: So, coming back to mental training; do you have any specific exercises that people can use for improving concention and focus? Whether in a Karate competition, work, school…?
LM: “Well, first of all, it’s important to know what we mean by concentration, and what we intend. There is a great quote from Sun Tzu, that goes: “To understand the complex flow of the energies, we have to be concentrated inside and make attention outside”. Fixing attention on one point, step by step.”
[At this point sensei Maurino shows me a PowerPoint slide on his laptop describing three different ways of concentrating. I tried copying them below for you.]
LM: [continues] “…for example, this (#1) is giving all your attention and energy externally to the outside environment. This is no good. Then we have the next picture (#2), where you have all concentration on the inside, like in meditation. This is also no good right now. The right attitude we have to take in competition is this, the third one. The definition is “here and now”. You have to be awake mentally, and concentrated only forward, on your goal. This is what we call Focusing, and there is a method to reach it.”
J: Well tell me!
LM: “First thing you must understand is that everything starts from your breathing. To breathe is the only way through which we can put energy in our body. Breathing is the connection between energy and our body. That’s why, today, lots of people will say: “You have to breathe, you have to breathe” even though not many people can actually teach you how to breathe! For instance, there is a lot of theories when it comes to breathing specifically for kata; you have to breathe like this, you have to breathe like that, you don’t have to breathe, you have to breathe silently, you have to breathe with a grunt… But it’s very simple: You have to breathe. That’s it. As you breathe normally. But you have to breathe! This is the only way you can connect you body and mind together with your spirit. Breathing is connection. And, it is also a very good friend when you are under pressure – together with visualization, or what we call imagery. Finally, the last thing about this matter that we must understand is something we call Arousal. That is the psychosomatic neuroactivation of the human being, which usually occurs in certain situations in your life; like in competition or dangerous moments.”
[At this point sensei Maurino shows me a pretty famous image, the Yerkes-Dodson curve, describing optimal stress level (remember, boys and girls: stress in itself is not a bad thing, too much is!) for peak performance]
“This is what we call flow [points at the top of the curve]. It is very important to know that we have to always maintain this peak, for best performance. A champion understands when he is going down the curve, so he gets himself up again. In our team kata we have a particular technique for breathing and visualization, which is a bit different from some of the individual breathing techniques, because when you compete in a team it is very important to create a synchronized connection between the three members. Before the performance, outside of the tatami, we synchronize our spirit, mindset and breathing. Then, on the tatami, we can finally synchronize our bodies.”
J: So how do you know if you need to increase or decrease your Arousal? Do you have different techniques for different situations?
LM: “Considering individual performance; the techniques for Focus are different for different people.”
J: Could you tell me one of your own techniques?
LM: “Sure. But remember that you can go from general tips to specific tips, because it’s very subjective. The reason is that every person has a different response to stress and competition. So, you got to analyze first: what are the strong points and the weak points of a person? And then you work on those, by combining visualization and breathing. Generally, we can talk about relaxing and tensioning exercises. These you can always connect to breathing. Then you can work with colors, for example, or the different senses. I want to tell you a little personal anecdote about this, however.”
J: Go ahead!
LM: “When I was still competing individually in the World Championships, at the time when I still performed the kata Sochin for the finals, I worked some months with a sport psychologist. It was in 1996 I think. This psychologist was in Sicily, and it was during winter time. One day, after we had been practising, he told me we need to go to one of his friends to have another class. This was up in the mountains, and it was very cold. Snow everywhere. Anyway, after the training, when it was dark outside and the moon was out, suddenly we stopped the car as we were driving back home on the mountain road. My mental coach turned to me and said: “Let’s go out, I want to show you something.”. When we stepped out of the car, he then told me “Lucio, now you have another exercise. You have to go over to that field covered with snow and show me your best Sochin kata ever.” I was still in my Karate gi, so I said “What, are you crazy? Why? It’s cold and dark, I will become sick for a week!”. Then he said “Also, you have to do it without your shoes. And don’t worry about becoming sick, you will be all right”. So, incredibly, since he was my trainer, I did like he said. In that performance I tried to recall every mental technique we had practiced during our time together. And it was incredible.”
J: In what way?
LM: “It was incredible because that performance remained with me for all the competitions for the rest of my career! That experience anchored all my senses in the kata Sochin; the smell of the night, the feeling of snow under my feet, the sounds… everything! Every time after this, when I made Sochin in competition, I would automatically remember this incredibly strong experience. So, why is this important to you? Because in an important moment, like a Karate performance, if your mind is connected to an earlier strong experience it’s impossible to start thinking about trivial things like: “Is my balance okay? Are my punches straight? Am I going to slip?” and so on. The memory is so strong that it takes over, and your senses adjust! You understand?”
LM: “And this is very important. To connect an experience. Especially an experience like that, which was very strong and very particular. Today, however, my idea when performing katas in general is more related to my internal feelings of the moment, rather than previous experiences. Like I said before, you need to “become” the kata.”
