After teaching martial arts for a number of years, I’ve realized a pattern in the progression of students. I’m not talking about ranking, or even proficiency in movement. I’m talking about reaction to stimulus. It has to do with inherent fight/flight reactions. There is a third part of the fight/flight response, and that is “freeze”. The freeze response is what most people refer to as “deer in the headlights” response: somatic muscle stimulation stops, and the person just sits there and watches. I’m not a neuroscientist, but I suspect it has to do with hypersensitivity to perceived threats. So how does this apply to students in the martial arts?

Here’s my new progression:

Freezing, Wildly Flailing, Directional Flailing, Flailing Overcompensation, Directed Response, Appropriate Response, Reflexive Response.

Freezing: When training students, as an instructor, I have to assume the student is going to start here. Thus my “attacks” are slow, linear, and separated from each other. This prevents the overload by greatly reducing the perceived threat. In this stage, it is also a good bet that we have to teach the student it is okay to hit back. Once the student gets the idea that 1) he can hit back and 2) an incoming attack is dangerous only when it lands, then they move on to the second step in the progression.

Wildly Flailing: This is most easily seen in “slap fights”: hands and arms reach out blindly, trying to find a target. It’s also seen in defense as a shotgun barrage of untargeted blocking. It’s roughly the equivalent of the last twitches of a drowning person that might get his head above water—usually unproductive, but better than nothing. Students in this phase are, for the first time, in a situation where the attacks are coming in more quickly and in random sequence.

Directional Flailing: Students in this phase are still flailing, but the area covered is much narrower. Whereas in the Wildly Flailing phase, the flailing happens roughly evenly across the entire half-sphere in front of the student, Directional Flailing happens in more of a cone type area that encompasses the incoming attack. In this phase, the student’s subconscious mind has started to kick in, allowing an inherent understanding of “if the attacker’s right arm is coming in from this direction, it can’t be coming in from any other direction”.

Flailing Overcompensation: In this phase, there is apparently a slowing down of response. What is actually going on, however, is the student is having to consciously overcome the inherent flail response. In other words, the student’s drop in response speed has more to do with fighting himself than being unable to execute the appropriate response. Some flailing will still happen, but if the attack speed is reduced, the correct responses will become more apparent.

Directed Response: The student has now internalized a series of possible responses, but is still in the process of narrowing down the appropriate stimulus response sequence. The movements of a forearm block have been practiced so often that it’s second nature, but the forearm block is lost amidst an index of other possible responses. The response speed is faster than in the Flailing Overcompensation stage, but is still slow enough that the student wouldn’t last long in an actual fight…or even in a sparring match.

Appropriate Response: The student has learned his own hierarchy of stimulus response in both attack and defense. In this phase, the reaction speed picks up again, but the student can only deal with a few sequential attacks at a time since he is thinking about each attack individually. The goal of this phase is to smooth out the stimulus reaction loop to the point where conscious thought no longer has a place in the system.

Reflexive Response: In this phase, the responses are at the operant reflex level (as opposed to physiological reflex). Instead of thinking about dealing with the incoming attack, the reflex takes care of it and the brain can think about other things such as tactics, environment, and self-control.

This progression of responses is mostly tongue-in-cheek, but I suspect you’ll find a certain level of truth in it. Part of the purpose of martial arts classes is to take someone from Freezing to Reflexive Response as quickly (and hopefully painlessly) as possible. As an instructor, I teach responses to stimuli (even attack is a response to stimuli). In order for the teaching to be effective, however, I have to initially teach the responses in a very sterile and uncomplicated way.  In a more dynamic, non-drill situation, the appropriate responses are less obvious, which is why a student who performs very well in the drills can become flustered in the dynamic situation.

The other thing to keep in mind with this progression, is that it focuses on stimulus-response. It does not map to differences in ranks, only to experience with techniques. Every technique (especially in the beginning ranks) goes through this series. Even now, when I learn something new, I usually start in the Flailing Overcompensation phase as I try to fit the new technique in with the rest of my skills. I may even regress slightly into the Directed Flailing phase as I begin a Reflexive Response, remember I’m doing something new, and switch mid-movement.

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