In tennis there is a concept known as “forced errors and unforced errors”. A forced error is when one player demonstrates superior technique and strategy, pushing the opponent into a situation where they cannot respond effectively. Essentially, any time you see a player outright win a point, he is forcing the other player to be out of position or to hit a sub-optimal shot.
An unforced error, on the other hand, is when a player makes a mistake through no direct influence of their opponent. If you see someone serve into the net, or hit a ball wide, those are unforced errors.
That being said, I’d like to share a story about how I came to understand this concept and how it can apply to your martial arts training.
Story Time – The Trashman
In high school I was a tennis player, although not a very good one. I enjoyed playing, but martial arts got most of my time and attention. As such, I generally played down in the Junior Varsity leagues, scrumming around and having a fun time. Something weird happened my senior year though – I managed to place as the #2 seed on our starting team.
I was getting a little better year by year, but not to the point where I was actually good. My senior year “rank boost” happened because I figured something out – tennis players are neurotic. Much like golf, tennis is a very individualized sport where players spend a lot of time in their own head. As a result, the biggest opponent on the court is often “oneself”.
With that in mind, I developed a strategy whereupon my only real goal was to get the ball back over the net. I wasn’t trying to hit down-the-line winners or blitz serves at 80mph. I hit sloppy, medium paced shots that managed to make it back to my opponent time after time. My instructor affectionately nicknamed me “the trashman”, since I was routinely putting up garbage.
Something that frustrates tennis players is when they KNOW they are better than their opponent, yet aren’t getting ahead. As their self talk spins further and further out of control, they begin committing unforced errors as they lose patience and try to press too hard. Before they know it they are losing to an inferior opponent…which is generally when the cursing and racquet breaking begins.
I was never good at tennis, but I did come to understand the psychology of forced errors vs unforced errors.
Forced and Unforced: Your Opponent
It’s quite possible you don’t care about tennis, nor have any desire to get better at playing it. That’s ok! These concepts apply just as well to the martial arts.
When thinking of sparring and fighting, we generally conceptualize methods in which we will force our opponent into suboptimal situations. For example, if we punch them in the face we can then kick them in the groin and throw them to the ground. Straight forward and effective. However, forcing errors can go a little deeper than that.
If you think about distancing and body positioning during a combative engagement, the opponent MUST use the information you provide to make an informed decision about what he/she will do next. If you are close, they cannot use high kicks. If you are far away, they cannot grapple (unless they close the distance). As a result, you can use the knowledge of the situation to force your opponent into moving in particular ways. For example, if you are standing at a distance with your hands dropped low, what is the likelihood that the opponent will attempt a high, long ranged technique? Furthermore, he/she knows that a high technique is the obvious choice, so they will likely attempt a feint high in order to open up a low technique, which is their real intention.
You can never know exactly what the opponent will do, but you can refine their options which will make them more predictable, reducing the needed response options on your part and increasing the chance of your own effectiveness (the end goal of any combative engagement).
As for unforced errors…
An opponent’s unforced error may seem obvious at first – bad technique or decisions that leave huge openings. This is indeed part of unforced error capitalization. But we can go a step further. In tennis I used a calm persistence to disrupt the psychology of the opponent. Do we not have that same opportunity in fighting? Of course, conflict never lasts as long as a tennis match, but we can utilize the idea of gaining a psychological advantage (and implanting suggestion) even before a single strike is thrown as well as during the engagement itself.
Forced and Unforced: You!
If you’ve ever sparred you know what it’s like to get pushed around the dojo floor from time to time. You also know the frustrating repercussions of trying something stupid that is immediately shut down and punished. If you want to learn more about forced and unforced errors, take an honest look at your losses. Take it one step further and ask the individuals who beat you what they saw and how they were able to exploit it.
Let’s step out of the combative ring for a moment though. Unforced errors play more of a role in training than most people realize. Think of all the solo activity that goes along with martial arts training – kata, demonstrations, testing, etc etc. During all of those events it’s just you, the open floor space, and maybe some watchful eyes. There is nothing standing between you and success…which can be a debilitating problem for many individuals.
