There are many levels in a conflict and each has an appropriate response that requires a level of emotional control. Is the conflict verbal? Is it physical, and if so how physical? Is it someone just screaming at you with a clenched fist, or someone actually shoving you? Is it someone maybe swinging a baseball at your head, or maybe someone trying to stab you? We often talk about self-defense in our Jujitsu study and we pride ourselves in studying one of the best methods to defend yourself from violence and Jujitsu has been proven effective in innumerable self-defense situations. But what if you find yourself in an altercation and a weapon is drawn. A gun. A knife. A large stick, bottle or other blunt object.
That changes the dynamic does it not? How would you defend against a person swinging a baseball bat at you? Would you attempt to fight from the guard against a person stabbing at you with a knife? What if there are multiple people attacking you at one time? Now, granted, these are the kinds of situations that a very, VERY, small percentage of the population will ever find themselves facing. And those who do are usually people who deal with violence on a daily basis; police, mental health care professionals and the like. But occasionally every day type people do find themselves on the wrong side of someone’s fist and they are forced to act accordingly.
In the world we live in it is becoming ever more common for seemingly ordinary, calm, non-combative people to be targeted for violence. This is a fact. It used to be that in order to find trouble you had to look for it. Now however it seems that trouble often finds the common person, often by a predatory individual intent on violence. It still is a very rare occurrence for most people however, and this article is in no way meant to scare people into training a certain way or adopting a philosophy they find themselves at odds with. That being said, for most students of the art, self-defense was the main driving factor in beginning their study and the main reason that some continue. Have you ever been in a fight? Not an MMA match, but a fight? Lots of people started their training, such as the author, due to having had to defend themselves in altercations in school against bullies. It was terrifying. If you’ve ever experienced something like that you can attest.
An MMA fight is a fight, no doubt about it. You will be facing up against another person hoping to knock you unconscious or manipulating a limb with the intent to destroy it. But it is a match with rules and it is refereed and promoted(rightly so) as a sport. A fight however is different. You cannot tap. You cant rely on a coach yelling to you what you should do. In an MMA fight you can rest at least a bit easy knowing that if knocked out the ref will stop the fight. In a real fight there is a visceral factor that is unique. Weve all seen the videos of someone being knocked out only to have the assailant then stomp or kick them in the head, sometimes over and over again. Lets take it to an even more extreme now; when people fight for their life, especially on a battlefield, they use whatever is at hand. They fall, they bite, they tear, rip and scrape. And then of course is the other end of this spectrum, that not all fights are as lethal as this either. Lots of fights are just scraps where after a few punches or a good kick, things end.
So what is the point here? The purpose of this article is to scratch the surface of conflict, learning how one can exercise emotional control and develop a calm mind in a combative situation. It’s important to be able to understand how much violence is necessary and develop an innate understanding of how we can control ourselves and hopefully our surroundings enough to be mentally and physically dominant in a conflict situation. If you are reading this, most likely you already have more skill on this topic than you even realize.
In all reality, the best way to be calm when fighting…is…to have been in a lot of fights. Warrior cultures from all over the world attest to this fact through the common practice of their training. Whether a warrior was trained in the Spartan Agoge, a Roman war school, the various Bushi Ryu Ha(Japanese martial systems) or any other martial school( I wont even attempt to list all of the phenomenal martial schools in the world but instead narrow it down to a base few), they all stressed intense and forceful training when the student was ready. The various Japanese systems for example all contained methods for the student to develop their mind for combat. Ko Ryu Japanese systems were all weapons based.
There was some unarmed technique, but it was designed to be able to defend against the attack long enough just to get to a weapon as soon as possible, whether yours or the enemies. In a weapons-based conflict people are cut, they are stabbed, they are eviscerated, they lose hands, feet, eyes, and fingers so a lack of emotional control can be disastrous. The warrior method is to accept this, not dwell or obsess which leads to panic and fear, but to accept this as fact, and to train the mind through the training of the body to be ready. As stated earlier, an extremely small percentage of the jujitsu population has or will be going to war, so this may seem like a ridiculous comparison, but it is not. Since the natural reaction is for people to avoid danger and harm, the mental training involved in preparing to protect oneself can be the same whether its training for death, or just a fist fight.
But the key is that one must train with resistance, “aliveness” as Matt Thornton calls it. I’ll circle back now away from the extremes of battle to the realities of city and suburban living; the reason jujitsu and Thai or western boxing for example, are such effective systems is the method of the training and the frequency of how often this type of training it is done. In any system which the main teaching tool is to spar, students will have a much higher level of practical proficiency early on. Many of us can attest to this in having seen three stripe white belts take down, and maybe not submit, but at least stay in a dominant position against a traditional martial artist who may have been training for a significantly longer period of time. After a relative period of training against resistance, students (hopefully) begin to improve and develop their own style and their own methods. They become calm in the storm one could say and aren’t flustered or confused when things don’t go the way they thought; they just adapt and move on to another position. This usually is completely reactive and not consciously done. It has become reflex.
