Mindset – our flexible friend

Anything sophisticated enough to be called a martial art uses psychology in a multiplicity of ways.  A generalised understanding of the psychology of stress and aggression (nearly the same thing, though mostly they simply overlap) is obviously useful.  This can be utilised at both the macro levels, where an understanding of how your disposition of your battlefield forces will likely affect your enemies is obviously useful, to the micro or individual combat level.

In both these cases, being able to predict an opponent’s response is the requisite skill for an intelligent use of feints and drawing techniques – misdirection is what’s required here, and you can’t practice mental sleight of hand, unless you understand what provokes a reaction from another human being or group.  Reading the opponent is not simply a case of reading body motion.  It requires reading the tell-tale signs of likely movement from the possible, represented by the body configuration prior to it, and an understanding of what kind of threat provokes what kind of reaction.

Such understanding has an external aspect – your opponent’s mental and emotional responses – and an internal one – your own reactions.  Most approaches to preparing the student for combat focus upon the training methodology; appropriately, for the modern student in particular, should be spending much more time in training than in combat.  This focus is centred upon the internal response therefore of the student, not the enemy.

‘Dignity’, Buddha and Me

My elder sister and I had always fought like the proverbial cat and dog all through our growing up.  Jacqui is three and a half years older than I, just the perfect age gap between siblings for each to irritate the other totally.  Words and fur flew when left alone for very long.

A common enough experience, and entirely normal, just as when she had moved away to the city to begin her independent life we began to get along a great deal better.  It’s always much easier to appreciate your close family when you don’t live under the same roof.  Now, there’s choice involved.  You see one another because you wish to, not because you’re obliged to.

Her first visit home for the weekend was the turning point.  After a couple of hours of trying all the verbal gambits previously guaranteed to provoke me into a fury, she gave up, remarking “It’s useless, you sit there like a little Buddha!”  Having functioned as an assistant instructor at my local karate dojo for a couple of years by this time, I was very conscious of my outward self-control.

All the images of the great masters had one thing in common.  Short, tall, slight or hefty, they all appeared utterly dignified.  And if you ever want to study the fragility of dignity, study a teenager.  So like most teenagers would in similar circumstances, I faked it.  Visibly I was all equanimity, even when my internal state resembled that of Krakatoa just before a particularly bad bout of indigestion.  The old masters all appeared unshakeably calm; that was all I knew from the few pictures I had seen in magazines and books.  A few looked sterner than the others – Gogen Yamaguchi Sensei being an excellent example – and some slightly amused at their own, or possibly mankind’s obvious foibles and weaknesses.

So for many years I attempted to mimic that Buddha-like calm of the true martial artist; the trouble was, that’s exactly what it was, mimicry.  I am indeed a much calmer person for all my training, but I had to learn to accept pretty early on that I wasn’t ever going to do a very convincing impression of the inscrutable serenity of the oriental artists.  Funnily enough, I began to discover that masters came in many guises, and wearing many faces, and not only didn’t they all sport the same expression, they weren’t the same way all the time.  It took me a great many years before I realised that individual personality dictated much of what was outwardly visible, and it was an internal coolness under stress that the individual had to cultivate.

When I teach, I tend to be something of a clown, as I find that a little judicious humour can tease a much better reaction out of a student than barking at them.  But then every teacher is different, as is every student.  I have had stern teachers, intellectual and technical teachers, irascible and jovial teachers – they were all effective in their own ways, and probably all suited the needs of some students better than others did.

“When I nod my head, you hit it!”

As a student too, I have found that it pays to vary my own mind-set dependent upon what I am trying to teach and whom I am trying to learn from.  A common approach amongst old-time teachers was to push the student mercilessly, lest they learn to give in to their own weaknesses.  There are pros and cons to this style of interaction with the student, well illustrated by the following personal experience.

It was my last night in the karate dojo where I had received my basic training.  The last but one activity was sparring, and I was paired off with a friend of mine.  Terry was a few years older than I, though lower in rank.  We had already had half a dozen bouts each with different partners before we paired up.

The session had been extremely tough and we were both exhausted – at least, I know I was.  Just before our three-minute bout was due to end, Terry threw a roundhouse kick at my head.  It wobbled.  I, in my arrogance, remember thinking “That will never hit me!”  It hit me and the next thing I knew, I was literally spitting teeth and fragments of teeth all over the floor.