Unforced errors (aka wrinkles in personal psychology) appear all the time in martial arts training and can be so smothering that they cause many individuals to quit altogether. Anxiety during a testing, cold sweat as people watch you…these are purely internal matters and can only be rectified by one person (you).
I have found that identifying and placing a name on this kind of anxiety helps to overcome it. If you feel an overwhelming sense of dread or tension during solo performances, just remember that nothing can stop you except for you. Don’t “throw away the match” by riding the psychological tailspin of unforced errors. Recognize it, put it away, and do what it is you’ve trained to do!
This is the fifth article in Reader Week II. Author Adam Cave is a nidan in Taekwondo and sandan in RyuTe. He is the lead instructor at Raleigh RyuTe Karate and authors a blog called Solo Keiko. In this article Adam discusses the potential hazards with constantly collecting more material, and how specialization can lead to more effective technique.
Freedom From Choice: The Dangers of “More” in Martial Arts
I recently watched a TED Talk lecture on youtube by Barry Schwartz. In his book “The Paradox of Choice,” the author takes on the concept of freedom in Western Civilization. According to Schwartz, we define freedom as having unlimited personal choices. The paradox is that the vast numbers of choices we now face every day have a tendency to cause self-paralysis and limit both our freedom and our happiness.
These are big ideas and the video is well worth watching. But what does it all have to do with martial arts? To my mind, everything. Start with the thousands of martial arts styles being practiced today world wide (hundreds, possibly, in your own community). From the hugely popular to the esoteric, from classical to traditional to modern and hybrids, there is no shortage of ways to defend ourselves. Internal, external, hard, soft, Eastern, Western: the list keeps growing; a clear case of globalization at work.
Now consider the hundreds of techniques found in every methodology. There are innumerable kata, training exercises, and drills to help us learn. Each style has multiple instructors who focus on differing aspects of their art. With this many choices and this much material, where do you begin? To make matters worse, as a peaceful member of society, not seeking out conflict, you may never know if you chose right. At least you won’t know until it is far too late to change (This article assumes that you, like me, want your martial arts to provide you with at least some improved self-defense skills).
It is high time we start questioning whether all this choice and all this material is making us better or worse martial artists. The cynic in me sees it all as marketing strategies to gain and keep dojos full. Business-minded instructors, lacking depth of knowledge, go out and “acquire” new material that their students have not yet seen. But I am sure there are also many teachers who truly believe that real self-defense requires a broad base of knowledge.
One of the most common mantras in martial arts is that techniques have to be practiced repeatedly until they can be done without thinking or they will never work in real life. I completely agree. But, to train any movement that much, requires a great deal of time and, if you are constantly learning new material, you will never have enough. Each technique becomes part of a long list that can be recalled but rarely can be done well without thinking about it first.
Although this may be a harder sell, the better option is, literally, less options.
Advice on Getting Less
Begin by choosing one art to study. Commit yourself to the strategies and techniques of that art. This may still be a mountain of material but at least it all falls under the same umbrella. To make matters simpler, continuously look for one, overriding logic in every move you do. This will help you see the similarities between movements and techniques that otherwise, might appear quite different. In a fully developed art, the movement of the hands, body, and feet should all be coordinated and flow easily together. If you train to make a core set of fundamental skills second nature, you will actually be able to use a broader range of techniques as long as they are all built on those same fundamentals. Eventually, what to others may appear as many differing techniques, to you should all seem like subtle variations on the same thing. This is the type of skill set that you can count on in a fight because you won’t have to think about it. Instead of being paralyzed by too many choices, you will move freely and instinctively using techniques that you have real confidence in.
As an avid lover of all martial arts, I don’t want to kill anyone’s enthusiasm for learning new things. Some amount of variety is necessary to keep us motivated. The key will always be how well we can integrate that material into our core discipline.
In the end, what we do to protect ourselves is deeply personal and it will not matter how it looks or who it impresses as long as it works. The thousands of martial arts represent the work of thousands of individual people, each developing personal methods of self-defense that worked for them. Ironically, they all had the same threat in mind; a fellow human with two arms and two legs and possibly a weapon held in one of two hands. More choices will not help you beat this opponent. Deeper knowledge, of even a few techniques, will be a much stronger asset.
