The reset effect

If you ask many martial arts practitioners how they feel after a training session most of them will describe a sense of well-being, relaxation and other positive factors. The biochemistry behind this well-being is relative simple; the adrenaline initially released in the blood stream due to a stressful situation helps releasing dopamine at the end of the training which makes us feel good.

In my long experience in training and teaching martial arts I repeatedly noticed a standardised outcome from all of my training sessions; I decided to call this the “reset effect”.  My way of describing it is: “it doesn’t matter in what mood I enter a class, I will always come out feeling good, physically slightly tired, with a well-being feeling of having completed a great and complete workout”.

In fact I end up in a good, positive and relaxed mood which helps me to look forward to the activities which will follow in that evening: dinner, relax, family time or eventually going out and meet other people.  I have been training martial arts 2-4 times per week for 30+ years, which is a very long time.

As training is usually after work or, on Sunday, after a relaxed day, it’s quite usually to arrive at training in a variety of moods:

  • Happy or euphoric because I just closed a good deal or achieved something good
  • Irritated because of an argument with a client, supplier or the boss
  • Stressed because of a dead line
  • Shocked (just once but I still remember it) because I was told my company was going into liquidation
  • Anxious about an upcoming important event like a university exam or a job interview
  • Sleepy because of lack of sleep or just woken up from an afternoon nap

Usually the fact itself I am entering the training room is already partially smoothing down the previously described feelings.  Then I warm up for about half hour and the fact that I have to concentrate on the exercises it helps me detaching even more from these feelings.  Then the 60-90 minutes training, which requires full concentration, truly helps resetting my whole mood.  So the next few times you train martial arts try paying attention at how you feel at the end of each training session and check whether it has for the same “reset effect” on you.

My responsibilities as a coach

Copyright and courtesy of Duncan Grisby 2017While I am listening to feedback and suggestions about how I teach martial arts I have been keeping the core of my style and approach unchanged for years.  By teaching martial arts and fighting techniques I am empowering my students to defend themselves and to become better people but, with power, come responsibility which I take very serious.

Here are a few key points which are the pillars on which I base my teaching:

Learning martial arts takes time and dedication

If you had the illusion of becoming proficient in martial arts within a few weeks or months you took up the wrong activity.  Nowadays most people train martial arts as an alternative to other sports or hobbies and they want fast results.  Learning martial arts should however be seen as a medium to long time project, where some results can be seen within months but decent proficiency comes after a few years of regular and frequent attendance (e.g. 2+ 60-120 minutes lessons per week).  My responsibility in this case is about creating an environment which fosters dedicated training and cooperation among all members of the club and continuously challenges everybody’s skills and performance, including mine.

Learning martial arts helps you to rationalise the irrational

In its most essential form fighting is about survival; when our ancestors got involved in a fight it was about defending their homes and families from invaders or from fierce animals or perhaps about invading other people’s territories; it was no game and it was about life and death.  Most people react irrationally to a fighting situation because when adrenaline is released, even in a controlled environment like a martial arts gym, it causes some people to lose control.  Training martial arts helps to cope with this irrational feeling and channel the energy toward better physical and mental performance.  My responsibility in this case is about encouraging everybody to challenge themselves and understand where their threshold and comfort zone are and push them further.

Tough training helps to cope with tough situations

Whether you are training for sports fights or for self-defence it’s essential to test yourself toward a range of tough situations.  In a sports fight your opponents will try their best to beat you within the rules of the fight, sometimes trying to bend such rules for their advantage.  If you find yourself on the street and need to use your self-defence skills you better be used to tough attacks, the most unpredictable ones; your street opponents will probably have no rules about fighting and potentially go for the nastiest attacks.  Here is where my responsibility is about reminding people about their limits and potential pitfalls in their skills and techniques.  I am trying to help them to train in a way that pushes their skills beyond their current limits and make them better fighters.

Martial arts can be for everyone but they are not

Training martial arts is in my opinion one of the most satisfying and complete form of exercise for body and mind.  Many people start and nearly as many give up with days, weeks or months.  Many novices cannot cope with the learning, complexity of movements, fitness requirements and so on.  It takes time, consistency and dedication which most people simply don’t have.  I encourage most people to try and, depending on a number of factors, I might push them more or less toward a tougher training, sooner or later.  In my experience of practicing martial arts for nearly 40 years and teaching for the good part of 30 years I met super talented people giving up at their first hurdle, which they never expected to happen.  I have also seen many not talented people becoming great martial artist and champions.  My responsibility in this case is about managing their expectations and feedback, in the most constructive and objective way, how they can improve and what they should do.

Five lessons I learnt from “Idris Elba: Fighter”

It used to take many months of training for a beginner to be ready to fight at amateur level and often years for professionals; thing have changed in recent years.  Nowadays is relatively common to hear of individuals with less than two years’ training experience having their professional debut in MMA or Kickboxing.  I watched last night the last episode of the reality TV series “Idris Elba: Fighter” and I was pleased of the overall content.  In fact it was a nice learning experience about Idris Elba, his ambitious project and the result he managed to achieve.  Here are the five lessons I learnt.