J: And for those who don’t have the possibility of training in snow-covered mountains, or other strong “emotional” places, what else can you suggest?
LM: “Well, for example, another good exercise is to project, to imagine, the technique you are always doing next. To use a standard kata as an example: When you are doing rei [bowing] you are already visualizing the yoi [ready position]. When you are doing yoi, you are already imagining the first technique. When you do the first technique, you are visualizing the second. When you are doing the second, you are visualizing the third, and so on. In this way, your mind is constantly anticipating the next movement. It’s like you are living the experience before you do it. So if something is wrong in your anterior experience, you can correct it when you do it physically. Understand what I mean?”
J: Yeah, I think so, but it seems super difficult!
LM: “Yes, in the beginning it is very difficult to do this. But as time passes, you do it automatically. Then, when you have mastered the first stage, you can start visualizing the second and third techniques, fourth, fifth, sixth… until you can finally just do the rei… and in an instant you have just visualized the whole kata!”
J: WHAT!? That’s totally insane! Do you always do that?!
LM: “Yes, of course [looks surprised]! Nowadays it goes automatically!”
J: Wow… that’s mind-blowing!
LM: “My mind just does it for me. But you have to train for this. It’s very hard.”
J: I can imagine!
LM: “…but it also gives you a lot of impressive results!”
J: Awesomeness. I will have to give it a try. So let’s leave that topic for a second and go back to a certain area of team kata that has been highly criticized lately. I’m talking about bunkai, of course: The second part of a team kata performance where you have to show a choreography displaying the meaning (application) of the kata.
LM: “Haha [laughs], yeah, “bunkai”!”
J: Yeah… (wtf? did he just diss himself?)
LM: “Look, let me tell you, first of all, that from my experience the major part of the world doesn’t understand what bunkai is. Because everytime I see a bunkai in competition, I see a lot of “showy” things. It’s only a show. It’s no efficiency; there is no real understanding of what they are doing. Of course, it’s a competition, so you can always insert some smaller spectacular things between the movements, but you have to always start from “What is the meaning of this bunkai?”! The term bunkai means “the study of the parts” or “analysis of the parts”…not “show”. Kata, by definition, is an imaginary, codified, simulated fighting. Imaginary because you imagine to have an opponent. Codified because you use the code of Karate – stances, kicks, punches, blocks and things like this. Simulated, because you are not only imagining the movements, but also performing them, as if fighting [at this point, sensei Maurino starts to get really heated up! You can tell this is a subject close to his heart. I had to leave out a lot of stuff here!]. So when you do bunkai, you have to make an application of this! For example: If you do Suparimpei in the team kata, you cannot do a yoko geri [side kick], or tobi geri [jump kick] in every part of the bunkai – because that is not the application of the movements related to Suparimpei [louder voice]! Techniques like that are NOT part of the motorical alphabet of that specific kata!”
J: No… [silence]…
J: …[more awkward silence]…
LM: “That’s all.”
J: Okay… great, so if we…
LM: [suddenly interrupts] “…but that’s not what I’m seeing today! I’m just seeing everyone doing split kicks, running on their knees, doing back flips and incredibly, INCREDIBLY, everyone wants to copy this! EVERYONE!”
J: Wow… [afterthought: maybe we should have gotten something for the blood sugar here]
LM: “But the Japanese are still the best.”
J: You think the Japanese are best at Karate? Interesting, why?
LM: “First of all, they have the right attitude. Their idea of Karate is similar to our conception, while in many other countries there is still a lot of confusion. The Japanese never forget that Karate, above all, is not a sport. It’s a way. A way of life. And we are never to forget this. A way of life means etiquette, discipline and respect. Today I don’t see this anymore.”
J: Word! So, in your opinion, are we Westerners better at something else then?
LM: “Yeah, in my experience we are better than the Japanese in sports methodology. But that’s it. We are not so good at promoting the other [non-physical] parts of Karate. The budo part. But when I began training Karate, these ancient values were still being promoted. Today, however, they seem to have been lost.”
J: So what should we do, you suggest?
LM: “Well, I think we can run a middle way. In one part we have to be open to research; especially scientific research, about sports and health. We have to use the possibility to render our training more smart and optimized. But please understand that this is not just for competition, rather for health. Because this was actually a big problem in the past: people got lots injuries from unscientific training! Sports research can give us all a possibility to train for longer time without injuries. But on the other hand, we must never forget that Karate is first of all a budo way. Not a sport. It is a spiritual way that we have to follow and not stray from; because it helps you for life. That’s my idea of the future, and these two things have to be combined together.”
Stay tuna fish for the fourth (and last!) part of the series; where we talk about the benefits of proper strength training, the great cardio delusion, Lucio’s personal training regimen and Chuck Norris!
Along with much more!