Sport Psychology Lessons in Isshin-Ryu


I began training in Isshin-ryu when I was ten and learned some powerful mindset lessons over the years. By the time I was a 4th Dan, I had enrolled in a master’s program in sports psychology*. In every class, I was fascinated by how many sport psychology principles and mindsets are taught in martial arts.

I knew martial arts were a very mental activity, but how did karate masters know these things that we were finding in research?  Now, I have a Ph.D., teach sport psychology courses in college and graduate school, teach Isshin-ryu privately, and am a mental performance coach.

Sport psychologists and mental performance coaches are frequently hired by sports teams, the military, businesses, and individuals to help refine the mental game of performance. Think of sport psychology professionals as personal trainers for your mental game. We focus on goals, concentration, perspective, confidence, self-talk, anxiety, etc. Here are four of these sports psychology principles that you may already know from your martial arts training.

1-You are your biggest opponent.

In Isshin-ryu, the legend is that the opponent you are fighting in kata is yourself and when you improve, your opponent improves. This challenges us to stay focused on ways we can improve ourselves rather than focusing too much on others in the tournament/class. There has probably been a time when you were practicing kata or a drill and watching the person next to you. You are focusing on them, not yourself.  When we do that, we are more critical and more self-conscious of our performance, which actually decreases our performance. However, when we keep our focus on ourselves (and our imaginary opponent), then we can focus on improving as much as we can at that moment.

In sport psychology, this is also true. You are your biggest cheerleader, and you are your biggest hater. You cannot grow your mental game until you recognize that many of the challenges come from inside yourself.  If you lack confidence, it is usually because you aren’t taking the time to build it in the most efficient way. Only you can make you more confident, focused, relaxed, etc. Whatever your mindset hurdle is, improving it starts from within.

Mental Training Exercise #1: One way to begin recognizing both your strengths and weaknesses is to start journaling. This is probably the most helpful tool any of my students or clients have ever used. Start with taking 5 minutes after each class or practice to write about your class/practice. What went well? What didn’t go well? What frustrated you? What excited you? Just dump it all onto the page. That process of reflecting in writing is extremely important to understanding your imaginary opponent. Don’t skip the writing part! Writing things down challenges you to process them differently than just talking.

2- Always have a seed of doubt.

No matter how often I competed, I always had this tiny little doubt, “What if I forget this kata in front of all these people?” “What if I lose?” At first, this was scary, but over time I realized that a little bit of doubt is what made me practice harder in class, focus more during the tournament, and go back to the dojo to train harder. As an instructor, I tell my students & athletes that if they ever step into a competition and don’t feel a little bit of doubt, then they should take a close look at why they are competing. When we don’t have that seed of doubt, what we are doing usually doesn’t mean much to us or we are lying to ourselves about how much doubt we do have.

One myth we have about confidence is that confident people never doubt themselves: that’s incorrect. People who have authentic confidence always have a seed of doubt. Authentic confidence is rooted in reality, past experience, and our current skills. There is always a possibility that we make an error or fail; acknowledging that possibility is the seed of doubt. The seed of doubt can be the root of growing authentic confidence, though! It helps us 1) be honest about our skills and mindset, 2) prepare more consistently and efficiently, and 3) not be overwhelmed when we encounter obstacles.

Mental Training Exercise #2: In the journaling that you did during exercise #1, see if you can find seeds of doubt in your thinking. Circle or highlight them. Then, take 5-10 minutes and write about how you handled those seeds of doubt. Did you use them as fuel for growth or did you let them grow into overwhelming doubt like a weed taking over the garden?

3-You are never done.

If you’ve taught young kids, this example may be very familiar. I can remember so many times when I would teach a young student a new part of their kata and send them to practice while I moved on to the next student. Five minutes later, they would come up and tell me, “I’m done!”

What? You are never done practicing! Ask the highest-ranked black belt that you know how often they practice Isshin-ryu. Some will go over their katas in class, before class, after class, each morning, every evening, etc. Some will say that Isshin-ryu is practiced in everyday life. They are almost all practice regularly– that is what keeps Isshin-ryu alive and their skills advancing. The day that you stop practicing in some way is the day you stop improving and growing.

In sport psychology, we teach our clients/athletes to develop a mental training routine. Most athletes, performers, and competitors use some mental strategies already, but don’t practice consistently and efficiently. For example, we might imagine ourselves succeeding, but we only use it when we are struggling.  That’s like going to the gym to lift weights only when we think we are weak. If we aren’t practicing our mental game regularly, it isn’t improving. We are never done.  To improve your mental game, you must practice.

Mental Training Exercise #3: Think of a time when you succeeded. Take a few minutes to close your eyes and imagine that success over and over. Get detailed with it as if you were walking someone else through the experience. Use all your senses. What were you seeing, smelling, tasting, feeling, and hearing? Repeat this regularly. Maybe try doing it every day for a week. See how the experience feels different at the end of the week. Bonus points if you create another journal entry about how the visualization experience felt!

These are some of the strategies you are already using in Isshin-ryu. When you practice your mental game, you will find that your mental skills improve. Take note of your mental practices. Do them as often as you run kata or spar. They are that important. Schedule a practice time. Be consistent. Reflect (in your journal) about your practice. If you are at this point wondering exactly what counts as mental practice, here are some things we do naturally in Isshin-ryu, but maybe don’t focus on specifically:

  • Imagining your opponent
  • Walking confidently into the ring
  • Keeping your game face/focus when you do your kata
  • Listening intently while your instructor speaks
  • Feeling nervous before a competition/test but controlling your nerves
  • Breathing exercises to energize or relax your body.

About the author 

Dr. Stephanie Huskey, (PH.D., Health Psychology, Northcentral University., Sport Psychology Capella University, B.S., Psychology, Tennessee Wesleyan University) has been teaching graduate and undergraduate courses in exercise science, psychology, and health since 2008. Dr. Huskey’s specialization is in Mental Performance Coaching, Self-esteem, and Body Modification. She began her Isshin-ryu training in 1988 as a member of the children’s program at the Burris Martial Arts Center in Athens, Tn., under the direction of Master Carol Burris.  As she progressed, she moved to the adult class and remains as a long-time student of Grand Master JC Burris.  Master Huskey learned her lessons well and continues to spread good Isshin-ryu Karate.

If you want to learn more about mental training, feel free to contact or go to @sahuskeycoaching on Instagram and TikTok.