Progressive Flailing

Leave a comment

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.

4 Elements of Self-Defense from Nature


I haven’t done one of these in a while. Here’s a short list of self-defense techniques and concepts that you can get from a nature walk.

1. If they can’t see you, they can’t eat you. This idea is pretty self explanatory. In nature, camouflage is rampant because everything is trying to eat everything else. If a predator doesn’t register your presence as prey, you’re not likely to be eaten. What makes this a difficult concept to follow, is that often, predators are ALSO camouflaged. Why?

2. If they can’t catch you, they can’t eat you. A camouflaged predator is more likely to be able to catch its prey. This means you. If you can see the predator approaching, you have a better chance of running away. The corollary, of course, is that you can outrun your attacker in the first place. Practice your wind sprints. Practice sprinting even when you’re tired.

3. You’re more likely to survive in a group. In nature, a 1 in 100 chance is much better survival odds than a 1 in 4 chance of being eaten. This is one of the main benefits of herd behavior. Incidentally, in groups, humans have a tendency to support each others’ weaknesses.

4. Someone will always call your bluff. Bluffs are decent in single instances. They are not a good idea as a general survival tool. This means, among other things, that if you carry a weapon, you better be willing to use it. If you’re not, it will be taken from you and used against you. It also means that even if you succeed on bluffing your way through a potentially dangerous situation, you may not be so lucky next time. Can you actually punch someone with intent to do damage? It’s not an idle question. Many martial artists can’t, though they fool themselves into thinking they can.

There are many more lessons to be taken from nature, all you have to do is look. There are even lessons different from what I’ve gathered from the samples I saw. Self-defense is an attitude and a life style, not an if-then flow chart. Nature is an excellent example of this concept. Take a walk in a state or national park and see for yourself. Ask a naturalist.

4 Patterns Used by Predators

1 Comment

Keeping yourself safe requires more than the skills and techniques you can learn and practice. Understanding, at least a little, the mindset and thinking patterns of those who prey on others can help prevent making risky decisions. The key to application of such understanding is awareness. Awareness is a topic often brought up in these articles, though usually in the context of physical surroundings. Two of the patterns listed below fall into that context. The other two patterns introduce a new arena of awareness: social.

1. Stacking the Deck. A predator preys on others for a gain of some kind. The pressure behind that need is usually such that failure to attain, even a partial failure, would cause a major detriment to his existence. A successful predator is intelligent. He will give himself as many advantages as he can, and give the victim as many disadvantages as possible. To that end, he will use weapons, surprise, deceit, confederates–whatever it takeds to get the upper ground.

2. Controlling the Environment. Controlling the environment is part of stacking the deck. It is when a predator determines location and time, even placing obstacles to prevent escape or aid. They decide on, and alter as necessary, the environment to minimize their risk. By controlling the environment a predator greatly reduces the variables he needs to worry about.

3. Qualifying the Target. Just as a salesperson or marketer qualifies potential customers, predators qualify their targets. There are several methods used by predators ranging in intrusiveness and aggressiveness. The two extremes, observation and yelling-in-your-face, are the two most frightening. To victimes of a predator using the first, it feels like an assault out of the blue. Victims of the latter tend to freeze as previously unknown levels of adrenaline hit their system. Most qualification techniques fall somewhere in between. Whatever the method, the purpose is the same: to determine susceptibility. Most qualifications also determine how willing the target is to abandon social norms. This where social awareness comes into play. Predators often rely on people’s reluctance to break social norms. If you feel yourself being trapped by social norms, it may be time to get rude by walking away.

4. Forced Teaming. Forced teaming is a term I learned from The Gift of Fear. It is a particularly insidious form of qualifying, and requires an acute sense of social awareness to spot. Forced teaming refers to the use of language to create a sense of commonality and trust between predator and victim. Words suc as “let’s” and “we” are prime examples of forced teaming language. So how do you tell the difference between forced teaming and someone who is just being friendly? Forced teaming is often accompanied by a refusal to accept “no” as an answer.

Each of these categories could easily be expanded into an article, or even an article series, on its own. There are other pattern categories and sub-categories used by predators. I invite anyone interested in more information to do research on their own. Two excellent places to start are The Gift of Fear by Gavin deBaker and Meditations on Violence by Sgt. Rory Miller. I’ll also answer what questions I can.

Stay safe.

4 Differences Between Martial Arts and Self-Defense

Leave a comment

*Note: This is a reprint of an article I wrote under another name a while back.*

Lots of people associate martial arts with self-defense, and for good reason. Many schools advertise as teaching “self-defense” whether they actually teach self-defense or martial arts. There is a societal link between the two that has become so strong, that the two are often used interchangeably. Unfortunately this can cause, and has caused, problems. There are many differences, of which I’ll discuss four.

