Letters: On mindset, boiling water, and horses

Q. It’s strange how all species of animal have a method of fighting that is specific to that species yet humans, who have the capacity of conscious thinking, tend to lose this natural ability.I suppose we could argue that the conscious mind gets in the way of what has been there since birth.I can now see why we have to react without conscious thought.When I was kid I could fight as the only thing we did was MMA.Most school kids in the sixties intuitively knew the mechanics of ground and pound yet there was nothing like it on TV to influence them.I suppose once you mount an opponent its instinct to start smashing your fist in their face.It seems MMA is the natural way to fight and no one really has to teach you as its already there provided you don’t over ride it with corrupt dynamic patterns ie,karate.In the seventies I fell for the myth,hook,line and sinker.I am sure there are more natural mechanics of striking in swimming than there are in karate.

“The real problem for a lot of people is getting rid of the old
ones–the karate-type ones–which guys have got 6th and 7th dans for
indelibly imprinting on their motor circuits.  And who don’t seem to be able
to conceive any other way of moving”

I honestly can’t see how they can get rid of these dynamic patterns.I stopped training in Shotokan around 1984 and then had a break from martial arts for around 7 years whilst pursuing long distance running yet Shotokan patterns still emerge today despite not practicing the art for over 20 years.I was discussing this with Timo Hekkila and he said its very easy to form these dynamic patterns but very difficult to remove them.Interestingly he said its unlikely for a kata to form a dynamic pattern due to it being too complex.I have found this to be true as I can’t remember any Shotokan katas yet its often the basics that emerge and get in the way of other things.

The new letter on emergency mindset was very interesting.I  tried plunging my hand in boiling water yesterday and I was able to recognise the intense anger that emerged a split second before the conscious mind reacted to the pain.It seems the mind becomes very extroverted for a split second before sinking in on itself once the pain becomes recognised.Its like a kind of startle reflex.The extroverted period is the opportunity to get hold of the energy and express it in physical action.After two or three attempts I felt I could have punched a hole through the wall.Today I tried to recall the feeling of the anger  when hitting the heavy bag and was reasonably successful.Its early days yet and may require more water torture to fully recognise this intense energy and call it up at will!

When I first read of you wanting to find something to break I thought you were just foul tempered as most of us would rush to find some water to immerse the hand in but now I realise you had seen the gap in which the energy can be expressed either physically or verbally.I know when I have burnt myself with a soldering iron its usually “for fuck’s sake” before rushing for a tap.The anger’s there but I have expressed it verbally.

TK    18 January 2007

A. By the way, I wasn’t recommending the hot water experiment, just saying that’s what I’d done. Now I’ve found out you’ve done it and the word is coming back to me that a couple of others have done it. You’ve got to be careful with this, especially because the splashback can be dangerous. And, Tony, don’t use boiling water! Trish just told me she did the same thing nine years ago when she first found out about it–but you don’t need to actually get scalded to get the effect! The water’s got to be very hot, but equally, you’ve got to be able to repeat it to get a handle on the energy and focus that arise out of it. And gradually you’ll find that, in anticipation of doing it, you’ll get the mindset you need in advance of the actual moment. Just like a fight or emergency situation. You’ll energize up and focus.

Where that works for you in training is that you’ll take that to, say, the bag, and it provides you with the emotional content (to quote Bruce Lee) of the move. Once you’ve experienced that generation of force, you’ve got a new benchmark to work with.

Now, coming to the indelibly imprinted patterns, that’s a problem not only with martial artists but with many sportsmen. The movement becomes more important than the task it’s supposedly designed to accomplish. There’s always a risk in coaching or teaching, when highlighting the key points of a move, of the athlete becoming motor-orientated in his response. A special importance has been placed on a particular aspect of the tactics or dynamics of the movement, and he’ll tend to overemphasize that. And unfortunately, within the martial arts in general, the problem is complicated by the fact that the recommended emphasis is wrong in the first place. So you get an exaggeration of something that often isn’t even relevant to the fight. This is where you get performances that have become parodies based on the idiosyncracies of the master. Because there’s no reality check, this exaggeration just becomes part of the ritual of movement that comprises the system. And sometimes the process becomes obsessively neurotic because of the significance placed upon meaningless details displayed for the sake of a grade, or to fulfill the requirements of the system.

