I’ve talked about this before but I really need to talk about this in depth. The fight or flight mechanism is real and it must be brought under control or you will panic in a confrontation.
What brought this to my attention lately had nothing to do with martial arts but was concerned with cold water training. A friend had told me he was doing the Wim Hof cold shower exercises. I asked him about the breathing exercises and how he was doing them. He wasn’t, he was just taking cold showers. In essence he entirely missed the point of the cold-water training, totally off the mark. So, we had a few words and I told him that all he was doing was suffering through a cold shower and not at all training his core. The point of the training is not to withstand cold but to control your core reaction to the cold. You have to first master your breathing so that you control it under stressful conditions. It reminded me of all of those martial artists who spend forever training on physical conditioning, hitting makiwara boards and so forth, but they are not training their minds for reaction under stress. This is vitally important to face any dangerous situation.
I have taught anti-flinch training for decades. It’s something I realized in my early practice that I felt needed to be addressed in the beginning of learning martial arts. It’s something I have spoken to Bas Rutten about in detail as he stresses it in his teaching and has videos on YouTube about it. Why is this important? Because if you are flinching you are not controlling your body, fear is, fight or flight is. I start by having my students stand with arms up in front of them and then their partner starts lightly throwing punches at them. If they flinch, pull away or in any other way show distress I have the partner slow it way down. There’s no hurry here. Over time the student will finally relax and learn to be calm and alert during the exercise. After a time you start to notch it up until you can pummel the student and they don’t flinch. It’s only from this position that you can truly and objectively observe and react during a fight. You are not in a tussle with your brain over what to do. The object in cold water training is to not let your body flee into the fight or flight mode. In this case when you are not trained and submerged in cold water you are shocked, you panic, hyperventilate and lose control or your body’s reaction to the stress. It’s not that you ‘man up’ and take the stress but that you have trained your core reflex to breathe deeply and settle down. You know the water is cold but it’s ok, you’re still in total control. If you had to jump in a lake to save a kid who fell through the ice you wouldn’t be doing much good if you were in shock and hyperventilating from the cold. The first time I did the cold water I was totally panicked and out of control forcing myself to stay there but completely unhappy and overwhelmed. Within a few days I was amazed that I no longer had the visceral reaction to the cold. Did it feel cold? Yes, but it didn’t matter. My breathing automatically settled down as did my heart rate. I had trained my core to take over and not panic.
Anti-flinch training achieves the same goal; you overcome the primitive reaction of the brain and now face the danger calmly and clearly. You cannot be panicky in a fight. You will have no focus and no strategy. Like I’ve said many times before; you cannot train to swim standing next to a pool, you must jump in. My update on this is that you cannot train to swim in the ocean by training in a pool; the stress level is entirely different. Which brings me to the point of actually training with someone who will push and challenge you. You cannot train this unless your training partners are willing to push this to your limits. They have to want to beat you and test your techniques to failure. This doesn’t mean that they hurt or injure you. This can be done with respect and constraint. When I studied Aikido years ago I saw this in action at every class. The attacker expected to be thrown so they let it happen instead of resisting. I was very wary of this training and would often counter whatever the defender was doing. I was heavily chastised for this as being ‘uncooperative’ and mean spirited when in fact I was being forthright and honest about what was happening. Needless to say, I did not last long there. It’s got its own beauty but I wasn’t there for art class.
Can you imagine a paratrooper who doesn’t actually train jumping out of an airplane but using a bungee tower? Think of how long it takes to acclimate yourself to jumping out of a plane with confidence and a calm mind so you can actually strategize on the way down. I’ll stick to the cold water myself.
You have to train so that your core mind is engaged and awake. You need the stress to attain this state just like the cold water makes you face the stress. You can’t fake it in 45 degree water. You can’t perceive this or rationalize this you have to live this. No amount of form/kata training, bag work, cardio exercise or strength training can awaken this within you. You have to consciously do this over and over till it engages within you. The story of Miyamoto Musashi illustrates this at the highest level where two samurais meet each other while crossing the same bridge from opposite directions. When they face each other, they can both see that the other is quiet deep within, core alert, and they both go back their own way. This is not a display of machismo but an example of the deepest respect for they both acknowledged the skill and depth of the other.
Generally, when I talk about these things the most common response from other styles is: we’re not animals, we are not trying to hurt each other, this is an art that works, we’re not brutal like MMA, etc etc. I get that but heaven help you is you get into a real conflict because you will freeze. Skill does not magically erupt from the bowels of your consciousness and make you a warrior. You have to train this, there's no other way.
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