Progressive Flailing

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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.



Periodically you see posted signs with large type, bolded lettering at the top: NOTICE! Sometimes this lettering is underlined or italicized in an attempt to raise it from mere prominence to attention-grabbing radiance. The sign writer seems to believe that this simple written command will seduce its reader into paying extra attention to the message. Every now and then it even works; but when it does, commanding attention is the least of the posting. There is usually also an action component. NOTICE: report finding lost items to campus police. NOTICE: The Astronomy Club is looking for new members, inquire with ______ (president) or _______ (faculty advisor).

Paying attention to things around you is a good idea in general. But understanding the implications of what you’re seeing and then ACTING on those implication is even better. Simply “noticing” is not enough. One of the best examples of the difference between noticing a fact and understanding a fact I’ve seen so far is within one of the first few chapters (chapter 4, I think) of Kushiel’s Dart by Jacqueline Carey. The scene I refer to is when Delauney asks Phedre to describe what she’d observed about the carriage and horses she’d just arrived in. She gives a very good description of them and thought herself very observant when Delauney praised her. Then Delauney asks Alcuin (who’d only seen the horse and carriage long enough for Phedre and Delauney to disembark and Delauney to pay the driver) to describe what he’d observed. Instead of describing the physicality of the horses and carriage, he describes that the unmarked carriage meant a livery stable, that matched white horses were rare and thus valuable (so that the stable was probably prosperous), that the driver had the mannerisms of someone country-bred but had been in the city long enough “not to bite the coin given by a gentleman”, and thus it would not be too difficult to trace the coachman if he needed to be questioned.

The more information you have in your mind, the easier and faster it is to do this. Also the ability to make connections between multiple disciplines is a good skill to train. (For instance: The reason why stars are dimmer than our sun follows the same principle why we do not bleed out every time our heart beats.) It’s one reason I love learning. Every time I find a connection between disciplines, I feel like I’ve pulled a gem from a bog. This is what I try to impart in my “running woman” exercise.

I’d been trying to get my students to think in this manner for many years before Kushiel’s Dart was published. I’d been giving my students a simplified example and asking them to come up with possible scenarios for what they see. I start with something like: “You see a woman running. What’s going on?” I usually address newer students first and rarely get anything other than “She’s running from someone.” Occasionally, I get “She’s out exercising.” Given that the “running woman” exercise is done in the context of a martial arts or self-defense class, the answers are understandable. If no one asks clarifying questions, I start adding details: “She’s dressed in slacks and a nice blouse.” There goes the out for a jog explanation.  “She doesn’t look back and her head is up.” Probably not running from someone. And so on. Depending on how quick the students are, I may end with “She has nothing in her hands, but everyone else on the street is carrying a closed umbrella.” If they need something a little more obvious, I throw in “The sky is filled with low, black rainclouds.” So instead of running from danger, she is trying to get home before she gets soaked. Depending on the level of interest and the number of light bulbs I see going off above people’s heads, I take it further into possible habits and thinking patterns.

Unfortunately, this sometimes gets me into trouble. As a very shy extrovert (not really a contradiction), I spend a lot of time around people without directly interacting with them. I also tend to score very high on empathy. Since I tend to think in sensations rather than words, it’s not difficult for me to see someone in distress and get “sympathy pangs”. It’s also very easy for me to get sucked into their problems. This is one reason I’m not a therapist despite many people telling me I have a talent for making people feel comfortable and safe; until I get these responses under conscious control, I would get burned out too fast be of use to anyone. I recently told someone, “If I see someone in distress, I can’t not respond.” As I said, seeing, understand, and responding sometimes gets me into trouble.

Seeing a NOTICE! sign, or posting one, is all well and good, but it is rarely sufficient to the underlying reason why the sign was posted in the first place. A notice sign calls for understanding and action. A paper posted on a bulletin board is usually about a matter simple enough to understand and act upon. But paper notices aren’t the only notice signs out there. Many of those notice signs are hidden beneath other things, and in order to see them you have to understand the implications of what you’re seeing on the surface. “Reading between the lines” is often hard enough in print. Graduating from the two dimensional of text on a page (or screen) to the four dimensional world of life is much harder, but it can be done.

