Defensive Mental Conditioning- the missing link in RBSD training

Percentages & the wonders of adrenaline

Most often when people are learning a martial art or self defence programme there is a vital missing part of the jigsaw. We spend a great deal of time developing our physical skills, which IS very important; but combat is 80% mental & is only 20% physical. Without the physical skills you’re truly stuffed, but without mental conditioning (unless you’re a natural ‘two percenter’) you will be unable to use those physical skills.

Firstly, we need to take into account what happens to you when you have 20 stone of beer swilling skin-head monster with ‘cut here’ tattooed across his throat & ‘Belsen was a gas’ across his forehead bearing down on you & slavering in your face as he tells you he’s going to rip your head of & shit down the hole in your neck. When this happens you will be scared, most people don’t have a great deal of interpersonal conflict & aggression in their lives, so when it happens it’s a real shock to the system. When this happens you will experience adrenal stress. Adrenaline floods the system, it causes muscle tremor so you shake. It affects the brain functions & cortical perception, so you start to hyperventilate, experience tunnel vision & auditory exclusion. You feel weak & drained, you may lose control of bodily functions. If you don’t keep control you’ll be paralysed as you experience ‘hypervigilence’.

As heart rate increases under hormonally induced stress there are consequences that you need to address. As a rough guide when BPM’s reach around 115BPM your fine motor skills will be severely impaired. Your hands will have a noticeable tremor, & your legs may be shaking. You won’t be able to thread a needle or play duelling banjos. However, from around 115 – 145BPM your complex motor skills are rocking & rolling. The majority of our combatives in Tactical Edge use complex motor skills. Above 145BPM our complex motor skills start to deteriorate, & at around 175BPM they are marginal at best, & we’re really into the area of gross motor skills. We don’t want to be restricted to gross motor skills, as they involve one or two muscle groups at a time, so it’s grab, push, pull, run & that’s about it. If we get into the situation where BPM goes above around 215, then it’s likely that the forebrain will switch off & we’re basically operating on the same level as your dog! Higher than this & hypervigilance is likely & we’ll find ourselves frozen up.

Now, this is a great deal to have to fight through. Lets now think about human beings & society. Research basically shows us that society is made up of three groups. 98% of the human race are made up of what we’ll refer to as ‘sheep’. The other 2% are comprised of ‘sheepdogs’ & ‘wolves’. The 98% that we’ll call ‘sheep’ have an inbuilt fear of interpersonal conflict, & find it difficult to use violence easily; & if they do use a high degree of violence against another human being they suffer psychologically for it (PTSD for instance). When you say this to most people they don’t believe it, but think about it this way for a moment. How many times EVERY SINGLE DAY do you have someone rub you up the wrong way, cut you up when you’re driving or do something stupid, bump into you, skip the queue, say something annoying, eyeball you, upset you, etc etc etc? If people didn’t have an inbuilt fear of interpersonal conflict the streets outside would be a bloodbath as we’d be smashing each other up left right & centre! This fear of interpersonal conflict is actually most often a phobic level reaction. A good example of this could be the 9-11 hijackings. You had a plane load of people being totally controlled by a few terrorists armed with box cutters. The passengers could have easily overpowered the hijackers, but in two instances out of three they didn’t. The way David Grossman puts it is that if he took a room full of 100 people & dropped some snakes in the middle around, 70 of the folks would have a true full scale phobic reaction & lose control of themselves. The remaining 30 would either try to help the others, catch the snakes, or film the proceedings to put on you tube. That is because roughly 70% of people have a phobia of snakes (normally thought of as the most common phobia). If he took another group of 100 people & put them in a room, & ran in the room with a machete & started hacking at people 98 out of the hundred would totally lose it & have a phobic scale reaction, only two of the 100 people would not totally freak out, & what they do depends on whether they are sheepdogs or wolves. Think about it for a second, if there are a hundred folks in a room they could manage to subdue a lone maniac. Granted a few would get hurt, but the bad guy would get flattened. So, what about the 2%?

