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  • Writer's pictureClaire Higgins

Practice Through a Movement Psychology Lens

I'm half-way through a 9-month qualitative research study on what motivates people to practice a form of movement, exercise, or sport, and how this changes over time.

  • How does their motivation change over time?

  • How does their relationship to their practice change over time?

  • How does their practice environment change over time?

  • How do they change over time?

As a researcher, these kinds of questions drive me on and keep my interest high.

I find each of my nine participants' journeys and personal insights fascinating. Despite the differences between what and why and how and where they practice, there are common themes emerging. For example, that of commitment.

At a certain point, practice shifts from an interest (driven by curiosity or chance) to a hobby (something enjoyable) to a way of life (something that reflects who they are). There are degrees of commitment along the way. At first, it is commitment to show up. Later on, the commitment is held gently as their practice becomes who they are.

For those who continue to practice year after year, an identification with their practice(s) deepens over time. This identification appears to shift from an extrinsic motive low in autonomy to one that gradually softens into a more autonomous and intrinsic drive, as more competency is attained.

The link here from low to high autonomy is two-fold: (1) In movement, exercise, and sport, there is a natural progression of skills acquisition and development where instruction, training, or coaching is needed for the practitioner to gain the level of skill required to direct their own practice; (2) There is often a social factor that accompanies this skills development process, be it for competition and/or another form of achievement or enjoyment.

For some, their relationship with practice is questioned or challenged. Something happens - a parting or fracture of sorts - that forces the practitioner to move beyond who and what they thought they were, and make peace with a less predictable practice terrain. This is where I believe practice transitions from actualisation to transcendence of self. It can happen gradually as a teacher or more suddenly when adversity arrives.


These are my preliminary observations prior to completing in-depth thematic analyses. The qualitative process of research is multi-layered and I have intentionally chosen to hold off formal analyses until my main data sets have been collected.

Each participant's journey is 6-months long with three data point collections (interviews, journaling, joint analysis of their data). They haven't all started at the same time, which means my journey with the group will be around 9-months long.

As a researcher, much of my time outside of interviews and connecting with the participants involves reflection my own practices and parking any biases that arise, either those I identify on my own or those that arise during my research supervision. I have some ideas on how this research study might evolve and potential outcomes it could generate, and these ideas will naturally influence how I eventually view and analyse the data.

As a qualitative researcher, I accept this dynamic and do my best to separate what is mine from what belongs to the participants. I also try to keep a space open in my mind for what none of us know - that which has yet to reveal itself and emerge.

My participants also come with their biases. For example, they may have learned to see themselves from a certain viewpoint or through a particular lens over time. They may identify strongly with their practice, particularly if it offers multiple levels of "reward" for them - emotionally, mentally, physically, socially, and spiritually.

This is where I find myself reflecting on my own potential for bias.

I have a strong interest in skills development and performance in relation to motivation for mastery. Years of martial arts learning and practice has given me a deep appreciation for the time and effort it can take for a practitioner to master their "art". I am interested in the relationship between movement and character, and how our skills-based movement practices and the environments in which we practice "shape" us physically and otherwise over time.

For example, I associate myself with two martial arts - karate and judo. Although both of these practices are currently stalled, I remember the person I was in each of them. If I close my eyes and remember, it's as if I can step back into those former lives.

Claire, the karateka, belting up her suit before class. She looks in the mirror to check everything is in place. The belt, the suit, her hair. Her face is soft yet serious. Her attention is alert before she even leaves the changing room. She arrives at class early and remains alert throughout the class and practice, only speaking to ask her teacher questions, and doing what he says. She is obedient, observant, courteous, and quietly capable, and she leaves as she arrives, making sure the room is left as clean and orderly as she found it.

Then there is Claire the judoka. I see her flat on her back at the end of class, energy spent. Her suit is unravelled, her belt undone. Her hair is wild and plastered in sweat. The other students are in similar states. The relationship between them all is different. How can it not be when they have spent the past hour and a half grabbing, throwing, pinning, and choking each other. Physical proximity and touch have a way of breaking down social veneers, even in the most serious and courteous of us. There is far less to hide on the judo mats.

Which Claire am I really? The answer (in my view) is both and quite possibly, neither. The difference is the nature of the practice and the practice environment, which contains social and cultural terrain.

Different practices and environments will bring out different aspects of our character. While karate cultivated in me courtesy, order, and control - characteristics I associate most strongly with my teenage years while studying in a strict all-girls school - judo brought out the tomboy side of me that preceded that. Carefree, brave, and competitive. Both sets of characteristics are integral to who I am, and both offer pathways for connection to my spiritual or essential self.

