Every instructor at some time has said that the worst person to spar against is a beginner. They will always do something totally unexpected, punch incorrectly, but hit you on the nose, block your shin with the point of their elbow, close down your kicks without ever planning to and generally cause chaos. The problem is they don’t know the rules. They don’t know we are supposed to be better at the game we’re playing and they don’t yet know enough to be impressed and let us score on them.

Also we find it difficult to read what they are going to do because, as yet, we haven’t programmed them to move in such a way that we can detect early what they are about to strike with. That will come with time when we’ve moulded them into the rules. And rules we have – complex, complicated and sophisticated rules about combative engagement and how it should happen within the art we practise.

Fine so far until we extend the analogy of the beginner to the street, where the person who has had had umpteen pints of best whatever and decides your a suitable case for treatment is also somebody who hasn’t gone through the tedious procedure of learning all the rules. He doesn’t wait for a signal to start, in fact, he probably wont even convey to you anything is about to start, rather simply knock you out. He won’t exchange complex blows, blocks and counters, he’ll simply plow into you and before he does that he may have destroyed your resolve to fight with such violent language and display of aggression that your out of the game before you start.

M0 Teague on a BCA Instructor’s course covering practical applications.

You see the problem is that ‘high level martial arts only works best against high level martial artists’ – it’s thugs and chess – you can’t play chess with someone to whom draughts is mentally taxing and who doesn’t know the rules. It’s this point that both Geoff Thompson and I try to get over time and again to people, that unless you are prepared to rethink the problem of how you adapt to the reality of violent street confrontations, simply relying on Dojo skills won’t work. Remember one thing, that the less a person knows the more dangerous they are because the better they are at what it is they do. Also the less trained a person is in a wide ranging system, the more underhand they will be in trying to get close to strike. They will also be more violent and are prepared to cause you more damage than you would have done to them.

They practise the two skills of ‘sucking you in’ or ‘psyching you out’. I used to do this to people on the door where, if the distance was wrong I would feign fear or worry (usually not difficult) which made my opponent too confident and would cause him to close the distance and come into my range for a preemptive strike. The other alternative was to ‘psych them out’ with either a display of aggression or a display of massive confidence (not actually felt, but well disguised). Both can work, but don’t try the first option if you look more like a concert pianist, or art school teacher, as the bluff can’t be carried off.

Both can work for you and both can be used against you. I mentioned a display of confidence and this is probably the one most people should work on. It demands you display no emotion, display no physical capabilities and are able to talk without giving away how you actually feel. Watch doormen – this latter option is the one they cultivate the best. They have become skilled at not betraying emotions and this has been helped in no small way with the advent of CCTV which may monitor their every move and expression, particularly aggression.

Geoff Thompson on a BCA residential course, demonstrating close range knockouts

What we can use and what people use against us are two sides of the same coin. In nearly all cases the person who is facing you down with a display of aggression and threats is no less nervous or frightened than you it’s just that he’s now working to his rules. You see the problem is that in the Dojo we don’t practise ‘verbal violence’!. In fact, we do just the opposite, practising politeness and control, with little if any displays of true aggression. However, when you face it for the first time, it may be enough to freeze you into immobility and make you the loser even before a blow is thrown.

All my teaching, either for the police or others is centred around not what will work for us in the street, but what will stop us working properly as we would expect and hope to when faced with violence. Very simply, this is to do with the bodies response to stress as it effects the sympathetic nervous system and also the endocrine system. To this can be added a host of other very strange psychological and physiological symptoms that overwhelm us which all serve to negate any physical skills we have accumulated over the years. In a later article I’ll detail the process of what happens and why, but for the moment believe me it doesn’t happen as you may think it does from the comfort of the Dojo.