The remaining 2% are our sheepdogs & wolves. The wolves prey on the sheep, the sheepdogs protect the sheep. The wolves are the sociopaths & violent criminals of society. They have the ability to use violence without any psychological problems, they can hurt another person or get into a violent altercation without a problem, & they don’t suffer from their subconscious punishing them for maiming or killing another human being. They don’t suffer PTSD. They have the ability to use violence, but they have no moral inhibitions or control. Sheepdogs have the same ability to use violence, but they have a strong moral code that ensures that they will only use violence when it’s absolutely needed & it’s for the right reasons. Your wolves tend to be the sociopaths & criminals. Your sheepdogs tend to find their way into things like Special Forces units, police SWAT teams; jobs where they can put their ability to surgically use force to protect other people.

So why have I spent all this time writing all the preceding blurb, when this was meant to be about defensive mental conditioning? If you happen to be part of the 98% (& whether you want to kid yourself or not, you WILL probably fall into this category regardless of your blackbelt in hoo flung-dung or tournament wins- many guys refuse to believe this because ego & self image get in the way) you are not psychologically equipped to aggressively attack another human being!

Lets Face Facts
The majority of people who get smacked in the teeth & say “I never saw it coming, he hit me from no-where” actually did see it, they simply didn’t do anything about it! There are a few factors here. Many people don’t know when it’s ‘ok to do something’, they don’t know when to make a move. They are faced with a very intimidating person & an experience that is out-with the norm. They are very frightened & adrenal stress hits hard. They just don’t know what to do, the stress increases & they tunnel vision out. Their forebrain isn’t functioning properly & they miss the pre contact indicators that show that a blow is coming……..booooom.

A lot of RBSD instructors push the pre-emptive strike as the holy grain & the ‘be all & end all’ of self defence. The problem is we have to face facts. The majority of people simply can’t bring themselves to hit someone pre-emptively. They aren’t psychologically equipped to do it. Couple that to them not knowing ‘when it’s ok to do something’ & the adrenal stress, & it becomes very unlikely that they’ll manage a pre-emptive strike. The pre-emptive strike IS a tactic that we should all train, but most people need defensive mental conditioning training to manage to use it. Even many of the trouble makers & thugs out there find the initial strike difficult to make. This is why often we see the person looking away from their victims eyes, or turning away & performing a sucker punch type movement, or ambushing the person from behind; even they find it difficult to use violence while they can see into the face of their victim. They have to truly work themselves up into an absolute frenzy before they can lash out; the true Wolf will calmly walk up to you & look into your eyes while he slides a knife into your belly, no rage, no hysterics, no fuss. When it comes to the application of normal reactive initial combatives we need the ability to go aggressively on the attack. There truly is no such thing as self defence, if you are in a purely defensive mode then the adversary has the initiative, & it is only a matter of time before you are overwhelmed. Even if we are the sort of person who can drive in with an aggressive pre-emptive strike, we can’t always use one. If we are being viewed by a CCTV camera we will end up as the ‘bad guy’ (it happened to me, I had someone moving towards me telling me that he was going to stab me, so I pre-emptively struck him with a single blow. I ended up charged with assault. The charges were dropped, but I was told by a police officer who had seen the recording that it really was a case of perception v’s reality; the recording just looked like someone was walking up to me & I flattened him) & have the stress of being charged by the police, treated as the criminal, & possibly dragged into court. For most decent people this would feel like a nightmare & would be a miserable time in their life! If there are many witnesses it can be similarly unwise to use a pre-emptive strike. Witnesses are notoriously unreliable in their recollections. Research shows that witnesses very often embellish their recollections with many things that never actually happened. So once again, you can end up as the bad guy. I teach my students pre-emptive striking, but I constantly emphasise that they have to use them in the correct situations. It is very easy to use the old “but it’s better to be judged by twelve that carried by six” line, but it doesn’t feel quite so cut & dried when you’re sitting in the police cell until Monday!