Again, the best way to learn to be calm when fighting is to have been in a lot of fights. And short of actually fighting, sparring is the next best thing. It’s a toned-down version of conflict in the outside world in a laboratory-like setting and this allows you to practice emotional control. But what about us, the masses? Since most people don’t want to ever be in a fight, even those who train martial arts, what then? Are we/they just out of luck, so to speak? No. We too as jujitsu students train this mental aspect, and we tend to do it unintentionally as we progress in the art through our regular and constant sparring. There are several ways to begin to develop a stronger feeling of emotional control in conflict, along with our regular jujitsu sparring, and one thing which I believe all jujitsu students should do, is to occasionally is to put on some MMA gloves and have someone start in their guard or vice versa and then do fast but light open fist strikes.
Notice how things change. Or start from standing and have one of the students have a hidden knife and at a point of their choosing use it against the other student. This will only help each student improve. This will help a person to begin to tap into the basics of Jujitsu, the high percentage straightforward movements which are the backbone of self-defense, the timeless aspects of the art. This type of training isn’t for everyone, but it is for everyone who wants to study the various aspects of self-defense and how to begin properly protecting themselves and developing a level of emotional control while involved in a conflict. Another way to start to numb the panic section of the brain is to roll with the spazzy white belt who goes 100% every roll. At first, when you too are a white belt it can be confusing, annoying, scary, and overwhelming all at the same time.
But after some time things begin to change. It’s still annoying (sorry white belts, but hey we’ve all been there) but now its clearly seen as uneducated limb flailing. I am not encouraging anyone to train with someone they feel will injure them, I just mean that training against people who take you out of your comfort zone can be beneficial. The more time you put yourself in this situation, the quicker you will feel at ease being uneasy.
Sparring is a type of real world training, but it is not a real one, and this too must be realized. Vaingloriously rushing in to do a blast double leg on a potential ne’er-do-well may end up getting you stabbed in the kidney with a broken bottle or hit on the back of the head with a pool cue. This unfortunately has happened, and people have been killed while not being aware or attentive enough to their surroundings and not seen danger as it develops. They take someone down, mount, and then are stabbed or hit from behind.
The Japanese martial schools developed in the medieval period, the various Ryu Ha, taught and developed a training method to deal with this fact of combat. It wasn’t uncommon in any time, or any age to be attacked when least expecting it and by more than one assailant. Because of the deceitful and betrayal-happy mindset of a lot of medieval Bushi, Japanese warriors strove to develop what is called Zanshin. Zanshin can be basically translated as “hyper alertness”. In order to maintain this, the Japanese warriors trained primarily in what is called kata. A kata is a type of paired drill. This method of training has been criticized by some Japanese and non-Japanese fighters alike as being rote and ineffective.
In reality, a lot of these forms in some schools can be that way, having been developed much later on in Samurai culture when the nation was in an enforced peace and no one alive had been to war or had any plans on going to one. The kata developed and trained by the schools which were founded much earlier, in the Muromachi period and the Sengoku Jidai however are different. When the student understood and had a reasonable control of the basic forms of the system well enough their training would begin to change. The teacher would start to tweak the forms, adding in or removing parts without telling the student. The speed, power, and ferocity would be changed along with the timing and the targeting. In an era in which protective equipment had not been developed this served to develop a specific mindset, which although maybe the student wasnt knowledgeable enough to deal with every type of attack, allowed to student to at least be prepared for it.
Zanshin is not mysterious and it is not magical, contrary to what many of the current pedlers of “bullshido” would have us believe. It is taught to United States Marines in their unarmed weapons training system, it is taught to some police departments in their training systems, it is taught to health care workers and crisis intervention specialists. These groups may not know it, but any time they are trained to observe and keep constant awareness of the surroundings, they are training the part of the brain required to maintain preparedness. That is Zanshin.
Understanding conflict in all its forms, understanding what we ourselves can do in certain situations, our strengths and weaknesses, and being able to react accordingly takes time, energy, and of course, emotional control. If you are just training jujitsu for sport or for exercise, continue. If you are training it as part of your MMA training, continue. And if you are a law enforcement professional, please continue, trained police who can handle themselves properly in high stress encounters are needed now more than ever. All of these various aspects of the art have their place and each person will have a different priority. But regardless, if you have found benefit in your training, for whatever reason, keep training. The mind is the human beings’ most important and strongest attribute, it is an amazing organ, and when the body and mind are united and trained properly the human being can have unlimited potential.
This piece is part of a series diving deep into the origins of Jiu Jitsu, click here to look through the rest of the series.