More and more these days, people are talking about the effects of adrenaline during a fight and/or fight build up and a number of training programs have been built up around it. But should traditional martial arts alone be enough to prepare us for the effects of adrenaline and what did the masters of old do about it?
For the sake of this article, I will focus on an average thug, trying to pick a fight with you, rather than a professional mugger/rapist, whose tactics may be a bit more slick. From the moment that somebody starts to pick a fight with you, and enquiries of you with great verbal eloquence and dexterity, “who the f*** you looking at”, what are the effects of adrenaline that you can expect to experience? Well this will vary from person to person, especially if you compare somebody who is an experienced street fighter against somebody who is not.
Quite a lot has been written about this in recent years, but if you are new to this subject then please let me recap for you. One of the main effects of adrenaline is that blood flows to major muscle groups in preparation for fight or flight. Side effects of this are:
- limbs shake (especially legs).
- the brain does not function so well and you can’t always think straight (less blood).
- fine motor skills deteriorate (accuracy) as gross motor skills improve (stronger, faster).
Other possible effects of adrenaline include:
- sight becomes tunnel vision, focusing on your antagonist (making you vulnerable to surprise attacks from other directions).
- you may feel the need to empty your bowels (this is the body trying to make itself lighter for fight or flight).
- voice may become higher.
- you freeze!
It is important though to note that these effects will vary from person to person. The street predators or an experienced street fighter may not seem to show these effects quite as much as they are used to “training” in the adrenaline zone. Probably the worst side effect of all is that you may “freeze”. People often talk about “fight or flight”, but they forget about the “freeze”.
First of all, why do we freeze?
Well its an out of date defence mechanism that goes back to caveman times. If Mr Ugg gets up in the morning, walks out of his cave on his own, without his spear for a quick stretch and yawn and spots a sabre tooth tiger, he has no way of out-fighting the beast and is unlikely to out-run him either. If he freezes, the beast may possibly not notice him and move on (many wild animals do this). Of course this is no longer an appropriate defence mechanism when we are dealing with human predators who want to mug, rape or beat us up, as opposed to a large furry or scaly predator who wants to eat us. It is however, a mechanism that plays straight into the hand of the human predator.
The eye detects movement much more quickly than it detects shapes. Before you can identify a shape, you often “catch something out of the corner of your eye”. I have read that the British SAS (special forces) when working in a jungle will walk for 10 minutes, then stay still for 20 minutes; walk 10, still 20, etc. With so many different shapes and colors in a jungle, this ensures that they see the enemy before the enemy sees them. It can be difficult to make out a human form in all that foliage, but you will see the movement. Hence even our special forces intentionally “freeze” for 20 minutes out of every 30.
If we train regular martial arts, should we be concerned about this. Well, even trained martial artists have been known to freeze when confronted with the raw aggression of a street predator. I have attended a FAST (Fear, Adrenaline, Stress Training) Defense Course, where part of the training is to subject people to this type of aggression in a controlled environment to teach them to deal with it without freezing. One lady on the course who was an experienced Tae Kwon Do exponent started to cry when the instructor yelled at her that she was a “f***ing bitch”.
Now for many of us who train in a Dojo/Dojangs where swearing is not allowed, it may seem very strange that an instructor should use this type of language, but that is the language of the street predator or abuser. The lady’s TKD experience had not prepared her for this kind of verbal abuse and had that happened on the street, it could all be too late at that point! In fairness to this particular lady, she recovered her composure, stood her ground and completed the course. She probably took a much larger step forward that day then anybody else on the course, so I have full respect for her.
But it goes to show that traditional martial arts training often does not prepare you for this type of raw aggression. It does not always prepare you for the pre-fight build up ritual. And it usually is a ritual, as the aggressor builds themselves up whilst psyching you down at the same time.
In his book, Dead Or Alive, pioneering author Geoff Thompson describes how the dialogue can almost show a countdown. The sentences get shorter and shorter until they are just one syllable, then they strike. It start with something like; “You looking at me, you want a piece of me”, to “come on then”, to simply “yeah”! Geoff emphasises that it will not go like this every time, but if it does then you are listening to a countdown, so be ready. Better still, strike first.
People who have experience as a street fighter (as many experienced martial artists have in younger days) sometimes have trouble relating to how this is a problem for those that have not had much real life experience. They see dealing with aggression as common sense. But as the old saying goes, “common sense is not very common”.
What do you actually do when you hear those dreaded words, “who you looking at”? If you act passively, you fuel their confidence. If you jump into your fighting stance and say “come on then, I do Karate”; sometimes you may face them down, but sometimes it will be taken as a challenge so you end up in a fight you didn’t want anyway. Not only that, but you’ve just tipped him off on how you are likely to fight so he will be a bit more cautious.
Even if you match your aggressor with shouting, threats and abuse so that he feels fear and he actually wants to back down, he may not back down if his mates are watching. Sometimes they will risk taking a beating rather than loosing face. And even if you win, that’s your night ruined as most normal people do not enjoy fighting.
If you are confident that you can hit hard and you believe that if you are able to land a good clean shot that you can finish the fight (or at least knock them down long enough for you to escape) then another tactic is to act passively and scared to lull them into a false sense of security. You let them confidently puff themselves up, so that they don’t feel the need to put up a guard, then when they get close enough and you have a good target, you hit it as hard as you can and then get out of there.
Now these tactics sound quite straight forward. However, as mentioned above, when you have just had an adrenaline dump, blood goes to major muscles and goes away from your brain. You are therefore not able to think as well or as quickly as you would in the dojo/dojang. Under these circumstances, because the brain is a bit impaired it will tend to resort to it last experience in a similar scenario. If the last experience in this kind of scenario is cower, that is what you are likely to do again (not always, but in most cases).
Traditional martial arts usually train us for when the punches start flying, but we often do not train for the pre-fight ritual. When we’re not even allowed to swear or yell at each other in the dojo/dojang, how can it prepare us?
For people who have little or no real life experience at street fighting, some kind of adrenaline training is very important. If nothing else, when the adrenaline hits the blood stream and the brain does not function at full capacity, then the last experience is one of action, not one of cowering, so that should be the experience that the person falls back on. Adrenaline training is scenario based, whereas traditional martial art training is technique based.
By scenario based, I mean that the participants actually act out a scenario with one person playing the role of aggressor, shouting abuse and swearing whilst the defender learns to feel the adrenaline, operate under its influence and become de-sensitized to the abuse and threats. Scenario based training can give you very quick results in a short space of time, the main result being that it will help to overcome the “freeze” reflex. Technique based training will take very much longer to achieve this.
To summarize, scenario based training will give limited results, but gives results very very quickly. It won’t make you a fighter, but it may help you to diffuse a possible fight so that you don’t have to fight at all. Technique based training can take you to very high levels of speed, power, accuracy and co-ordination; but it takes a long time to learn. It can also take some many many years for a timid person to overcome that timidity in the face of raw aggression. That’s a lot years that a timid person stays vulnerable, however good his/her technique may be.
I personally believe that the two go hand in glove with each other and that every martial artist should at some point do some scenario training, preferably at the beginning of their martial art careers. It is often said that fighting is more mental than physical and a brilliant technique in the dojo/dojang is completely useless if it freezes on the street.