So we need to be able to develop the mindset that allows us to ‘switch on’ & go immediately into a mental state that enables us to use whatever force it takes to beat the attacker regardless of how intimidating they are. We need to be able to switch on the mindset that allows us to keep fighting even if we’re injured, rather than believing that we’re finished & succumbing to our injuries. Developing that ability to ‘switch on’ is vital, because if you’re not a naturally aggressive person or one of the ‘two percenters’ your physical self defence training may disappear & leave you as if you’d never had a days training in your life. I have seen this happen to very experienced martial artists from 1st Dan right up to 6th Dan in various martial arts. They have maybe had a few drinks, then someone starts on them & rather than a blistering display of their particular art we see them swinging like they’ve never had a days training, & rolling around on the floor cuddling with another man. Remember, defensive combat is 80% mental. The person who wants to win the most has a massive advantage over their adversary & is very likely to be the winner regardless of the skill level of their opponent.

Developing the Edge
Visualisation is a massively powerful training tool. Your imagination is an amazing thing. It can even influence the innermost workings of your body. An example of this can be found in the case of a young man in the USA who was diagnosed with a inoperable & terminal brain tumour. He was a massive sci-fi fan, & every night he would lie down in his room & imagine that his tumour was like the death star in Star Wars, & that his own body was sending waves of spacecraft to destroy it. In his head he used his imagination to create a storyline, & he made it as detailed as he could. When he went back for his next scan the doctors were stunned to see that the tumour was disappearing. He beat the cancer & is alive today many years later due to his mental conditioning. If you think about it what is the world around you? As far as your mind is concerned it is a number of electrical impulses zipping around the various parts of your brain. What is your imagination? It’s a series of electrical impulses zipping around the various parts of your brain. Your imagination & ability to visualise can be incredibly powerful.

So firstly lets look at ways to learn to be aggressive. Bruce Lee used the phrase “emotional content” in Enter the Dragon & that is exactly what we need when we do our padwork & situational training. I always tell my students that when they’re doing their padwork they need to feel something as they do it. If they’re laughing & chatting away then they’re doing it wrong. Every time they engage the pads you should see a change in their face, you should see that they are really meaning every technique thrown. They need to add in a little pinch of ‘righteous anger’ as they slam the pads with their strikes. Many people have trouble with this, women especially as they are for the most part brought up from an early age not to be aggressive. So when you are doing padwork you need to find something that triggers aggression & anger; so stick a face on the pad! Face it, there is someone out there that you dislike intensely, or maybe someone who has bullied you or physically hurt you. Put their face on the pad; in your imagination imagine that they are there in place of the pad. Every time you engage the pad imagine that the person you are visualising is trying to hurt you. Concentrate on feeling that anger as you hit the pads. Try to make it feel real, & at the end of the pad drill take some deep breaths & relax imagining that you have won the encounter.

Now, it’s not enough just to get a bit angry. Anger is pretty much unfocussed. It’s messy & untidy. Anger is like a housefire, it’s very powerful but uncontrollable. What we want is more like a laser beam. A laser beam is an immense amount of energy focussed down to a tiny point. It can be aimed. It can be switched on & off. It is controllable. So now we need to look at what we call ‘The Mental Trigger’. If we’re just really angry we’re likely to be unfocussed, & we’re likely to make mistakes. Uncontrolled anger clouds judgement, interferes with awareness & is not conducive to good decision making. So set yourself up with a partner with pads or a punchbag. Relax as much as you can & visualise that anger you summoned up last time, visualise it as a fire burning in your centre. Now, visualise yourself squeezing & focussing that fire down to a tiny point. Relax again but hold onto that visualisation & feeling of being calm but with a focussed aggression. Face the pads, & every time you throw a strike imagine you’re pulling a trigger & that laser like focussed aggression is blasting out like a bullet; but after each shot you are calm but holding onto that awareness of the determined & controlled fire inside you. This ability to be mentally determined but calm, & able to go from 0 mph to warp speed at the pull of a trigger, but also able to back down to a state of calm focussed determined aggression is priceless. It means you develop the ability to be aware & mentally relaxed enough to notice what’s going on around you (something you can’t do if you’re throwing a wobbly in anger, or panicking & freezing in fear) which is good tactical awareness, switch on instantly into a state where you can take the fight to the opponent, & then back down again to that state of calm focussed determined aggression so you don’t miss any important developments or go overboard & use totally excessive force in a rage.