There’s a phenomenon you might not be familiar with which comes to bear here. It’s called the peak shift effect. To illustrate, take this experiment which was done with rats. The rats were rewarded for distinguishing a rectangle from a square. What was found was that after they’d been rewarded the first time, they responded even more strongly to a longer, thinner rectangle, and as the rectangle got longer and thinner in each successive stage of the experiment, the rats responded with an ever-more ravenous appetite for the reward. In other words, there seems to be a natural process within us to recognize significant features and to be gratified by the exaggeration of those features. The senses are titillated by exaggeration, and you’ll see this in primitive art with the female form being excessively large-breasted, narrow-waisted, with large hips and lips, etc. You’ll even see it on the magazine rack nowadays! It’s no longer reality; it’s been overly stylized.

It seems that the brain rewards itself for this kind of exaggeration of a movement pattern, and this rewarding applies not only to the performer (who often seems to be getting off on doing his kata) but also the onlookers with their ‘ooh’s and ‘ah’s.

This tendency for exaggeration has an important function and undoubtedly has contributed to our evolution. The real problem comes because the martial arts have no reality checks to keep it under control. So what happens is that the exaggerations become more and more extreme. It becomes more important to have the gratification that comes from performing a move, than the gratification that comes from winning the fight. And you could see that at some point in martial arts history, when the reality checks fell away because of peacetime or bans on duelling or whatever, the key points that had been taught as essential to the fight would have become exaggerated. They would have become an art form in themselves, about aesthetics and not about function. And into the ‘art form’ would have come the misinterpretations, the additional flourishes, the idiosyncracies of the teacher, and even the imagination of the individual. So very quickly you’ve lost track of what was important.

And now when you look at the movement of most martial artists, it no longer resembles the functional movement of a natural human movement pattern. The fundamental pattern which is the foundation of all skills has been lost. It’s been replaced with something artificial. That’s why I call karate robotics. And if you watch martial artists, when they’re in a highly controlled, specialized fighting environment such as kumite, where their moves are able to be showcased, they look OK. And they look OK in demonstrations. But if you watch them in a real scrap, all they’ve got are their specialized moves, and they start to fall apart. They’ll revert to more natural patterns, but because they’re not familiar with them or with the environment, the majority are like fish out of water.

So what happens now, if those patterns have been imprinted over a long period of time together with the reward system? It’s going to be pretty difficult to deny a guy his high, his addiction to that way of movement. But if he wants to become effective, he’s got to dump those patterns. And here’s the big problem. How?

Unfortunately, you can’t just erase them! And this is a case where I can’t work from my own personal experience, because I’d never internalized the robotics. I was self-taught from the late 1950s before I ever stepped into a dojo, and I was already an athelte. I always had strong natural movement that I was free to do what I wanted with (and that’s why what I was doing in karate was effective, and why it looked more natural–I’d never given up my innate way of moving). So how can I help you?

Here’s where I start to come from a direction you might not expect. I trained Western reining horses for about 20 years. Reining involves all of the movements that are required to work cattle, but without the cow. What you do as a trainer, you take the natural way the horse moves and is designed to move, and train him to do that in accordance to the work you want him to do. So at its root, the training is functional. You’re not teaching him stylized movements like you see in English dressage or in the Lipizaner school. It’s all based on natural movement. In anticipation of what the cow’s going to do, you’ve got to do it quicker, be ahead of him.

The important thing about reining is that, because the cow moves in an unpredictable way, you can’t learn fixed patterns. You have to be able to rate what the cow’s doing and both anticipate his next move, and also react instantly to an unexpected move. So, it’s very similar to the requirements of responding to your opponent in a fight.

Now, I have to add one thing, which is that because there is no actual cow in reining competitions, when it comes to competitive reining, you do in fact see that the patterns become overstylized and it becomes more important what the horse appears to be doing. You will get the same phenomenon that you get in martial arts. But when I’m talking about reining, I’m speaking in a practical sense. Reining that could be transferred to the cow.

But here’s where all of this applies to you, and to a great many people who have practiced pseudo-martial arts (i.e., those without that all-important reality check, or those ‘without the cow’)

OK, so when training horses I’d get a lot of horses in who’d been ruined by bad trainers or by bad riders. They would refuse to respond to a cue. You want them to go forward, they go back. You want to go left, they go right. Or, they would be over-anxious. You touch the horse and he goes into a spin, or takes off. His eyeballs are rolling around and he’s snorting away. You think, ‘What have I got to do?’

