Friday, November 11, 2011

The Mental Game - hard lessons

This article is partially in response to a post made by jc over at Bujutsu: The Path.  In it, jc tells of a friend that gave up his study of martial arts after he and another friend were jumped and beaten up quite badly.

From his post:

"Since that night, about three years ago, my friend has completely stopped training as he felt his skills didn't 'kick in' when needed. He has become disillusioned and cynical when it comes to the art form he used to love"

The part that really caught my eye was about the skills not kicking in.  Now, I go on and on about realistic training and training with a serious mind, but that statement has provided me with a opportunity to (hopefully) articulate a very important point.  I feel that this may be one of the more important posts on this blog.

You need to be ready to respond to violence, not your chosen martial art.  It doesn't matter what you study or what techniques you've learned.  If you are not mentally and emotionally prepared to fight, to commit serious violence to protect yourself or someone else, it doesn't matter what rank you hold.  And you better be able to throw the 'switch' really fast.

This point is often lost on martial artists, people who work out in friendly dojos, in a controlled environment, safe from real violence.  This isn't meant to be critical of martial arts instruction, per se, but it is something people need to understand.  This part of the mental game is up to you, the individual.  You need to really look inward, to see if you are truly prepared to do whatever is necessary to protect yourself or someone that can't.  This is assuming you cannot get away safely, of course.  

Are you capable of real violence?  If you are serious about your study, you need to figure this one out.  I can't give you the answer, and neither can anyone else.  It's not an easy question, by the way.

One of my issues in the world of martial arts is how they can give students a sense of false confidence.  It would often be better to not know any martial arts than it would be to assume your techniques will kick in when needed.  In addition, very few martial arts enter any sort of confrontation with the view that their first technique or two probably won't work as planned. The static or singular nature of traditional martial arts practice can be a serious detriment. Assume what you do won't work and keep fighting until the threat has been negated.  And fight with all you've got.  Don't throw one technique and step back to assess what you assume will follow.  Fight, fight fight, and then get away.  

Once you know you are going to fight with everything you've got, martial arts techniques can kick in and help.  They are tools which make your response to an attack easier, more efficient, and which reduce the chance of serious injury, first for you, and if you're good enough, also for your attacker.  They do not take the place of dark and serious intent.  

If it helps, think of it this way - I would rather fight a black belt in any style than a mother who was protecting her child.  The mom is willing to do whatever it takes, without hesitation, the black belt may or may not be ready for combat.

I know of a guy who was in a true life or death struggle.  He was losing and in a last ditch effort to survive, he actually sucked the eyeball out of the socket of the guy who was trying to kill him.  Gross,  yes, but could you do it if you had to?  Food for thought.

jc's post goes on to say:

"I just think about why he feels the way he does and how I would feel if that happened to me. Are we allowed to 'lose'? Are we allowed to have 'doubts' and weaknesses'?"

These are hard lessons.  As warriors, we don't lose as long as we learn from an experience. If you survive and learn from something, you have not truly lost.  We should always question ourselves, and our chosen martial arts.

One of the single most effective tools is to visualize.  Imagine yourself responding to violence and being successful.  The human brain has trouble differentiating between imagined stimuli and actual experience.  And that's fantastic.  That's one of the reasons you should always ask yourself what you would do it that random person in front of you attacked.  Think with the 'when/then' model.  When that person attacks, then I'll do this, and I'll win.  Do this enough, and when the world finally does go mad around you, while other people are falling apart, you mind will be saying "No problem, I've been here before".

I want to add that I don't mean to be critical of the person mentioned in jc's post.  I don't know him nor do I know the circumstances of his attack, or his martial art style or teacher. It saddens me that he has abandoned his study, whatever that was, but I also understand. To be beaten up is a rotten experience.  It has long term effects on people.  It's a hard lesson to learn.  It can shake their confidence for years to come.  For those who've been there, you understand what I'm saying.  For those who haven't, I hope you never have to find out.  

I hope jc's friend recovers and can learn from his experience and I hope he finds something in the world of the martial arts that he can use and ultimately enjoy again.

I hope I've done this topic justice.  I also hope everyone takes a moment to really look within themselves to figure out what they're capable of.  It's a valuable exercise. 

And if jc's friend ever happens across this post, I am sorry you had to go through what you did.  Whether you know it or not, you are stronger for it and with time, it will get better.

Train well.


  1. Great post once again! I think one of the most overlooked aspects of fighting is emotion. In a real fight, battling your emotions is just as important as the fight infront of you. When we train in a dojo, we're never emotional, but when we find ourselves in a real fight the "fight or flight" instinct kicks in, and that feeling is foreign to so many people that they just forget everything they know. Emotion also causes hyperventilation, and without "gas" you cant do anything. Usually its the calmest, clear-minded person who wins the fight. But how do you stay calm? I think (besides realistic training) Journeyman nailed it on the head: the "if-when" exercise. Play out scenarios in your head while out in public - this will lessen the shock of it all. Professional fighters imagine their fights dozens of times in detail, even the walkout. It calms their nerves on fightnight.

    Very good read Journeyman, keep em coming.

  2. Visualization has been part of sport psychology and coaching for a long time. Strange that it's not so prevalent in the martial arts. It could be because in sports, there's an actual planned event scheduled.

    Good point about getting tired. If too much emotion kicks in, we often stop breathing properly and 'gas out'. Thanks for the comments and the compliment.

  3. Interesting post. I don't think any of us really know how we'll respond until it happens and even then our response may be dependent on our emotional state/state of awareness at the time we are attacked. I don't imagine that I could ever suck some ones eye ball out though! Yuk!

  4. Sue,

    Agreed. There are no guarantees, especially for those who've never been tested under fire (and even for those that have). And our state of readiness and awareness has a huge impact on how we will react. People tend to freeze up when their mind and senses are overwhelmed. Visualizing tricks the brain into thinking "Been there, done that" which drastically improves the chances of reacting and reacting effectively. If you are caught completely unaware, the catch up phase from shock and disbelief to fighting back can take a lot longer.

    And yes, the eye ball is gross, but it sure did show a never surrender attitude. Thanks for the comment.