Now you need to use that mental trigger when doing situational drills with your partner, adrenal stress conditioning; even sparring. Another useful device for helping you to ‘switch on’ can be found in a form of ‘State Anchoring’. This form of State Anchoring uses visualisation & the use of a physical cue to help you to achieve a particular state of mind. In this case we want a feeling aggression that we can control. Sit yourself down in a quiet place & relax. We need to recall a time in the past when you felt the feeling you’re looking for. The more powerful the example, the stronger the experience- the better the result; so go through past experiences & picks the best one. Try to imagine as much detail as you can, really try to put yourself back in the situation; the more real you make it the more powerful the technique becomes. Now notice how the state peaks & then falls off. Go through the process again, but this time as the feelings peak make a hand gesture (maybe a strong knife hand, or a clenched fist) & say something that you can associate with the feeling (this is just said under your breath, it can be anything you want- “switch on” perhaps) as you visualise an image that goes with it (it could be a burning fire, anything that you can associate with the feeling). This is then run through several times in a row to create a strong State Anchor. Test the anchor by firing it; make the gesture, say the phrase or word, picture the image. The desired feeling should be achieved within 15 seconds or so. With practice you should be able to use the Anchor with just one of the three assists (the gesture OR the phrase OR the image). If it doesn’t kick in then you need to go back & use a different experience. Choose an experience where there are not a pile of mixed emotions & feelings, it has to be relatively pure & strong. The Anchor needs periodically ‘recharged’ to keep it really effective.

Visualisation for survival
Visualisation can also be a valuable tool to help us survive when things go wrong. For instance, some people crumble if they are hurt. I’ve seen martial artists who are technically exceptional, who have got physical strikes that are like small nuclear devices; but if they get hit during sparring they immediately crumple, or they spend the rest of the fight backing off intimidated by their opponent. Dennis Martin made the point in his excellent column in the old Fighting Arts International magazine that people with relatively minor gunshot or knife wounds have died because we are conditioned by what we have seen on TV or in films that if we get shot/stabbed we are finished. They curl up & give up. But other people with far worse wounds have survived because they are determined not to give up, they tell themselves they need to hang in their for their family; they keep fighting & because of that they live!

It’s vitally important that we condition ourselves to keep on fighting even if we get injured by the opponent. If we get injured & stop fighting then we will definitely get even more badly hurt or even killed. We will almost certainly suffer some amount of psychological damage from the incident as well, possibly even PTSD. How can we condition ourselves not to stop when we get injured? Firstly, look at how you train. The old saying “you’ll fight as you train” is very true. If you stop (or allow your students to stop) every time they/you take a whack in the groin or a bit of a dig then you are conditioning for failure- when a solid blow is landed in a real contact you will stop, & then you will get hammered! People have to ensure that they fight through minor injuries & dings. They can get checked out after the situational or sparring match is over. Similarly people should not stop & make a fuss & say “sorry” when they catch their partner with a minor ding. I’ve lost count how many times teaching classes & seminars I’ve seen someone catch their partner in the groin whilst running through a situational, & then stop dead to apologise. At that point I’m usually yelling in their ear to just keep going or else! If you do this in training there is a good chance that you are conditioning yourself to stop if your opponent buckles in a real confrontation, rather than stop when you KNOW the threat is neutralised.