Having come under the influence of some top American trainers who really knew their shit, I learned that you have to go back to the basics. When you see the horse in the paddock, you know that he’s moving naturally. When you went to do your distance running, Tony, you weren’t running like a robot, were you? Those natural patterns are still there. (And by the way, when you go to buy a horse, you don’t look at him when he’s being ridden, you just take a look at him moving in a small paddock. How he comes up to the fenceline, turns round, stops, takes off. That’s how you know what you can or can’t do with this horse.) Anyway, with the ruined horse, he’s often anxious about what he’s got to do. He wants to please you, or maybe rebel against you, and so you’ve got to remove that anxiety before you can do any work. You don’t want him to think that every time you get on his back, you’re going to train him.

So you start walking the horse and you don’t even get on his back until it’s a point when he’s not expecting it or associating it with training. You take him for long walks, get him to relax, get you to relax, and tune in to him. You’re not going to ask of him to do anything but what he’d naturally do if he encountered an obstacle: a gate, a fence, a bush, etc. Now gradually you start to work the horse through his natural progression of movement. You work in sync with him, going along with what he naturally wants to do anyway. And then gradually you start to get a little more bend on him, say, when you’re going round a bush. And then you quit while you’re ahead. That’s enough. Walk him on, take him home, and that’s it for the day. It’s one very little step at a time.

Over time, you build on that. And always, whatever cues you give the horse, they’re minimal. For you, there’s not only a conscious awareness of the horse, but of yourself. You don’t want to miscue him. Like martial arts, there’s this external/internal intense concentration on what you need to do and what you need to monitor. You need to be able to see and feel internally and externally. You know how to set the horse up for a move to complement what he needs to do. It’s just the same in fighting. You know the best position that’s going to give you your next move. It’s a sensibility of the horse and yourself.

And if you get this thing right, you can ride the horse with no saddle and just a piece of string round his neck, and take him through all his transitions. Visibly you’re doing nothing. It looks like magic. It’s very fine tuning of yourself and the horse.

I’ve always seen the parallel between training the horse and training the animal within: training myself.

Now, I’ve had some real bad horses. Really fucked up. And they can be reschooled. But you don’t stick a huge bit in his mouth or put him in some kind of special contraption. And you don’t complicate things by trying to put in new patterns. You want to get him back to what he would do if it was up to him.

Now how do you apply this to martial arts? How do I get you to get in touch with those fundamental patterns? The first thing we need to do is remove your anxiety about trying to achieve something, and the anticipation of failure. And if the picture in your mind’s eye is these robotic patterns, then you’ll just subconsciously fulfill them. You can’t make this thing happen by trying. It will elude you. So like the horse, you need to get out of the training area. You’re not there anymore. You’re not trying to do anything.

Just go for a walk. And get in touch with the feeling of how you move. Walking is done at a pace at which you can get a kinesthetic feeling for the way the body is interconnecting. How it’s impulsing against the ground to make this progression by pressing down against that which is beneath it. And you can build that sense, literally, one joint at a time, one step at a time. Until you’re walking with a total body awareness. Once you’ve got that, you can incorporate the move, the tactic, the fight.

When I used to do my long walks at Bourne Hill, I didn’t just ‘walk’ for the sake of walking. I’d walk with an opponent in mind. I’d take a tactic or a dynamic of fighting and incorporate it. So say it’s a punch. You walk, and as you’re walking, feel how you can use that walking pattern to extend into that punch. The main thing is that you’re sensing this internal interconnection of the body. How that if you shift your head from foot to foot, the axis alignment changes. And subsequently the load on that leg changes. How if you use the arms, the impulse into the ground changes. How the shoulders, the waist, the spine, everything is bending and twisting through its optimal ranges. The walking is an internal exercise in itself.

If you watch many black athletes, when they walk there’s a kind of quality to their movement that is natural. That’s what you want. It’s not that you don’t ever see it in white guys, but the percentage seems to be higher in athletes of African descent. That’s what you want to emulate. The whole body is moving in a complementary way. Everything is working together, no passengers.

And there’s a kind of physical presence as well. Being in touch with the way you move. I don’t ever let go of that. In that sense, I’m training 24/7. Not in a self-conscious way, it’s just a continuous monitoring going on beneath whatever else I’m doing. And it doesn’t interfere. It’s just there. That’s mindfulness in action.