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

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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 Exercises for Self-Defense

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

No one denies there is a physical component to self-defense. I normally recommend a total body workout; however, not everyone has the time or desire to spend several hours a week working out. There are a couple of types of exercise I recommend for those who have only a couple hours each week. There are also a couple of specific exercises I recommend.

1. Aerobic. Aerobic exercise increases your body’s ability to bring in and process oxygen. Among the many benefits of aerobic exercise, increased efficiency in bringing in and processing oxygen increases endurance during prolonged, moderate effort such as jogging quickly. It also helps decrease how long it takes for your heart and respiration to return to normal. The ability to keep going is essential in getting out of a dangerous situation.

2. Interval training. Interval training combines aerobic exercise with anaerobic exercise. In plain terms, you give maximum effort for a short period of time (usually between 30 seconds and 3 minutes), then you recover by doing moderate effort exercises. For example, you might sprint 150 to 200 yards, then slow jog for another 2-300 yards before sprinting again. As you might imagine, this kind of training could be very useful in breaking away from someone and then outlasting him.

3. Squat jumps. First, a description: stand upright with feet about shoulder-width apart, squat down as low as you can go (or until your thighs are parallel to the floor, whichever is first), hold the position for a second, then jump as high as you can. That’s 1 rep. Why squat jumps? Squat jumps work on increasing explosive power. By increasing your explosive power for jumping, you’ll be able to jump further, faster, and with less preparation than you otherwise would be able to—very handy for jumping out of the way of an oncoming car.

4. Post-exercise stretching. Okay, so it’s not an exercise in and of itself, but stretching to increase your flexibility is probably one of the best things you can do in the world of physical self-defense. For example, the classic chicken wing hold. (Someone doubles your arm behind you and tries to put your hand between your shoulder blades, thus putting severe pressure on your shoulder.) With a high range of motion (ROM), this technique requires an extra couple of steps in order to work. The time it takes them to accomplish these extra steps may be enough time for you to escape. One other thing to consider is increased flexibility reduces the chance of injury during physical exertion.

Please keep in mind, I am not a licensed personal trainer. Before you begin any physical training, I highly recommend you speak with a personal trainer. They will ask several questions, and use your answers to create an exercise regimen tailored to your current physical condition. They will also demonstrate the proper way to perform various exercises and help keep you motivated.

4 Everyday Uses for Self-Defense

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

I’ve said that self-defense is an attitude backed by knowledge and skills. The knowledge and skills critical to self-defense are very useful in other aspects of your life. And practicing them in your life will keep them sharp for when you need to keep yourself safe.

1. Knowing where things are or can be found. Everyone knows that “awareness” is part of self-defense, but few people understand it in everyday terms. Do you know where the nearest fire extinguisher is? How about the nearest box of Band-Aids? In a more mundane example of awareness, imagine this: you’ve just come home from a long day. You enter through the front door and walk through the living room in order to get to your bedroom so you can change out of your office attire. Did you notice what was in the living room? Where was the remote for the TV? What was on the coffee table? If you saw a magazine on the coffee table, but that it wasn’t lying flat, and couldn’t find the remote for the TV, instead of digging through the couch cushions (because that’s where you found it LAST time), you might find it under the magazine.

2. Knowing who’s around. Ever have someone sneak up on you without meaning to? When was the last time you knew where everyone around you was without having to make visual contact? How about shouting out to someone, only to turn around and find they’ve been standing in the doorway? If someone asked you, “Where’s David?”, could you actually tell them where he was?

3. Finding out about people without asking. I scared someone a couple years back. It was at a reunion, and I’d just been introduced to him. Someone asked him where he was living now, and before he could say anything, I said, “Hondo.” I was a guest of one of the attendees, no one else knew me. The guy gave me a nervous look before confirming my statement. How did I know? He had a key tag with “Hondo Public Library” hanging out of his pocket. When I told him this, he laughed and pushed the tag all the way into his pocket.

4. Knowing the area. How can you give directions if you don’t know your area? Do you know which neighborhood dogs are friendly and which are not? If you’re in a hurry, do you know which alleys and side streets offer the quickest way from point A to point B?

Beware of assuming something taught in a self-defense workshop is properly used only in a self-defense situation. The skills associated with self-defense are useful for a great many tasks beyond their stated purpose.

4 Differences Between Martial Arts and Self-Defense

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*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.

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