Within this particular bias or way of seeing character is a personal theory that love of movement is a character strength. We are all born with a desire to move and who we are reveals itself through movement. I understand this isn't a theory I can extend to everyone, for it isn't inclusive of those who lack or have limited capacity for movement. So for now I'm exploring it just within myself.

The challenge here for those of us who have acquired movement skills within certain environments - particularly those infused with culture and tradition like the martial arts - is that certain skills and environments can also "shape" the worldviews we hold, particularly with repeat practice over time. And when we stop doing our practice, what happens then? How much "residue" from our practice remains, and how much is washed away? Do we ever see life - and our life - in the same way again?

These questions linger and their answers can haunt me at times. For if my primary motive for martial arts practice was character development through movement skills, what has become of my character now that I am no longer regularly engaged? And how do I view the purpose of my life, which was once so clear, if the lens through which I see the world is continually shifting and changing in the absence of a strong movement practice to anchor me?


I also have a strong interest in the influence of movement, exercise, and sport practices on cognition and emotion. This overlaps with performance skills development, as certain emotional and cognitive states can enhance or erode our capacity for skill and coordination. But here, my interest lies more in the direction of finding an optimal point of tension between cognition and emotion where the experience of practice is enhanced.

Flow theory, as proposed by Mihalyi Csikszentmihalyi, has become increasingly popular over the past few decades. The "tension point" between skills and challenge can take us into various domains, from apathy and anxiety to relaxation and flow.

Flow states are particularly associated with creative and athletic domains. For myself, they are (for now) more strongly associated with the former.

As a teenager, I regularly experienced flow when painting or composing music. A whole day could pass by effortlessly in task absorption, without food or social activity. I took these flow states into work when building strategies, and into my Arabic calligraphy practice. My experience of flow - which keeps me coming back to creative practices in multiple domains of my life - is quiet, spiritual, and serene. It is effortless and the only barrier I encounter (like many) is the lack of free time needed to lose time.

In Csikszentmihalyi's flow theory diagram above, when it comes to creative practices I would place myself towards the centre line of the flow segment. In doing so, I am leaving a door open for the possibility that I might experience a higher "frequency" of flow.

Unfortunately, I can't say I have ever experienced any state of flow in movement. I have had moments of ease within effortful movement, for example while swimming or running, but these aren't states I would refer to as flow. They are more along the lines of what I would call "positive experiences" where a particular combination of factors coincide - mental, physical, and emotional - to create a positive affect (a relaxed mental, physical, and emotional state) that later pulls me back to practice.

I have also experience moments of familiarity in martial arts, particularly in kata when performing memorised sequences. Some might claim kata can lead to flow but for myself, an ease born of familiarity was as far as I reached. I was still too aware of my moving self and environment to claim I ever lost track of time and space.

In martial arts, there is a kind of "relaxed alertness" (known as zanshin in Japanese martial arts) that you could say sits between the "relaxation" and "control" segments of the flow theory diagram. This state is one I was taught in karate kata but only really came to embody in judo when the tension (caused by perceived threat of another opponent throwing me) reached a higher level. Pressure and physical touch activated a more present version of myself.

Beyond zanshin is a state known as mushin in Japanese martial arts. This is usually referred to as a mental state called "no mind". The practitioner's mind is free from thought and emotion. There is no intention or plan to act, yet the practitioner knows exactly what to do when the time arrives. You could say that this type of spontaneous reaction and just knowing what to do is flow. I experience something similar in strategic work - my mind knows before I can explain, and it isn't intuition.

I believe that zanshin offers a pathway to mushin and that the capacity for mushin is enhanced when mastery of skill reaches a level I have yet to experience in the martial arts. This is why I haven't yet experienced flow in this particular domain.

When it comes to swimming and running, I believe there is the capacity for flow but in these domains, where the movement is less about reacting and level of skill required relatively low (again, compared to other movement forms with which I am familiar - there is of course still plenty of skill required), the experience of flow is dictated more by physiological changes in the body. A conditioned body with a high capacity for cardiovascular endurance is required to enter a flow state.

For those of us who aren't yet there, we may still experience other positive states that keep us coming back to practice. For example, my running has reached a level where I enjoy most of the run and provided I haven't pushed myself too hard, I feel a significant reduction in my mental stress and physical tension levels after. Swimming also (pre-Covid, that is) leaves me in a deep state of relaxation.

