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.

Martial arts and the subconscious

Have you ever heard expressions like:

  • Practicing martial arts without thinking?
  • Going with the instinct?
  • Thinking is too slow in a fighting situation?

The main purpose of learning complicated moves and combinations during most martial arts practice brings two main advantages:

  • improving the muscles, tendons, ligaments and joints involved in that move
  • building connections in our mind to assimilate the move, storing it at subconscious level where most of our natural and instinctive actions are performed;

In the Western world many of us might have grown up playing some kind of ball sports and the action of catching or kicking a ball is natural for many of us. When somebody throws a ball at you and a natural instinct can be to catch it if it’s aimed at you upper body or to kick it if the ball is aimed at your legs. Other actions we do naturally are breathing, walking, running or perhaps driving: these usually require minimum conscious involvement, by this I mean that you don’t need to consciously think in order to walk and you can do it while talking, listening to music and so on. Sometimes you might require involving conscious thought if you are walking in a dangerous area or on unfamiliar terrain.

If you have never practiced martial arts and somebody throws a punch toward your face the instinctive response could be to over reacting or covering your head with both hands in a defensive position. Months or years of martial training will improve the reaction to same attack, depending on the martial art you practice. Different styles will suggest a variety of defences against the same attack (punch to the face in this case). The most important achievement will be to have an instinctive reaction where no conscious decision must be taken and when your subconscious mind takes over and deal with the attack in a simple and efficient way.

The latest neuroscience discoveries confirm that some of the principles that the ancient masters have been teaching for centuries have strong scientific backup. When you learn a new thing, being that a pure theoretical exercise like calculating mathematical formula or a physical operation such as swinging a golf club, you are creating connections in your brain that initially will require conscious thinking. If you keep repeating the same action over time you assimilate it, store in the subconscious. Our brain literally thrives on subconscious actions and whenever possible it tries to store things we are learning in our subconscious: from there it can be used and retrieved in a much faster, direct and more efficient way than when it requires conscious action.