Shadow Boxing
Shutterstock / fran_kie
Let’s get something out of the way right now: It is not always healthy to have imaginary friends. So no matter what is explored in this post, I’m not suggesting that hearing voices, having affirmations from nonexistent people, believing in one’s ability to defy physics and so on are all that healthy. When I speak of imagination, it will be the physical, pathological work of cognitive exercise rather than the more mystical concepts of reality-altering visualization or actualization. Those are philosophical subjects for other settings.

An interesting facet of storylines within the history of mixed martial arts is the ever-present team, training camp, gym, coaches, etc. From its inception, MMA has focused on trainers and their individual training paradigms. Are they producing champs and/or contenders? Do they do hard sparring? Is there a strength-and-conditioning aspect to their team? Is it more of an individual focus or a team dynamic in which skill sets are taught to all team members? And, of course, who are the training partners?

In and of itself, there is much interest in the styles and emphases of the various gyms/teams around the world. This interest is magnified when a popular fighter associated with a specific team or system changes. There can be soap opera-level drama in such moves. The drama is often used for promotional purposes and makes for a bigger event if two fighters shared a gym as training partners and now must face each other.

Rashad Evans and Jon Jones put that drama at the forefront back in the day, and Jorge Masvidal and Colby Covington are today’s gym-drama friend-turned-enemy spokespersons. These men were each other’s training partner, respectively.

Where, how and with whom people train has everything to do with their abilities and their effectiveness in competition. This subject really came into focus during the COVID pandemic. In many places around the world, training became limited and often impossible — even illegal. The issues reported with City Kickboxing in New Zealand are an example of this.

This brings us to a very important, albeit strange, consideration: Where in this dynamic does training without an actual team or training partner fit in?

Putting aside the faux training programs of self-designated gurus who give certificates and belts to untrained or untested “students” with the same level of credibility as those using a 2-for-1 Black Friday coupon to become wedding officials and Lords of Scotland, there is something to be gleaned here.

There is concrete biological evidence that the imagination can be as real to the imaginer as reality itself is. Studies in many areas such as phantom pain involving the loss of a limb, reflex reaction in virtual environments that mirror actual environments, and even the research done in psychology pertaining to influence and the power of suggestion all have proved enlightening.

There have been studies, for example, in which people imagined themselves performing a learned skill without actually or physically engaging in it, and they have shown that doing so can have an effect on the brain’s pathways and effectively can produce the skill itself. You can literally learn not only by doing but also by imagining that you’re doing.

While there’s no question there is an effect and likely a greater effect in practicing a skill in real-world scenarios (or as close to that as possible), there is unquestionable merit in practicing alone and using mental focus and exercise to “go through the motions,” as it were.

No one balks (sorry) at the baseball player who is in the on-deck circle, practicing his swing with the bat. No one mentions the fighter who shadowboxes. Almost all people who excel at things pretend or imagine themselves doing those things when they’re alone.

If it is true that intentional, focused use of imagination can and does play a part in developing one’s skill, it would follow that in martial arts, imagination would be a good skill to develop. It is probably not prudent to never train with others, but it is almost self-evident that an imaginary training partner might be a good addition to the “team.”

Remember when you were a kid and you pretended to drive, fight or fly? There may have been something to that. But if your imaginary friends ever tell you that real-life discipline, training with others, practice and exertion are unnecessary, block their imaginary phone number.

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