That title might sound like a ridiculous thought, but it really is how a lot of people train in the martial arts and they may not be aware of it. There is an intrinsic problem in studying the martial arts no matter what the style. It has to do with how the brain processes information. There are these misconceptions in the arts that somehow something mystical will happen when we are in a real fight and some warrior instinct will arise within us allowing us to vanquish our foes. We believe that the training we do in the kwoon or dojo is going to apply to the streets, but in actuality it normally does not. This is not the blame of the student or the school, but of the brain itself. I had a few instances in my life that crystallized my view on these false ideas we hold. Several years back there was an article in a major Philadelphia paper on female black belts asking them about real life experiences. The reporter asked several of them if they had ever been accosted and when they replied 'Yes' he asked, ‘What did you do?' Pretty much all of them responded that they screamed and then tried to get away. I found this very peculiar that their reflex action was not to strike or fend off, but to scream. This is pretty much any person’s reaction so why do you need a black belt? One time a student visited my workout space with his friend and was pushing the friend to learn kung fu. He told him that he might need it if he or his family was attacked and that he had no fighting skills. The friend did not want to study kung fu and proclaimed, “I know if I ever get attacked that what I need will burst forth from me and I will defeat anyone. I have faith in myself and my religion that I will prevail.” He was clearly very agitated by his friend pushing him and I could see him getting emotionally revved up. Out of nowhere he sprung across the room and attacked our 75lb heavy bag. It was poorly tethered to the floor and ceiling and we always had to reattach it. This fellow attacked it chaotically with his elbows and fists flying in a frenzy. I guess he was trying to show us his great ferocity. The bag broke off the floor tether, which was no surprise to us, tilted back and then came forward top first. It caught this guy under the chin and lifted him off the floor. Then the bottom came swinging back up and nailed him in the groin sending him sprawling on the floor a few feet away. He was knocked down —almost out—by an inanimate bag. He lay there stunned, eventually getting up to simply leave the room. His faith that things would magically go right was probably somewhat compromised at that point.
I have heard long-time martial artists’ state, “Every master knows that when the time comes the ability will spring forth." I completely disagree with this. It’s like never playing tennis against someone and saying “I know when I get on the court with another player I will be able to rise for the occasion." It’s not going to happen. There are several reasons for this, with the most important one being the biology of the brain. What we learn cognitively does not manifest itself when we are under duress. There is no cognition when being attacked thus the female black belts screamed; it was a reflex. This is why so many people say they were stunned when an attack happened. It is outside the realm of normal life and reasoning. You can practice hitting tennis balls delivered by a machine all you want, but it does not prepare you for a real opponent. You can develop certain skills and techniques, but not the reflexes you need in a real match. Our reflexes are wired into us and not part of the cognitive process. The fight or flight response is located in the back of the brain while the cognitive learning centers are in the front. When we are under duress our brain reacts from the back of the brain, not the front. All of the learning we did in the front is not accessible under those conditions. Learning to block and punch in a controlled fashion is fine to get the motion down, but unless you practice under real stress it will not be there when you need it. So many times you see people that look great in the school, but when they are attacked they start flailing away like they’ve never learned anything. This is because they have not drilled themselves to the point where it becomes a deeply ingrained reflex, no longer a matter of cognition. Fear rules the brain at this moment.
I remember the first time I sparred with a boxer. I was very fast and had great technique. I was stunned at how aggressive he was and how he was only intent on hitting me. Most martial artists train to defend themselves, you know, it is after all the art of self defense. By having this attitude of defense enable the attacker the upper hand, because he controls the fight. I have said for decades there is no such thing as self defense; it’s self offense. When they attack you attack the attack. Defending against it puts you behind the motion. The psychology in these two positions are entirely different. So when this boxer came at me he was not being the least bit defensive. Naturally, he easily overwhelmed me and knocked me down. I was trying to defend and then offend. There is a real time lag going on here. It was stunning and quite depressing to me how easily he defeated me. He later said to me, “When I fight I expect to get hurt so I am going to hurt you first." When he attacked me I was trying to understand what was happening rather than just fighting reflexively. I did not have a fighting reflex; I had fighting learning but had not gained any reflexes. It caused me to really reconsider my training and to find ways to improve it. It was quite clear to me that those who just practiced under controlled conditions folded under uncontrolled conditions. Violence on the street is fast, unpredictable and chaotic. As my dear friend Sifu David Sun says, “There is no such thing as a clean fight”. If your training has not sunken to the core of your brain you will not be able to standup under this type of onslaught.
So what do you do? After you have learned your techniques and the mechanics of fighting then you need to up your training with someone you trust. You also need multiple partners with varying physical characteristics so you get diversity in your opponents. People of different sizes fight very differently. When you do this they must come at you aggressively and fiercely with no prescribed plan. You will find right away that most of the things you trained to do will not have the allotted time
to complete. Your fighting will be sloppy and panicky. That’s okay, this takes time to develop. You will also be scared. No sane person isn't. Mike Tyson used to cry before his fights and he is one tough character. I was working on an HBO fight last month in Mississippi. One of the fellows on this job is an ex-athlete and we were talking about the fighters. I mentioned the thing about Tyson. The guy I was talking to is at least 6’7” and easily 260 pounds. He is huge, really huge. He told me he played football for years and that before the games he said, and I quote, “I got tears in my eyes”. I said, “So you cried too?” He thought for a minute and said, “Yeah, I guess so”. Fear is natural so don’t be ashamed if you’re fearful about fighting; you should be. Also, in the beginning you must get used to the fact that you are going to get hit many more times than you will block or evade as this training sinks into your consciousness. Anyone who claims to have never gotten hit or that they are un-hittable is living on some other planet than Earth. We first learn by losing and it happens in every sport. You can practice running with a football all you want, but when there’s an opposing team it is truly a different game. It is by training under the stress of real game conditions that you really learn what you are doing wrong. You get knocked down a lot before you learn your mistakes. It is the exact same for martial arts. You cannot learn by standing next to the pool, you have to jump on in and do it. It is not till it becomes reflexive that it really works. All the theoretical concepts fly out the window when you are in the pool because now you are not worried about swimming, you are worried about not drowning. I was having dinner with a buddy of mine who has two purple hearts from his tours of Vietnam and he made the comment, “all the training in the world does not prepare you for when that first shot comes at you!" For this reason when I teach I always stress the real pressure aspect of fighting. After a student has digested the techniques I slowly ramp up the pressure on them. They are often quite humiliated and dismayed at their lack of ability but over time they develop true skill. Eventually their reactions will come from their core and not their mind. They will not even be aware of what they are doing while they are doing it accurately. They will not be doing an art; they will be the art.
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