Monday, September 12, 2011

Learning In A Crisis

   Have you ever noticed, in other people or perhaps yourself, situations like these:

* For instance, a woman who is easy going and articulate in a one-to-one situation becomes tongue-tied or withdrawn when she's present at some large social function?

* An athlete (or musician, or whatever) does extremely well when he practices with his friends but when he's in front of an audience or when the chips are down, his skill seems to disintegrate?

* In a given class, a student does very well with his day-to-day work but when an examination comes up his mind goes blank?

     The list is endless. The key element involved in each of these situations is pressure. When the "pressure is on" some people tend to slip and fall, as it were. Take the pressure off and they're fine but when the chips are down, they clutch. This doesn't necessarily infer that those who do well under pressure are superior to these folks; rather, it usually indicates that they have learned to react differently in "critical" situations.

     I am drawing from Dr. Maxwell Maltz's theories of Psycho-Cybernetics, remembering principles that I began practicing many years ago.

     The fact is that although you may learn well and you may learn quickly, people do not learn well in critical situations. If you toss a man into deep water he may learn to stay afloat and swim somehow, but he'll probably not become a championship swimmer. This is because the inept, awkward stroke that he used to survive becomes "fixed" in his mind and he may have a difficult time learning more efficient ways of swimming.

     It is my understanding that in both animals and humans the brain forms a sort of "cognitive map" of the environment while they are learning. If the motivation is not too intense; if there is no crisis present when the brain is engaged in learning, these maps tend to be fairly broad and general. On the other hand, if the animal or person is overly-motivated or stimulated during the learning process these maps tend to be narrow and restrictive. We learn just one way of responding or reacting to a given problem or situation and if this particular problem/situation should occur in the future, and the one way we have learned to solve or react to it is "blocked", we tend to become frustrated and often fail to discern alternative routes or detours. We have learned to respond in only one way and we lose the ability to react spontaneously to a new situation. We are unable to improvise.

     An example is given of people learning how to get out of a burning building. If the building is on fire they will take at least two or three times as long to learn the proper escape route as they would if there was no fire present. Some never learn at all. The automatic reaction mechanism is jammed with too much conscious effort ("trying too hard"). The ability to think clearly is lost.
Those who manage to survive will have learned a narrow fixed response. If you were to put them in another burning building which is constructed differently and change the circumstances slightly, they would react as poorly as they did the first time.

     However, you can take these same people and have them practice a "dry-run" fire drill when there is no fire present. There is no emergency, no crisis to interfere with clear thinking. They are free to concentrate on leaving the building correctly and safely several times...and should a fire ever occur, they will most likely react in the same way as they have practiced several times previously. Their muscles, nerves, and brains have memorized a broad, general, and flexible "map" and the attitude of calmness and clear thinking will carry over from their "dry-run" practice to the real thing.

     The surface moral to this story is obvious; practice without pressure and you will be able to perform better in a critical situation.

     It was "Gentleman" Jim Corbett who coined the term "shadow boxing." He used his left jab to cut the reigning heavyweight boxing championship, John L. Sullivan, to pieces. When he was asked about how he had developed his technique he replied that he'd practiced it in front of a mirror ten thousand times.
     Gene Tunney did the same thing when he prepared to fight the formidable Jack Dempsey. He'd watched Dempsey's fights, knew his every move, then spent hours "shadow-boxing." He imagined he was fighting Dempsey and countering his every move. And it worked.
     It's said that Billy Graham preached sermons to cypress stumps in a swamp before developingn his electrifying speeches before live audiences.

     It occurred to me many years ago that this was one of the most important aspects of technique and form practice. The "father of Japanese karate", Funakoshi Gichin, emphasized that once you have learned to execute a given technique correctly and you can do it without difficulty, you must practice it as if a live opponent is standing before you. Don't just "throw the punches and kicks out there" have to visualize the opponent standing before you and attacking you.
      Your conscious mind knows, of course, that there isn't really anybody there and so, you are able to practice without pressure. You practice and your body-mind learns to respond correctly after repeating the movement or technique over and over.
      Form practice is intended to do exactly the same thing; to enable you to learn how to react correctly without pressure. If you practice your form and just count your way through it, you'll learn nothing. It becomes a set of memorized but relatively worthless movements which you won't be able to use spontaneously when the chips are down. But if you concentrate, vividly see your opponent, and apply your movement correctly - and you practice the form over and over and over - your muscles, nerves, and brain will build a flexible and effective "map."

     At the same time, there is the matter of emotion in a crisis. One doctor said that he believed there to be only one basic emotion - excitement. It can be manifest as fear, anger, courage, etc., depending upon your inner goals at the time. ..if you are inwardly organized and determined to conquer a problem, run from it, destroy it, or whatever. "The real problem," he said, "Is not to control the emotion but to control the choice of which tendency will receive emotional reinforcement."
     If you intention (your goal) is to move forward, make the most of the crisis and win out in spite of it, then the excitement of the occasion will reinforce this tendency and it will provide you with the courage and strength to go forward. However, if you concern yourself primarily with running away from the crisis, wanting to get past it by avoiding it - this tendency will likewise be reinforced and you'll experience fear and anxiety.