However, I wouldn't place these positive states within the flow theory diagram "relaxation" segment as very little skill is involved (for me at least) in putting one foot in front of the other, or doing front crawl or backstroke. While I could ramp up the skills focus in swimming (I was competitive in my younger years and am experienced here), there isn't any desire to do so. I run and swim to feel good, that's pretty much it, while I do (or at least, did) martial arts to develop skill and character.

I also posit that there is a parallel state to flow - that of Maslow's peak experiences - which repetitive movement patterns such as running and swimming can elicit. They remind me of the spinning actions of Sufi whirling dervishes and rocking of Jewish prayer. Maslow linked such peak experiences to religious encounters but cautioned against their potential for addiction. These highly elevated states of positivity - or divine encounter? - are ones practitioners may seek out again and again, trying to recapture a fleeting state.


If positive experiences bring me back to running and swimming, a combination of positive and negative experiences would bring me back to martial arts. The latter also meant and probably still means more to me. While I can take or leave my identity as a runner or swimmer, my identity as a martial artist is much stronger. This is why it has been so painful to feel it stalling. It simply matters more.

Something happens when I put on my suit and belt that doesn't happen when I don my running shoes or a swimsuit. I step into a lineage and culture, and I am no longer alone. There are others on this path of self-improvement and together, we face the highs and lows that such a character-driven journey entails. To break away from this collective experience is like losing parts of myself.

When I dive into a pool or set out on a hilly run, it is just me. I am alone with nature - the movement of the water, the movement of the wind. In many ways I am much more free than I ever have been or can be in a martial arts dojo. Particularly when running. I can lace up and hit the road or trail whenever I like. There is something beautiful about that, and about being in water, that I haven't experienced in martial arts.

Some might argue that running and swimming still offer lessons in character. For example, perseverance. This may be true but it is harder for me to relate to as I am not sure I see or feel any lasting impact on myself from these practices. They are enjoyable ways to self-regulate and feel good but I am not seeking to improve my character in them. If anything, I might be trying to leave my character behind.

Perhaps then it is the intention and attachment that differs, rather than the movement form. And maybe this is why one day, I suspect, I might be more likely to experience flow or peak experiences in these domains. That I care so little whether I am "good" or not, particularly in running, might just open up my mind enough for a flow state to enter.

There is still so much for me to unpack here and I still have so many unanswered questions. For example, why is it still so hard for me to train myself in martial arts? Am I still attached to what a practice should be? Is my association with a dojo and group and teacher still so strong?

After so many years of training, and with more than enough knowledge under my various belts, why have I found myself walking through three years of fog? I can blame a new environment - a move from the Middle East to the UK, where classes are limited in my area - and I can blame Covid. But I also have to ask tough questions such as, was it just about the belts?

A belt is symbolic of progress in the martial arts. It wasn't always that way, this was more of a modern system introduced by Jigaro Kano, founder of judo, and taken up by other martial arts systems. While I trained in my younger years because I loved it (a black belt was a pleasant surprise at 22), when I returned as an adult to karate there was so much more to prove. I had to re-earn my first degree black belt and surpass that to reach my second. I had to re-gain my fitness levels in order to train.

In judo, despite my initial attempt to drop my ego and progress with a beginner's mind, it wasn't long before I wanted to win and satisfy my competitive side.

These days, I don't have so much to prove. I understand that a belt is just a belt and a medal is just a medal. I don't attach my understanding of martial arts to a suit. I understand that my abilities as a martial artist are not confined to a dojo or there to be tested by a teacher. They lie within me and aren't often seen. That is the confusing fog I'm exiting; one where I realise what I've known is just a social construct.

I am moving towards a freer way of relating to martial arts, beyond the various schools and set practices, and to be quite honest that is uncomfortable and disorienting terrain. Intellectually I understand this is the way but emotionally, I am still garnering strength. I am starting to see martial arts as human movement which immediately dissolves it's cultural components. How are humans designed to fight and defend? And why do people like to memorise cetrain movement patterns? Those kinds of questions take me far beyond any dojo I've known.

I am also moving beyond labels such as "exercise" and "sport" - to me it is first and foremost movement that is then qualified by motive and a "how". When we remove the social elements and other filters such as health and mental health, it is movement, cognition and emotion that is left.

I'm figuring out a new way of being in the absence of a particular movement practice. Who I am, and who I am becoming as I peel back the layers of acquired movement skills, identity and character, is a version of myself that I don't think I've seen or felt since I was a young child. And that is something that leaves me with wonder and a question:

Without all that I have learned, and attempted to master in movement and character, who (and what) is it that remains?


Claire Higgins is a Positive Psychology Practitioner & Researcher and Self-Defence Instructor. She holds a Masters degree in Exercise & Sport Psychology and directs Inner Athletics.


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