Beyond Fight Technique, The Inner Theatre of Survival

At the heart of all martial art styles, systems and techniques is the user. That’s me and that may just be you too. There is an assumption among most martial art instructors that the simple act of teaching a technique, then asking a student to copy said technique, dressed up in a drill with a low level of stress, with little chance of failure — will result, if repeated enough times, in success in the moment that technique is needed most.

I spend most of my time as a coach, not thinking about new techniques, but rather the pedagogy of what I do. Pedagogy is the method and practice of teaching. The way I teach will either result in my student being able to apply what I have taught to him in a life or death situation, or not. Coming back to my example of teaching in the opening, this typical linear approach to teaching, takes little into account other than repetition of what had been show. But the truth is: just because someone can demonstrate a technique, and can do so with perfect form, doesn’t mean that that same person can call upon that technique in the moment it is most needed.

Beyond The Physical

The ability to learn and then apply what has been learned is a complex topic. It goes far beyond the simple regurgitation of a physical technique. The starting point is the person, the user. Each person is unique, just like a fingerprint – and they, like everyone else have a history all to their own. That history, informs how they learn, and also how they will react in stressful moments.

Let me give you an example: growing up, I was bullied severely, and as a result I developed a really short fuse. In a nutshell, I have to monitor my anger as it can literally take me over in a flash. This was, for the most part a really good defense against the bullies. Facing someone going berserk, most bullies decided it was way to much work, and looked for someone else to pick on. But of course, in everyday interactions, having a short fuse can ruin interpersonal relationships.

My anger, has in the past also diminished my capacity to respond with the type of technical response I would have liked, for example in a tough sparring match. Fighting out of anger is never helpful, especially if you are losing. Quickly what was at one moment anger, now becomes frustration, and then spirals into self defeating thoughts. It took me some time, and a lot of inner work to learn to be calm and centred in the midst of the fight. What I am talking about here is the psychodynamic aspect of the learning process.

Drawing on Sigmund Freud’s psychoanalytical work, the psychodynamic approach to learning emphasises the conscious and unconscious forces that influence childhood experience and later shape behaviour and personality. In other words, the experiences of childhood inform ones personality now.

Secondly to this is the psychophysiological changes that take place in moments of interpersonal violent encounters. Physiologically your body changes. Faced with danger, it primes itself to face that danger. The physical reaction includes increased heart rate, redistribution of the blood supply from skin and viscera (digestive organs) to muscles and brain, deepening of respiration, dilation of the pupils, inhibition of gastric secretions, and an increase in glucose released from the liver. While all this is happening, less critical autonomic activities such as food digestion, are postponed. Added to all of this, your peripheral vision diminishes, you lose fine motor control, as your body scrambles to summon up gross movements of survival (things like pushing, running, jumping etc). In other words, a lot of the techniques you think you may know, may simply fail in the moment you need it most. Your body will simply avoid accessing any ‘technique’ which hasn’t specifically been trained under high levels of stress.

Thirdly, along with the autonomic changes that accompany facing danger, tethered to psychodynamic forces left over from childhood — combine to mess with your inner game. If all you have ever done is drilled fighting technique in the relative comfort of the Dojo, now facing down a real, unbridled threat on the street — your mind will begin to play tricks on you. A mind that is not aligned with action, will invariably exacerbate any physiological symptoms occurring pre and in contact in the fight. Added to this, if you haven’t worked through the psychodynamic insecurities left over from childhood, it will be amplified in moments before a fight, potentially causing a detour in the action you now need to take to survive.

Working on Your Inner Theatre

It is clear to me, that in most martial art settings, be that in the competitive world of fighting, or the more reality based versions, that little or no attention is given to what I have briefly noted above. One of the main reasons for this is that many instructors simply just don’t know how important learning to manage both the psychodynamic forces, the physiological changes, and the accompanying inner game (or lack thereof) in the midst of a fight (for the rest of the article I will refer to the combination of these aspects as the ‘inner theatre’).

Growing up poor in government housing and facing the neighbourhood gangs daily, then later in military service, and several years outside some of the roughest nigh-clubs in Johannesburg as a doorman — taught me first hand the importance of understanding the inner theatre that accompanies my technique into ‘battle’. My realisation has been, that while good technique is important, it isn’t nearly as important as the management of ones inner theatre. For example, I have seen people with poor technique win fights they really shouldn’t have if we were strictly basing that victory on technique. They won instead because in-spite of how they were feeling in that moment, they were still able to take action.

Secondly, the inner theatre isn’t easy to teach. If you reflect on what I wrote above, then you realize there is no way to be successful at teaching a person to engage differently with his or her inner theatre, in a class filled to the brim. Self preservation training, while needing bodies to work against, also requires a personalised focus on the individual. As a coach, it requires you to get to know a person intimately. This not only takes time, but trust. A student needs to trust you enough as the coach to open up to you, to share their inner most secrets (one of the reasons why I often sign a confidentiality agreement with all my private students).