You can make a kickboxer in 12 months

I come from the traditional martial arts background where anybody with less than 5 years’ experience is considered a beginner.  Over the last couple of decades I learnt, from teaching some of my highly motivated students, that is possible to teach most of the techniques within a few months and these techniques can be perfected in the next half a year or so.  When I teach kickboxing to Cambridge University Kickboxing I often meet in October beginners  who want to fight the following March and, every year, at least a few of them, achieve amazing results and scores. “Idris Elba: Fighter” shows that a 44 years old actor with no previous martial arts experience can become a kickboxer in 12 months.

Never underestimate the underdog

His opponent was very full of himself; his fight plan was about finishing the fight within 30 seconds, maximum 1 minute.  He assumed Idris would not be a decent kickboxer because he is an actor. In fighting sports KO do happen and this one was one of them.  In all honesty, I am not too impressed of a kickboxer with 16 years’ experience who loses against a guy who did not know kickboxing a year ago.

The coach has a main role

A good coach knows what to teach you, how to get you fight ready, how to maximise your strengths and to avoid exposing your weaknesses. With a good coach Idris went from total beginner to a professional training proficiency within a year.  He had the right support in terms of training, recovering, therapy and nutrition over a year of very intense training.

Money helps, always

Coaching and gym cost money, supplements and the right food cost money, therapists cost money.  Training cost money because while you are training you are not working. So having money in the form of savings or a sponsor helps your dream to become true, faster than if you have to support your dream while working a full time job.

It’s all about determination

Training is hard; preparing for a professional fight, however just 3x2mins rounds, is draining for the expected fitness level, the technical skills required and the mental attitude.  These three components are essential but determination, together and the right coach support in the dark moments, is what pushes you forward, when it hurts, when you are tired or you feel you cannot continue.

At the end of a full year preparation the fight lasted a relatively short time; Idris was surely loosing badly for the first minute or so.  He got hit everywhere by punches, kicks and knee strikes; then he managed to hit back a few times.  His opponent was not prepared to this retaliation and got scored badly by a few punches then a knee strike in the stomach put him down.  The referee counted to 10 and gave to Idris the victory by KO.

Did Idris move with the smoothness of a jungle cat?  No he did not; his positions, foot work and guard looked similar to many beginners I coach.  In one of his last training session when he was training with an American champion it was very visible the difference of many years of experience between the two guys in the ring.  However Idris set himself an ambitious goal, he worked hard for it and, by all means: well done Idris Elba.

You can just fight what you have seen before

I was finishing a beginners’ course last night and one of the attendees was expressing his doubts about how he will develop the necessary skills to throw punches and kicks as well as blocking attacks at the right time.

I immediately reassured him that with time and careful teaching all necessary defence and attack skills will develop like natural instincts; I also added that “you can just fight what you have seen before”. To prove this simple concept I stepped a couple of metres away from him, removed my belt, folded it 4 times and threw it toward his chest saying ”catch!”.  He caught it without hesitation and smiled.  I then carried on explaining; you naturally catch an object thrown at you because that’s what you have been taught since you were a kid, by playing ball games and so on.

If you train just specific techniques you will be vulnerable to attacks which you are not used to.  You will be able to block and avoid kicks and punches once you have seen them coming your way, many times, and being taught how to block and avoid them from different positions and angles.

To develop good fighting skills it’s essential to train in a variety of ways, with people of different sizes and shapes.  In that way each possible combination of techniques can be tested and natural reactions get developed at subconscious level, generating instinctive moves.

What I learnt from teaching martial arts

Copyright Duncan Grisby 2010There is an old saying that goes: “if you can’t do teach”; for me teaching has actually improved my doing.  In fact my knowledge about martial arts practice has dramatically improved since I started teaching.  When I first learnt martial arts I was in my early teens; I remember struggling initially with coordination and fitness but, with continuous and consistent training, I reached a good standard within months.  By all means my technique and proficiency kept improving for years; as most movements and techniques were quite natural for me, I never had to analyse too hard how I was doing things.

Years later, when I started teaching, I realised that people from all walks of life were approaching martial arts and, as it happens, some of them were terrific, some hopeless and the majority in the middle.  By teaching martial arts to people who are not naturally talented and/or fit and/or coordinated I realised that many of them require much more explanation than showing the technique a few times and hoping they learn it.  Many people need the technique to be deconstructed and explained; in same cases a clear description of the muscles involved is necessary to fully achieve the expected result.  By analysing each technique in detail, including what muscle groups are working how and when, I forced my mind to grasp every single aspect of each movement and by improving my awareness about them it has greatly improved my technique.