We can use visualisation as a training tool for incident survival as well. This helps us to condition ourselves to keep fighting even when injured. Get yourself relaxed & visualise a place you like, somewhere with good memories or just the sort of place you really like; something like a warm beach or similar is the sort of thing I’m speaking about. Now build up the scene so it becomes as real as possible, so you can feel the ground under your feet, the sun on your skin, the breeze against you. The more detailed you can make it, the more powerful the visualisation will be. Start picturing yourself going through your combatives, imagine performing the most perfect techniques & feel them snapping out with speed & power. This part of the visualisation process will aid you in your technical proficiency & is used by athletes to help perfect their skills. It was used by Special Forces during the ‘Jedi Project’ & improved their shooting proficiency & speed. Next add in a training partner, & run through situationals. Feel yourself doing the perfect movements as you work with your partner; everything you do is absolutely perfect & your partner is completely under your control the whole time. Now, this is where we change the visualisation.

Next get rid of the training partner, & imagine real attackers. They are going for you for real, & you destroy them. Visualise your perfect techniques taking them out of the game. Once again, detail is important so try to ‘feel’ the techniques as they hit home. It may take you several sessions to reach this point without losing focus, but once you can reach this point comfortably we need to change it again. Now dissolve the nice familiar & friendly setting, & visualise a dark alley or bar; or whatever environment you think is apt to your specific needs. Your going to continue with the same visualisation, except in a more realistic setting. Still see perfect techniques, still visualise beating the opponent each time. Next comes the final stage. This is the part where we start visualising for survival. Now visualise the same scenario except the bad guy injures you. You fight through it without stopping. The next bad guy attacks & maybe this time to destroy them. Then the next one catches you, & you fight on without any pause defeating them too. No matter whether you are hit, cut, bludgeoned, stabbed or shot; you keep fighting without pause. After a short period of this take yourself back to the initial comfortable surroundings, visualise yourself cooling down, then sit down & relax. At this point relax yourself & come out of the visualisation. This is a visualisation technique that needs a bit of time devoted to it, you really need to set aside at least 15 – 30 minutes for it. As I’ve already set, you may find it takes you a few sessions to get all the way through it; that’s ok. Not only will you improve your technique, your flow & your survivability; you’ll improve your ability to concentrate & focus too.

This visualisation method can be used for different things. You can go through it & just concentrate on the stage where you’re working your techniques with a training partner if you want to work on a specific skill or movement. It is vitally important to train for the possibility that you will get hurt, & to develop the mental tools to allow you to keep fighting through that injury. A lot of people think that the off ding they take in sparring will be enough, but it’s a totally different sensation being punched in the head with a gloved hand (or kicked with sparring gear on) & punched in the face full tilt with a bare fist. Now imagine if it’s a more serious situation & you get tagged with a weapon or shot! You need to develop the ability to survive the attack, & then keep fighting mentally to survive the injury. Coupling correct training practices like we spoke about earlier (not stopping when you take a minor ding etc) with mental preparation gives you a definite edge.

Mental exercises for awareness
We’ve looked at how we can use mental exercises to increase aggression & learn to control aggression, & we’ve discussed how we can use exercises to improve performance, technique & survivability. Now lets look at the prevention side of things; awareness.

Awareness is vital. Without awareness you’re like a warship without radar, sooner or later someone’s going to hit you with a large bomb! The sad fact is that the majority of people’s awareness is terrible. Many people who have been attacked say afterwards “it came out of no-where”, “there was no warning”, “I didn’t expect it”, etc. The truth is though that most attacks & assaults have some kind of ‘pre-contact phase’, it’s just some folks don’t recognise it because they’re switched off. Awareness is recognising when someone is following or stalking you. Awareness is noticing the person eyeballing you across the pub. Awareness is noticing the car behind you taking every turn you do.

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