I had never received a serious injury – or any obvious one, more of that another time – in my martial art training.  I was shocked.  My instructor took one look at me and said, “Right, kata training!”  The last twenty minutes I ever spent in that dojo was occupied with several renditions of the Goju-Ryu kata Sanchin.

I don’t know if you are familiar with that particular kata, though doubtless if you’re a karate-ka, even of another style, you will have heard of it.  It is often described as a dynamic tension kata.  Very slow movement under great tension is interspersed with fast, relaxed motion, all of it driven by Iboki, or ‘Lion breathing’.  Short, but deep inhalations are followed by long, powerful exhalations, timed to coincide with the movements under tension.  Now, with chipped and broken teeth, a couple of which were apparently whole, but twisted around in their sockets (they later shattered at a touch), every moment of every breath was agony.

When my instructor dismissed my injury so casually, I was angry – so angry that I can generate a feeling of near-homicidal rage simply by recalling the incident.  I determined I would show him the meaning of warrior spirit!  Through every instant of pain that the next twenty minutes of kata training brought, that anger was the only thing that sustained me – pure, channelled, focussed.  Distilled emotion of a frightening intensity, so refined that the merest drop of recall has brought me through many a real life-threatening engagement ever since.

To add to my distress, I was about to fly out to the Channel Islands, off the coast of France, approximately thirty-six hours later.  I intended to find work for the summer; assuming all went well, I would be attending university in the October.  Expensive dental treatment was not something we could afford, and indeed to this day I have not yet had all the damage repaired.

I went home and cursed maniacally for the next couple of hours, all the more remarkable as at eighteen I almost never swore.  It was some time before I was coherent enough to allow my father to understand what had occurred.  My mother had been out that evening, and returned home about an hour after me, and the whole cycle of rage began again, triggered by the retelling.  My poor mother had a tough time making out what the hell I was saying – due to the missing teeth – and was obviously shocked by here normally mild-mannered son spewing forth profanities!

In the thirty-five years that have passed since then, I have rarely been so angry as I was that night, and have never allowed myself the same degree of furious release.  Terry, one of the nicest people you could ever meet, was mortified, though certainly not to blame.  Accidents happen, and it was my responsibility as the higher grade to defend myself adequately, which does require treating even a junior opponent with sufficient respect.

I doubt I have entirely learned my lesson – my students could all tell you of other incidents where I have allowed myself to be injured in some minor way by them.  I like to think this is indicative of a lack of ruthlessness in myself.  But in truth, my own explanation to those students that it is my fault for failing to treat the threat they represent with enough seriousness, is probably nearer to the mark.

As a teacher, I cannot imagine treating the injury of a student with such casual callousness, but perhaps that wasn’t the intention behind the act.  Being somewhat of a coward when it comes to physical pain, I tend to be extremely safety-conscious when teaching.  I believe the student has a right to my effort to render training as risk-free as possible, but anyone who has ever trained in the arts know it is an inherently risky activity.  I am very proud to say that in thirty-nine years of teaching, I have a one hundred per cent safety record.

Would I put a student in danger?  Yes.  In a real sense I have done so many times.  Always the student has been properly prepared for certain key experiences where some of the reality of combat is lived for a short time.  This way, the undeniable danger that exists is, at least controllable.  I remember Guro Inosanto saying at a seminar in the mid-1980s that, ‘when it came to real combat, martial art was 70% attitude’.  He went on to explain that he felt technical drilling was so important, because when the adrenaline and fear began to pump in real self-defence, then 70% of your technique goes right out of the window!

When I was sixteen years old, I sold my guitar to be able to attend a course with some other members of my karate club.  The course was organised by the then owner of one of the older British martial arts magazines.  The lead instructor of the course, Eddie McGee, was something of a surprise to us all, for reasons I won’t go into here.  Mr. McGee was the then Chief Survival Instructor for the Special Air Services, soon to retire.  He later set up a very successful outdoor survival centre in the U.K.

He was, as you might expect, the sort of man who could be air-dropped into the Gobi Desert, with a toothpick, a little aluminium foil and survive the trip back to civilisation.  He could also kill you in a bewildering number of ways.  At one point, he had paired us all off, one of each pair with a short garrotte, made of fat, soft nylon cord for safety and two wooden handles; the other with a knife.