I don’t walk that much anymore because we don’t have the property, but I use the indoor cycle. And when I cycle I work every joint in my body. I interconnect it in some way. The logic being, if I strengthen these patterns, then whatever my movements are, they are adaptations of the natural patterns.

A lot of people take a skill, say a key move, and they practice it without understanding (and most importantly, feeling) the patterns of movement that underlie it. Then they’re just learning moves. But then when they encounter a new situation, they have to struggle to figure out how to change their move to make it work.. But if you can feel these inherent patterns, and you understand them and you’ve strengthened them, then you can adapt them to any situation pretty easily. You’ve got a reliable reference point for movement.

You’re creating a mindset as well. It’s about visualization and feeling. Whatever generative images you’re building, they must contain a strong kinesthetic component of this natural movement process. That’s what you’re going to modify.

And that’s why I was able to work with tennis players and improve their game even though I’m not a tennis player myself. Because I understand the underlying movement. You don’t have to buy a kinesiology book to do it, although it helps. All you have to do is get in touch. Feel your bones. Feel the articulation of your body. Learn to turn your concentration internally. Not looking for chi, not in some mystical way, but to sense your body internally. And then you can start to play with those interconnections in different ways, to produce different forms of leverage.

When I’m dealing with guys who have been ‘karate-imprinted’ one quick fix I use is I’ll show them how the natural pattern has become exaggerated in their system, and I’ll also show them the natural dynamics and tactics that could underlie it. I can show you how to redirect your emphasis so that you’re not actually removing the pattern, you’re just returning it to its natural source. A lot of movements underlying karate can be restored to their natural form; that’s why I used to call what I did Original Form Boxing (the name didn’t catch on, so I dumped it.) When I was in Goju-kai and people were trying to teach me these robotics, I was applying the same principle to what they taught me. In other words, I was automatically referencing the natural patterns in what I did. I did this through the full range of stances, everything. I was looking for something which wasn’t documented or contained in kata, but I knew it once must have been there in order for karate to ever have been effective. That’s why I started to research the reflex and behavioural patterns of the body.

And that might give explanation as to why people said I was doing the best karate they’d seen–because there was a superficial resemblance, but underlying it there was a whole different dynamics involved in what I was doing.

But in the long term, in order to work with the natural patterns, you have to train in a different way. Every time you enter into your old training regime, you’ll be reinforcing those old patterns. I get e-mails from guys who say they still like doing their kata. In other words, they’ve quit the 40 a day but they’ll still sneak out behind the toilet and borrow a fag. That’s cheating, and eventually you’ll be back to your old ways. You’ve got to change the way you train.

If you find that you’ve dropped your old training and yet the old patterns keep cropping up under stress or whatever, then you probably haven’t put new patterns in under stressful situations; i.e., in realistic gym training. The reality will be making the mistake and being punished for it in a controlled, realistic environment; that’s how you’ll learn to do what works and not just do what you’ve been told to do.

Again: that’s why the training has to be stimulus-oriented and not motor-oriented. And the stimuli must be representative of what’s going to happen in the fight. You need to have motor skills that are proven to be functional in the fight. And you need to be able to make judgement calls under the pressure of the fight, with these skills on hand working for you at a subconscious level to address what you need to do at the time. And your training program needs to address the enhancement of the neuromusculoskeletal structure and the innate movement patterns associated with it, to be able to meet this challenge.

That sounds like a tall order, and it is. But that’s how it’s got to be done. And I’ve had guys who have come out of karate who have made this transition successfully. But I must admit, it’s a small percentage. And I suspect that the reason for that is that there’s a comfort zone. People don’t like to leave it, so they’ll kid themselves that what they’ve already got will work. It’s no fun facing the reality that what you’re doing isn’t effective. Nor is it easy to give everything up, all of your past successes, and start from scratch.

What comes to mind is the saying, ‘You can’t teach an old dog new tricks.’ And that’s probably true if all you’re talking about are tricks. But it’s not about that. It’s about recognizing what your dog’s natural behaviour is, and working in harmony with that. It’s a hot topic right now: horse whisperers, dog whisperers, baby whisperers…you name it. Those methods are all about working with nature, not against it.

So it’s really about changing the way you think about training. That’s the big pattern that’s got to be broken.

Because your body will tell you the difference. You’ve got to learn to trust your body. It’s got a greater wisdom than some master or system. That’s what I try to get you to understand. Your body knows. So long as you put it into a realistic fight-derived environment, it will tell you what you have to do. Trust it.