Last month I mentioned how we burden ourselves with too many techniques, whereas your attacker actually has the benefit of knowing very little and so can’t confuse himself about what he is going to do. Most critically, though, he will not be caught between the two stools of attack or defence – unlike you. He has one simple plan and that’s to strike and at a point he knows it will work. He wants the first strike to finish you so that he can then go to town on you. As trained martial artists we have choice!, to pre-empt or wait and defend, but it doesn’t work to our advantage. Like our attacker we should have only one consideration and that’s to be first, whereas having the choice actually weakens our resolve.

There is a metaphor for life which I have always thought very apt for this particular point  and it’s the story of the Fiddler on The Roof, which is essentially to do with the lifelong battle for all of us to achieve the best  we can in life and do exactly what we are capable of, set against our innate fear of the unknown and risk which usually inhibits us. This is the fiddler who goes through life trying to fiddle the best tune he can whilst at the same time cling on to the roof. If he could be brave enough to let go more his tune would be better and he would reach his potential, but all the time he has the fear of falling off. When we are faced with a violent aggressor we are just like the fiddler on the roof, caught between what we have been told we should do, which we’ve been led to believe is to wait and defend, or pre-empt and strike before he attacks. Believe me you need to let go of the roof!. You also may need to rethink who you play chess against.

Peter Consterdine

2. Stress and Performance

As always, when I’m instructing these groups, I am reminded up to recently how little regard has been placed  on training people who may meet violence in the course of their work. The training that has been given is usually fundamentally flawed as it has taken no account of stress on performance in violent situations. Martial arts instructors are often the worse culprits for this as they have a belief grounded in years of repetition of techniques that what they practise will work in all circumstances.

In the last article I used the analogy of the bungee jump and how we over-dwell on the consequences of our possible actions to the exclusion of acting appropriately  and swiftly to save ourselves from attack and injury. One major cause of inactivity is decision making and how it fails us at times of stress. Decision making powers will be one of the first of our faculties to fail. So it’s not the technique that in the first instance fails rather the ability to command it to work at all. Despite this instructors ignore the necessity to develop ‘action triggers’ to take over when our cognitive processes fail.

I’ve already talked about the effects of the ‘chemical cocktail’ e.g. adrenalin, cortisol, dopamine, endorphins etc which fire into our system to aid performance at times of stress. Despite the advantages of increased oxygen take up, increased heart rate, increased blood supply, heightened awareness, glucose release, pain suppression, and increased strength to name a few, the downside is that we will also get muscle tightening, muscle twitching and shaking, general clumsiness, dry mouth, pupil dilation as well as all the sensations we dread with a massively pounding heart, churning stomach, sweating and overriding feelings of anxiety. All these latter lead to a very negative perception that we are not up to the task.

In fact, a cycle develops called the ‘anxiety cycle’ which has two components called Somatic Anxiety and Cognitive Anxiety. Without going into great detail the latter is our ‘thinking process’ about the situation we face and our uncertainty and possible fear for the outcome. The result is the release of the chemical cocktail which causes us to believe we are more stressed than we actually are and hence the somatic anxiety which then feeds back to our belief system which by now is at zero. It can also be described as ‘Paralysis by Analysis’, where a person is frozen into immobility by becoming caught up in their own thoughts about the situation. When you understand this you will realise how inconsequential worrying about whether the shape of your fist is correct – you often never get to throw it.

Peter C on a long hill carry. To get through a training session like this with hill sprinting in between the carries is stressful, but teaches one not to give up – under any circumstances.

This is, however only half of the problem. The chemical cocktail is a physiological phenomena and clearly understood, it being a product of the body’s endocrine system and sympathetic nervous system. What is less clearly understood, but well recognised, documented and researched are the range of other symptoms that severe stress produces. In no order of importance these are tachy psychia, perceptual narrowing, positional fixia, cognitive dissonance, auditory exclusion. In ‘Streetwise’, the consequences of these are covered in detail which is not possible here, save to give an overview. You all know perceptual narrowing in it’s more common name of tunnel vision. I suffer badly from this and, over the years, have learned how to break out of it when it comes on.

