On and off over the 6 months (when I actually get the time), I’ve been reading a fascinating book called Psycho-Cybernetics by Maxwell Maltz. It’s a great book about how the brain works and how to use your own brain to get the best out of life. I’ve also been struck several times on how much of it applies to martial arts.
One chapter, Crisis Into Creative Opportunity, is particularly applicable. There are few crisis more immediate than that of being violently assaulted.
Here’s an extract from that chapter:
Although we may learn fast, we do not learn well under “crisis” conditions. Throw a man who can’t swim into water over his head, and the crisis itself may give him the power to swim to safety. He learns fast, and manages to swim somehow. But he will never learn to become a championship swimmer. The crude inept stroke that he used to rescue himself becomes “fixed” and it is difficult for him to learn better ways of swimming. Because of his ineptness he may perish in a real crises where he is required to swim a long distance.
This is where advocates of reality based martial arts should be sitting up and paying attention, as much of their training is more psychological than physical, to hard wire the brain to act under the most extreme circumstances. The scenario based training where the aggressor shouts, threatens and swears at the defender are intended to induce an adrenalin rush, (to create the the feeling of a crisis). It is known that under emotional pressure (adrenalin dump), blood goes away from the brain and it the muscles (ready for flight or fight).
However, with the lack of blood to the brain, the defender is not able to think as clearly as usual and will therefore tend to rely on remembered experience. If the last experience of being attacked led the defender to cower and cringe, then that is what the defender will probably do again.
The scenario based training is designed to put the defender into an emotional/adrenalized state and hard wire (or “fix”) a different response, which the defender can fall back next time the blood is drained from their brain.
This type of training is akin to throwing somebody into water over their head to teach them to swim. In light of the paragraph above from Psycho Cybernetics, what conclusions can we draw?
Well firstly, this type of training will get very fast results. But just like the guy who is thrown into water over his head does not learn to swim well, they do not really learn very much in the way of self defence skills. The main thing they learn is that when the crunch comes, they will fight back ferociously. In many cases that will be enough, as many street predators are just looking for an easy target. If they can see that their intended target is going to fight them ferociously (however badly), many street predators will move on and look for somebody else.
However, if you are picked on by an experienced street fighter and who just wants to fight no matter what, then this type of training is limited. A street fighter is used to “training” in this emotional/adrenalized state. So this type of scenario training just means that the defender will fight back without cowering or backing down. It does not mean that they will in any way be a superior fighter, or have any other advantages.
This type of training therefore is ideal for somebody who just wants to do a short course and get good results and does not want spend years training at a martial art.
But what about the person who does want to become very good at martial arts; someone who does want to take self defence skills to a much higher level?
Maxwell Maltz says to be really good in a crisis, we should practice without pressure. He also writes in Psycho Cybernetics:
Dr Tolman found that if rats were permitted to learn and practice under non-crisis conditions, they later performed well in a crisis. For example, if rats were permitted to roam about at will and explore a maze when well fed and with plenty to drink, they did not appear to learn anything. Later, however, if the same rats were placed in the maze while hungry, they showed they had learned a great deal, by quickly and efficiently going to the goal. Hunger faced these trained rats with a crisis to which they reacted well.
Other rats which were forced to lean the maze under the crisis of hunger and thirst, did not do so well. They were over-motivated and their brain maps became narrow. The one “correct” route to the goal become fixated. If this route were blocked the rats became frustrated and had great difficulty learning a new one.
Another example given was that of fire drills. Those who practiced fire drills in a controlled manner were more likely to safely get out of a burning building, than those who had to find their way out under crisis conditions of that fire.
So as martial artist who want to react well under crisis conditions, we have to first learn in a non-pressure environment. Once a technique or drill is learned, we can of course always up the pressure later. In fact it would be foolish not to. However, always training under high pressure hard wires and fixes responses in the brain which makes it difficult for the trainee to respond to should the circumstances suddenly change.
My Sensie, Paul Mitchell teaches over and over to practice movements slowly in order to perfect them. As perfecting technique takes a very long time, whilst hard wiring a response under pressure gives very quick results, there is a clue to how you should train. Most of it should be relaxed with a small (but regular) amount of pressure training.
It would seem no accident that most people who teach reality based self defence have a background in traditional martial arts, thereby covering both aspects. Kevin O’Hagan who is a world renowned teacher of reality based self defence has said that traditional martial artists always pick it up fastest.
It also explains why Tai Chi is considered a higher level of martial art which martial artists should progress to (not start with).
Although Psycho Cybernetics is not a martial arts book, I would seriously recommend it to anybody who is interested in self development. I’ve certainly found it eye opening.