     If you want to develop superior technique and real skill, I recommend practicing without pressure - but practicing while visualizing an opponent. This must be done whenever you train your techniques and forms and it can also be done while you just sit back, relax, and close your eyes. Your imagination is your most powerful weapon and training aid.

Tuesday, September 6, 2011

The Martial Spirit

     It was during my last year of high school back in 1967 that I decided to attend Tokyo University. I frankly didn't care one whit about which university I attended; I wanted to go to Japan and study the martial arts - especially karate. I wrote to Master Masutatsu ("Mas") Oyama, who was the founder of the Kyokushin style of karate. I held a black belt grade in his system and discovered that he allowed a certain number of foreigners to live in the honbu dojo (headquarters training hall) each year. I had visions of waking up, cleaning the dojo, working out for a short time before breakfast...what a life!
     Ah, but life had different plans for me. I was accepted at Tokyo University and Mr. Oyama actually wrote me back and invited me to stay at his dojo...but try as I might, I couldn't get enough money put together to bring this dream into reality.
     I still have that letter that the legendary "god-hand' (Mr. Oyama) sent me. One of his statements stuck in my head and it's still there. For some years I couldn't figure out exactly what he meant but as I matured and kept training, I came to understand it. He wrote, "I always look forward to teaching my foreign students in Japan. The most important thing for them to learn while they are here is spirit..." He said that it was the most difficult thing to teach Westerners.
     What Master Oyama was talking about has nothing to do with religion, ghosts, or any of that sort of thing. What he was referring to is the very glue that holds together each aspect of the martial ways of the East. It is very a very real, almost palpable thing although it cannot be weighed, measured, seen, heard, or tasted... But without it, there are no true martial arts - just exercise and dance routines.
     You cannot really understand this concept through intellectualizing about it. Talking or reading about it may help you acquire a basic grasp of its meaning but to truly know it you must experience it directly. It isn't something that you try to experience from time to time; it's something that has to be strengthened, refined, and lived every day.
     To find a simple definition of it is far from simple. It is a striving for perfection - perfection of technique, perfection of form, perfection of physical skill - and these lead to perfection of character, proper behavior, correct etiquette at all times, and consideration and respect for yourself and others.
    You don't seek perfection only within the boundaries of your chosen martial art. At first, that seems to be the goal but with time, introspection, and incessant training, you seek perfection in everything you do.
     It begins with relentless training of the body, which leads to training and refinement of the mind. This means training daily. In the East it's understood and accepted that training in any martial discipline is going to be painful and new students accept that (for the most part). In the West, things are very different. In our society, any form of discomfort is to be avoided. If training in aikido or kendo or any other martial form results in bumps, bruises, sprains, strains, and other assorted "ouchies", we either discontinue practicing until we feel that we're properly healed up or we might quit altogether. In short, we're wimps.
     The find and develop this spirit, you must train daily even when you don't feel like it. You have to push yourself and find the strength to go on even when your body or mind feels like giving up. Now, I'm not encouraging you to practice when you have a serious injury or illness. Spirited training doesn't mean that you should be foolish...but it does mean being mature, tough, and unwilling to accept anything short of perfection. It means that you're unwilling to accept any excuses that you make up for yourself as to why you just can't practice every day, why your punch, kick, iai kata, or whatever, just isn't up to snuff.
     No excuse is you.
     It means being a useful and productive member of your community and society. It means being sincere and honest, and it means being honorable and standing up for what is right.
     It's not something that you strive to develop and feel only when you don your practice uniform or attend your martial arts class. If that's what you're doing, then you're just playing "make believe" and your training will come to nothing. You either dive in head-first and immerse yourself in it or you stay out of it altogether. It's not something that you can do on a part-time basis.
     You have to want to learn badly enough that you won't allow anything (I repeat...anything) to stand in your way. Words like "quit" are not a part of your vocabulary when speaking of your training or doing anything else that you set your hand and mind to do. To you, such ideas are shameful and unacceptable.
     This kind of constant training will reveal to you, as well as your teacher and many of your classmates, much about your personal makeup. All of the ugliness and flaws, as well as the beauty of your personality and spirit will be laid bare. Your true self will be unveiled. This can be more than a little unnerving but it is part and parcel of traveling the path of the martial ways.
     You must determine that even if your desire to learn should lead you to your own death, you'll do it. I know this probably sounds a bit melodramatic but that's how it truly is. The price for learning and acquiring a high level of skill in genuine martial arts can be very high and it involves much more than dollars and cents.