Those with the garrotte were to leave it inside the jacket of their gis, until they had successfully disarmed their opponent, whereupon they were to apply it – carefully?  For a moment or two, my partner and I (Terry again!) watched the many other pairs manoeuvre around each other.  They all seemed to be working in a way typical of the dojo, stepping cautiously and formally, blocking and locking the weapon-bearing arm.  Most used standard karate sweeps to take their opponents to the floor, before removing and using the garrotte.

Terry and I looked at one another and shrugged.  Then we got down to it.  About ten or fifteen exhausting minutes later, I became aware that someone was tapping me on the shoulder and the huge venue was ominously quiet.  I was astride Terry’s chest – what nearly everyone calls the ‘mount’ position nowadays.  I had the soft-toy version of the garrotte wrapped firmly around Terry’s throat, while he struggled simultaneously to throw me off him and get his hand under the cord to relieve the pressure.  By now, Terry and I had alternately held the same, or similar, positions about a dozen or so times each.

There were around a hundred or so people on the course, and they now surrounded us, standing looking down upon us, or rather at McGee Sensei who was saying, “Now that’s what I meant!”  The holder of 5th and 6th Degree black belts in Aikido, Ju-jutsu and Karate, Mr. McGee wanted us to realise that combat is often messy, and it’s often how well you approximate technique, combined with combative attitude that allows you to prevail.

So, did my instructor do me a favour by appearing so unsympathetic when I was injured?  Nowadays, I think the answer is a qualified ‘yes’.  I would have appreciated a few words of explanation afterward, but in those days instructors generally followed the old advice to leaders, “Never apologise, and never explain!”  One of the reasons that I am such an admirer of the Indo-Chinese systems is that they have a powerful emphasis on drilling for likely attacks and combination attacks.  If you look at these drills and their structure carefully, it is clear that they are designed to render combat, an inherently chaotic activity, into a predictable process.  When drilling is as comprehensive and well structured as it is within many of these arts, it is an easy matter to develop one’s ‘auto-pilot’; once that ‘auto-pilot’ is trained and engaged, you can ‘crank up’ the combative attitude with which a drill is performed in relative safety, but with a realistic feel.  This is where the attitude kicks in, and now all the psychological attributes for which a certain skill level is a pre-requisite can be trained.

©John Mellon M.A., and The Martial Arts University, 2011.  Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited.  Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to John Mellon M.A. and The Martial Arts University with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

About themartialartsuniversity

In daily training in the martial arts for the last 53 years; teaching almost daily for 43 years. Hold teaching ranks in 27 martial arts, Master ranked in 4 arts, Headmaster of 3 systems, the Founder of 2 arts, and the co-Founder of 2 others. Has been the official Technical Advisor to Profs. Wally and Leon Jay of Small Circle Ju-jitsu since the 1990's. Assistant Headmaster of Small Circle Ju-jitsu and the co-founder and joint Headmaster of Small Circle Concepts with Prof. Leon Jay. Has three Bachelor degrees and a Masters Degree in History. Experienced writer - published or featured in all of the UK martial arts magazines and in Inside Kung Fu in US, as well as: Esquire; She; Elle; Woman's Journal; Health and Fitness; Zest; Marie Claire and The Independent (UK national daily newspaper). Has been featured on BBC and ITV news programmes as expert on weapons defence and usage in relation to law enforcement issues. Former CPO (Bodyguard), and still active as a Bodyguard trainer.
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2 Responses to Mindset – our flexible friend

  1. ilan says:

    hi John Sensai………………..wonderful piece again. I love your writings which are a wonderful extension of you! I remember being thrown around and hurt just a little bit as I was tied in knots by a certain teacher. It took me along time to realise that the pain would stop if I stopped posing (being young and vain in those days) and started listening! Being able to pass on your knowledge in such a way I can still remember everything almost 20years later.

    Bless you John.

    • Good to hear from you, Ilan – having trained so many people over the years, I’ve learned something from each of them, but there are always a few students one has particularly fond memories of, and you definitely fall into that category; Ann Sensei and I were speaking of you only a few days ago – St. Mary’s Medical School was a really good fun dojo and it was a privilege to teach there really. You’re being a little hard on yourself – being young is a condition that life cures soon enough! When I first encountered Prof. Wally, I was a lot older than when we first met, and a bit of my ego just couldn’t let go – which is strange, because what I craved from him was exactly the thing that raised my hackles and made me resist all the harder – ah, the folly of youth! I feel another blog post coming on…God Bless, I’ll call when I’m back in the UK.

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