This is the second article in Reader Week II. Author Jason Knight is a Nidan in Washin-Ryu Karate-do with the Pacific Martial Arts Federation. He holds a Master’s Degree in Marriage and Family Counseling where he studied the psychological benefits of martial arts training. He has developed karate programs for non-profits and school districts focusing on character development throughout San Diego and Los Angeles Counties. He continues this work in his dojo in Los Angeles and writes about personal transformation through karate-do training in his blog yearofbruce.com.
The Science Behind the Benefits of Martial Arts Training
As martial artists, many of us are familiar with Eastern philosophical descriptions of the benefits of martial arts training. Just as Western medicine has begun research into understanding the possible benefits of Eastern medicine, Western research psychology has begun to investigate the possible benefits of Eastern approaches to psychological health due to the tendency to focus on preventative mental health as opposed to waiting until problems become visible and more entrenched. In traditional Japanese culture, this would often take the form of parents recruiting an adult role model who would lead their child on a path of learning involving a traditional art. These arts have included iaido, ikebana, chado, and karate-do (Suzuki, 1970).
Seeking to understand the benefits of the martial arts, Western research in disciplines including education, psychology, and sports psychology have begun to explore how the martial arts can effect mental wellness. Alan James and Richard Jones (1982) were among the first researchers to describe the benefits of karate-do as a means of cultural development. In their research they describe how through karate-do’s systematic form of training, individuals go through a process of acquiring a new social identity and consequently begin to absorb the dojo’s belief system. The authors discuss character development along two processes: physical and mental (pg. 343):
“An important accomplishment of many novice karatika comes from pushing the body through a sequence of strenuous physical exercises … By pushing the body to the limits and beyond, the karatika becomes aware of an inner strength, and gains the confidence in being able to perform exercises previously regarded as impossible … Increased fitness and suppleness, an awareness of what has been achieved on the physical plane, penetrates the psychological make-up of the karatika and contributes to the emergence of a new, confident self-image.”
In this case, the authors describe the process as pushing the body in order to develop physical awareness, which in turn will improve psychological awareness. As a result of this new self-image, the authors describe a state of preparedness “which is expressed in the normative expectation that once a karatika enters the dojo he becomes and remains, fully alert and prepared … (involving) concentration on one’s own efforts and ignoring everything else” (p 343). The authors further state, “In time, longer and more intense periods of concentration (occur), thereby enhancing self-confidence and diminishing self-consciousness” (p. 244).
Schmidt (1982) describes martial arts training, as it is thought of in Japan, as philosophical education. This training unfolds as a process that emerges from the relationship between the student and Sensei and progresses in a predictable way. The author explains further (p. 71):
“Reflective of the Zen method of training, the emphasis is on a non-verbalized, intuitive approach, rather than intellection … It is the total involvement of one’s physical and mental powers to unceasingly struggle for a solution to a problem.”
In the above statement, the problem can be conceptualized as the attempt for perfection, while the struggle could be conceptualized as a progressively increasing set of goals. The author further describes how this training develops across four stages: gyo, shugyo, jutsu, and do (p. 72):
“The gyo, or introductory, stage represents the initial level of training, where the Budoka, is introduced to his chosen martial art, its customs and etiquette, his teachers and senseis, as well as his training hall, the dojo. The trainee learns that budo techniques must be practiced assiduously. At this level, training is a process of trial and error. (At the shugyo stage), the trainee attempts to reproduce the actions of the master teacher. … The master teacher presents the trainee with physical koans (kata in karate-do), which force the trainee to solve the various conceptual problems associated with this particular art. (At the jutsu level), the trainee has acquired a mastery of basic skills but still senses an incompleteness in the techniques. Movements once requiring conscious thought processes are now fully internalized and executed automatically. At the do stage, training becomes an ‘artless’ art where the expert, who has transcended the outer forms, is both master of himself and the art.”