This approach to coaching is far from instant. It takes time, working through long held psychological, and emotional baggage, in order to finally get to a place where a person can transcend what will really fail them in a fight, not their technique, but themselves. This is also why you can never truly learn to defend yourself by watching instructional videos, you need to be on the ground, with a skilled coach, and learn first hand. It takes time, more time than most people want to invest in a world consumed by instant gratification.

The Decisive Moment of Action

The truth is, one has to rise above one’s inner critic, one’s inner opponent in the moment when the fight is on. That decisive moment of action will come about in no small part in how a person primes themselves for that very moment of action.

I was having a chat to one of my trainers recently. We were talking about the sparring class he runs. He noted, that it would be quit easy for him to run that session from the sidelines, but he chooses to get in there and do the rounds with everyone else. As he acknowledged, there are people on that mat that give him a really hard time, sometimes the students he teaches in the week get the better of him. Knowing that, before he steps in to spar everyone, he is often filled with self-doubt. But he steps up and does it anyway.

What he is really achieving by doing this is developing his inner theatre of survival. In a very real sense, it primes the body to understand, that regardless of how and what you are feeling and thinking, you can still do what is needed to be done. Here based on our conversation, the psychodynamic forces, the physiological changes, and the accompanying inner game experience are real forces to contend with for this trainer even in sparring in the gym. But by showing his inner theatre that they do not rule the outcome, or control his actions, he is then able to rise above them.

While this may seem to some arbitrary, it is in-itself a huge inner victory. Most people when faced with their inner critic, fall prey to become what the inner critic is intending them to be. However, each time one is able to work through one’s inner milieu constructively, through taking the action a person wants, in-spite of those inner obstacles being present, they develop key attributes that will see them survive interpersonal violence when it arises.

In other words, everyone when faced with a real threat to their safety will be confronted with inner dynamics, to varied degrees that have been discussed above. These inner variables however if not productively understood and trained through on the mat, might then become the very thing that allows for a person to lose in the worst case scenario — a real life and death survival experience out on the street. You can understand the techniques you need to apply, but if you are unable to overcome your inner theatre in that very moment, it will stand in the way of the deployment of those physical skill sets and you will invariably fail.

My trainer, by acknowledging aspects of his inner theatre that has the potential to hold him back, or derail his efforts on the mat while sparring — but then by being willing to constructively work through it, by taking action in-spite of these inner insecurities — is invariably priming himself to do the same when faced with the ultimate test on the street. I believe it’s one of the most fatal flaws of ‘self defense’ training, to think that just because you trained someone in physical technique, that that in of itself is enough to prime them to actually defend themselves when needed. Real ‘self-defense’ training requires both training and understanding in inner and outer dimensions of the fight game, with the former being the very aspect of a person that can lead to the failing of the later.

Taking Your Inner Theatre Seriously

If you are truly serious about developing personal safety skills you cannot neglect the inner work. What actions do you take when faced with fear or self doubt? How do you typically deal with it?

My trainer could quit easily fall victim to cognitive dissonance, giving some seemingly sensible argument for not stepping on the mat to spar. But if he continues to allow that to happen, he then primes his inner game to buy into the way he is thinking and feeling in the moments of having to spar. In other words, self doubt wins. This will then invariably prime him further for when he is faced with a real threat outside on the street. On that day, when self-doubt wins, he may lose his life. What my trainer does right now, in how he manages his inner opponent, by taking control of his actions in-spite of how he is thinking and feeling, begins the important development of an inner theatre that is prepared to face obstacles and threats when it matters most.

I am reminded here of Homer’s epic poem the Iliad. When Hector is called out by Achilles to fight, he resolves to fight, but as Achilles approaches, he loses his nerve and runs away. But at some point, and with the help of the gods he stops and faces Achilles. In that very moment of stopping, turning and facing the threat he puts his inner opponent aside and does what is needed. Its not to say that the inner opponent suddenly disappeared, it remains, but he chooses a different course of action in-spite of how he is feeling and thinking.

In some sense, the gods here represent his inner power to overcome any internal and external adversity. He may have lost that battle, but the lesson remains: just because you feel and think a certain way, doesn’t mean you cannot still take the action you need too. The great thing about this, is you can train it, develop it, mould it. It starts with overcoming the small inner obstacles on the mat, the fear of sparring for example. Each time you take on a challenge in-spite of your inner critic and opponent being present, not only do you gain greater insight into those shadows, you begin to realize that it is only in going into the shadow, that you will ever see the light.


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