Often tunnel vision is linked with positional fixia, or in simple terms to be rooted to the spot. This symptom of high stress is like the rabbit in the car headlights – frightened but incapable of moving. Both these effects are dangerous to us when faced with a violent aggressor and people are often ‘blind sided’ because of tunnel vision. As with the effects of the chemical cocktail the effects only get worse the longer you defer action. It’s at this point that people who believe they can wait and defend will come unstuck. People who try and psyche themselves up will also come unstuck as your uncertainty will transmit to the other person who will sense how nervous and uncertain you are.

Tachy psychia is the psychological, perceived slowing down of time. Those readers who have been in a car accident may have experienced this, where events which happen over few seconds seem to go on forever. How this effects performance is that we are deceived into believing we are performing slower than we actually are and, as a consequence, we try and speed up, thereby cocking up the whole thing.

Police firearms handling has suffered from the effects of tachy psychia, where the necessity for smooth flowing action is thwarted by an  officer trying to go faster than is possible. A considerable body of work has been done in the States over this problem and I’ll say it again if people are teaching self defence based simply on techniques it’s tantamount to negligence.

Try and practise conflict training in physical surroundings that duplicate reality – get out of the Dojo.

How does are Dojo training help or hinder. Two problems emerge with Dojo training or with any defensive tactics training which takes place in a gym or similar. There are two ‘conditions’ of training which conspire to reduce our effectiveness in the street. These are ‘state dependent’ and ‘context dependent’ training. The first of these, state dependent refers to our state, in other words our arousal level. It has been said of Dojo training – ‘excitement level up, fear level down’. In other words we are not training under the same level of arousal that fear and stress would cause in a real life, terrifying street encounter. As a consequence we can make work a whole range of techniques and tactics which wouldnÕt have a cat in hells chance in reality. We seldom ‘pressure test’ our system under realistic conditions.

Secondly we probably train in a well lit, open training hall with good flooring and no impediments to movement. This is the ‘context’ we train under. Compare this to how the ‘context’ may be when it kicks off outside the Dojo – poorly lit, uneven floor, crowded if you are in a bar or club, restricted space (tables, chairs, stairs etc), unsuitable clothing and footwear. The list goes on, but hopefully you get the message. What we can do well in one environment may be a complete non-starter in a different location, or ‘context’. Karate people will have experienced this in a much more benign situation and that’s with Kata. Those of you who have competed in Kata competitions will have practised their Kata endlessly, but often it’s done in a context that doesn’t change.

You will usually be in your Dojo facing one wall every time and starting from the same spot. Change the context to the competition hall and I know because it’s happened to me, and all of a sudden because the wall you always face isn’t  there, you now can’t even remember the start of the Kata you’ve practised hundreds of times. As the context changes so does your performance which has in some way become dependent on it.

This is why specialist military units leave no stone unturned in developing training facilities which can both stimulate the stress of real life encounters and also the conditions likely to be met. They also know that the context must be changed so that a comfortable routine is not developed. I know people who have set up ‘mock’ pubs and clubs in their training facilities so as to reproduce the conditions likely to be found. Think how you will fare if you are seated and approached by someone aggressive, or confronted by someone above you as you are going upstairs or when you are leaning on a bar in a crowd of people.

You have to learn how to hit really, really, really hard, so that your partner’s arms shake after the session. Peter C works the focus mitts with his long-term training partner Peter Lakin.

If you believe marching up and down in straight lines punching and kicking will be the answer you have a possible rude awakening to come. This is simply to hone a very basic technique. From that point the technique has to be put into a sequence and that sequence has to fit into the scenario unfolding. That technique, however, is like a bullet in the gun with the gun being your body. The mind is represented by the trigger and if you don’t suitably control this aspect then you will never pull the trigger and all the marching up and down will have been for very little.

Peter Consterdine

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