Additionally, Kauz (1977) explains (pg. 83):
“The intention is to learn to focus the conscious mind on something other than our everyday concerns, which usually receive its exclusive attention. Moreover, the students attempt to maintain their focus for longer and longer periods of time, undistracted by intruding thoughts or sensations (italics added).”
Weiser, Kutz, Jaconsen, and Weiser (1995) describe martial arts training as a more effective psychotherapy (pg. 123):
“The physical learning through the nonverbal exercises of the martial arts can improve mental health. It fosters recognition of the integration of mind and body, teaches practitioners to relax, to focus, to communicate, to persevere, and to be self-aware and self-accepting, while striving for improvement. In addition, it emphasizes minimizing fear and anger in order to maximize focus and concentration.”
Improved Attention Through “Flow”
In researching elite-level athletes and entrepreneurs, Csikszentmihalyi (1990), appears to have discovered individuals who are highly adept at seeking out and creating ‘do’ experiences in their lives. He called this process “flow” based on the subjective report of feeling “in the flow” described by many of the subjects that he had studied. He describes a phenomenon that occurs with many elite individuals whether through rock climbing or running a Fortune 500 company. When engaged in the activity in which they had achieved an elite status, these individuals described the following psychological processes:
“A sense that one’s skills are adequate to cope with the challenges at hand, in a goal directed, rule bound action system that provides clear cues as to how well one is performing. Concentration is so intense that there is no attention left over. … Self-consciousness disappears, and the sense of time becomes distorted. … People are willing to do (a flow activity) for it’s own sake.” (Csikszentmihalyi, 1990, p. 71)
This definition describes how flow is essentially the experience of a participant in a specific type of activity that provides rules, structure that can facilitate growth, and is action oriented. The psychological effect of an activity such as this can be quite profound for the participant and can include the psychological processes described below.
Challenge-skill balance is characterized by the perception of a balance between situational challenges and individual skills.
Unambiguous feedback can be described as clear, immediate feedback regarding the activity.
Action-awareness merging is characterized by the participant’s deep involvement in the activity so that it becomes “spontaneous or automatic” (Jackson and Marsh, 1996, pp. 18-19).
Total concentration in the activity is one aspect of the flow experience, which “leaves no room in the mind for irrelevant information” (Csikszentmihalyi, 1990, p. 58).
A sense of exercising control can be experienced in the flow process, without consciously thinking about exerting control over the self. The action of the activity dominates consciousness and the sense of the independent self can be lost.
The participant may have a perception that time feels either slower or faster, or time may feel absent from consciousness as objective time is superceded “by the rhythms dictated by the activity” (Csikszentmihalyi, p. 66, 1990).
These flow states appear to be quite similar to the state that is described as mushin (“no-mind”) in Zen Buddhist philosophy. When an individual is involved in a do-zen activity it has been described as feeling like one is moving automatically without will (flow state of action-awareness merging), with single-pointed concentration (flow state of total concentration), feeling totally in control of oneself and indeed one’s opponent (flow state of sense of exercising control), and feeling as if no time had passed (flow state of time feeling slower or faster).
It is through developing these heightened awarenesses that karate-do students may develop increased concentration and develop a sense of calmness, relaxation, and freedom from agitation (Columbus & Rice, 1998). It has even been postulated that juvenile delinquency may be a result of a lack of flow or do-zen experiences (Csikszentmihalyi, 1990, p. 69):
“Much of what has been labeled juvenile delinquency—car theft, vandalism, rowdy behavior in general—is motivated by the need to have flow experiences not available in ordinary life. As long as a significant segment of society has few opportunities to encounter meaningful challenges, and few chances to develop the skills necessary to benefit from them, we must expect that violence and crime will attract those who cannot find their way to a more complex autotelic (self-directed flow) experience.”
This is, of course, a process of development that involves a lifetime of training and involves many experiences, but is an attempt nonetheless to explore how traditional martial arts training aids in character development. This article highlights that if actions are continuously repeated in slow progression toward mastery until actions and thinking become spontaneous, major benefits occur. In Zen philosophy, spontaneous action is the natural state that allows the mentally unencumbered individual to act in a continuously tranquil, yet powerful manner. This is the ultimate desired outcome and has natural ramifications for positive mental health.
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