1. Realism in Techniques. No matter how “realistic” a particular school teaches its techniques, there are boundaries which are not crossed. I have yet to see a martial arts school that actually allows, much less encourages, techniques to be practiced as they would actually be used. If they did, they would have to allow at least six weeks between classes so that broken bones had time to heal, at the very least. What about eye gouges or strikes to the throat? Needless to say, in order for a student to learn, the techniques have to be pulled and carefully controlled. There is nothing wrong with this. What is often missing, though, is the realization that the techniques are *purposefully* made less effective in order for students to practice them. Too often what happens when a technique is needed is the student performs as they did in class…and stops short of actually harming their attacker.

2. Pain. Many techniques are based on pain, or–even worse–the assumption of pain. A broken nose will not stop an attacker. When an attack happens, a cocktail of endorphins and adrenaline hits the system. Many techniques that are based on causing pain won’t even be felt. This is not something that comes out in class because, even if a student has some adrenaline in the system, the amount is not even close to how much will be in the system during an attack. As such, pain-based techniques performed consistently and effectively in class rarely, if ever, work when you actually need them.

3. Purpose. Many schools try to sell martial arts as self-defense. This is far from the truth. If you break down the phrase “martial arts”, you come up with “the arts of war.” So how is this different from self-defense? As the name implies, the purpose of martial arts is eliminating the enemy. As much as a student may learn and change internally, mentally or emotionally, the expression of a martial art is always expressed on an outside target. Self-defense, on the other hand, is about keeping yourself safe. Rather than eliminating an enemy, the purpose of self-defense is to make sure that you continue living. The common protest to this viewpoint is that eliminating an enemy and keeping yourself safe are two sides of the same coin. In some cases, this may be true. However, if you’re at the point where the only way to keep yourself safe is by eliminating the enemy, you’ve already missed several opportunities to avoid such a risky situation. This is why I say that self-defense is an attitude.

4. Location. Most likely you will not need to ever use your physical self-defense techniques, but if you do, the chances of it happening in a martial arts school are exceedingly small. As such you probably will not have the amount of space you’re used to moving in, nor will the space you do have be conducive to the techniques you learned. Barring mental instability, most attackers are going to make sure they hold as many advantages as possible, and that you hold as many disadvantages as possible. One of the unmentioned assumptions in most martial arts schools is that the training area is a realistic representation of the places you’re likely to need to use what you learn. I say this assumption is “unmentioned” because most people don’t even realize they’re making it. When said outright, the fallacy is obvious. I can count the number of times it’s actually been said to me on one hand.

It may sound like I’m bashing martial arts. I’m not. What I’m trying to do is draw a line between martial arts and self-defense. Martial arts can be useful in many types of situations, including self-defense. Saying martial arts and self-defense are the same thing shortchanges the potentials of martial arts and limits the concept of self-defense.

4 Myths About Self-Defense


*Note: This is a reprint of an article I wrote under another name a while back.*

Self-defense is one of those topics where everyone thinks they know what it is, but can’t seem to agree with each other. I’ve heard some pretty wild assumptions about self-defense, both directly and indirectly. Let me address some of the myths and assumptions I’ve come across.

1. Self-defense is about beating up an attacker. Um. No. At least that is not the purpose. The purpose of self-defense is keeping yourself safe. Sometimes an attacker gets beat up, sometimes he doesn’t. As long as the person remains hostile, you can continue pounding back. Once he stops (i.e. he is no longer attacking you), you have to stop, too; otherwise it becomes assault, not self-defense.

2. There are no shades of grey in self-defense. I’ve heard people say that self-defense is either necessary, or it’s not. I disagree. People tend to think of self-defense as a verb; an action that stands on its own. Self-defense is an attitude, not a verb. As with any attitude, there are degrees in how forcefully you pursue it. For example, it is certainly possible to focus on awareness training to the exclusion of physical training.

3. If I am attacked, the law will be on my side. Actually, from the law’s viewpoint, you and your assailant are citizens with equal protections under the law. It is not unusual for someone to be prosecuted for knocking out an assailant. In fact, if you find yourself in a situation where you physically need to defend yourself, expect to be taken to both criminal and civil court–especially if you defeat your attacker. When police arrive on the scene, more than 90% of the time, the person still standing was the aggressor. Even if your assailant swung first, if you’re the only one standing when the police show up, you’ll be suspect #1.

4. Once the fight is over, I’m done with the situation. I’m afraid not. Surviving the situation is only the first part. Then you have to survive the criminal and civil courts. Whether you succeed or fail in the courts, you also have to come to terms with what you did in order to survive. Being assaulted is a traumatic experience that essentially rewires your brain. Most people relive the experience for months or years after the event.