Very few people are immune to the sneaky problem of negative self talk. It’s easy to miss since it can start off small and inconsequential but eventually cascade into a full on mental road block. Let’s take a look at what self talk is, how it can become problematic, and how to avoid negative compounding.
First, a definition. Self talk, as the name suggests, is when you communicate with yourself inside your mind. It can manifest literally when you are talking out loud to yourself (I do that, don’t you?) but for the most part acts as an interior monologue as you go about your day. Self talk is critical for problem solving, decision making, and thought organization.
Interestingly, the way we allow that inner voice to manifest can have serious impacts throughout our day and can affect how we view martial arts training. As such, self talk can result in motivation and enthusiasm or grinding annoyance and hesitation.
Example: A Simple Matter of Wording
I’ve been teaching karate and kobudo for a number of years. Occasionally I forget what day it is and say to myself “ohh shoot, that’s right – I have to teach to today”. Seems harmless enough right? Actually it’s not; it is the subtle first stage of negative self talk. You see, I say “I HAVE to teach”, meaning that I do not have a choice in the matter. It is a disruption from my normal pattern. When I HAVE to teach it is a burden beyond my control. Whenever I catch myself doing this I immediately say to myself “no, I GET to teach today.” Believe it or not this diligence has made a world of difference at times.
The way we use language, even within ourselves, can have a serious impact on our outlook and motivation. We can choose to alter that conversation so as to avoid negative spiraling. Here’s another look at it:
Example: Perceived Obstacles
Winter is starting to hit many areas of the world and things are getting cold and icy. Human nature suggests that staying out of that weather is the smart thing to do for survival; therefore, the brain will start programming reasons to avoid the cold well before you realize what is happening. You might start to feel a tickle in your throat, an ache in your back, or worries about your car on the ice. Your brain will talk to you and nag you unless you choose to change the conversation.
Instead of a series of insurmountable hurdles you can choose to see challenges, knowing that if you overcome them you will be happier and more successful at the end of the day.
Here’s a tip: for hard days when you know your motivation is going to wain build in a reward mechanism post-class. My Thursdays used to contain 4-5 hours of training and on those days I would get a hoagie and tea afterwards. No training, no hoagie. Simple but effective.
You Guide the Conversation
If none of this seems relevant to you consider yourself lucky. A few fortunate people always see the dojo as a haven and retreat there without a moment’s hesitation. Most of us though have bouts of laziness, doubt, and distraction (especially as months of training turn into years which turn into decades). These moments of mental weakness can quickly become burdens unless you steer the conversation early enough. That being said, there’s a fine line between indulging in negative self talk and ignoring serious signs from your body. If you are downright sick or injured it can be detrimental to your health to force yourself into training. Longevity and health are as much a part of training as kicking and punching. Learn to notice when your body is serious and when it’s just whining.
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 seventh and final article of Reader Week II. Author Michael Pepe is a student of Shorin Ryu Karate and diligent martial arts researcher and conceptual thinker. In this article, Michael explores how thoughtful martial artists can use basic principles of reality and physics to reorganize the way they see combat.
This article hopes to shed some light on the mindset of a cerebral fighter. One who understands the laws of motion and balance and uses them effectively during a fighting situation.
Essential Principles of Combat
As two antagonists lock together in mutual combat, each has the expressed physical intention of forcing the other to surrender to their dominance. While we as spectators watch, our primal instincts take over as we accept facial cuts and injuries as primary factors in deciding who dominated whom. However, other dynamics come into play providing a clear assessment as to who controlled the other and thereby dominated the fight.
As their bodies collide, the combatants bring forth a myriad of principles. Motion, balance, and leverage are but some of the formulas the winning fighter must harness in order to seize the day.
Initially, the combatants might grab each other and like two bulls locking horns, attempt to drive one another backward in an attempt to impose their dominance with shear physical strength.
In order to unbalance an opponent, our intelligent fighter must understand the structure of a well-balanced individual. To do this, visualize an isosceles triangle whose base runs from ankle to ankle and whose sides travel from there, to the person’s natural center of gravity within the pelvis. This center point is found slightly below the bellybutton, and is seated approximately two-thirds inward toward the spine. This “structure” is very stable until one of two actions occurs.
First, if a person wishes to move or step he must lean forward, move the hips (the center point of the body) passed the base at the feet. As he starts to lose his balance, he must move his leg forward and establish a “new” triangle slightly ahead of the last and if left unobstructed, regains his balance.
Second, if an outside force pulls this same person, his center of gravity has once again moved and he must re-adjust his base by moving his foot forward.
Controlling an Opponent’s Balance Using Math and Science
Let us assume that “Joe” is larger than “Dave” is. We could then say that “Joe” is more rooted or stable, merely due to gravity pulling his larger mass into the earth, causing increased friction between his feet and the ground. In order to create motion and gain a small advantage against the larger opponent, Dave, who is lighter, cannot push against his larger opponent and expect to win. If both are aggressively pushing, the larger of the two will always win. Therefore, Dave, who is smaller, must yield to the larger by pulling, the precise moment the larger pushes. The theory can be clearly seen in this way; If the larger person pushes using seven units of force and the smaller were to pull using only three units of force, he harnesses the combined force of both bodies, ten units, and can easily topple the much larger opponent.
When the heaver fighter pushes, he uses weight and motion creating momentum. However, momentum can become a problem for the larger person if used against him. First, the larger person has more difficulty stopping once he has gained momentum and he falls faster once momentum is introduced. He also depletes more energy trying to reestablish a stable posture than would a smaller sized person.
Causing One to Fall by Interrupting Balance
As the combatants tussle and the smaller gains control of the other’s movement and balance through good strategy, he need only to block or sweep the hip or leg to send his opponent to the mat. When a leg is blocked or swept as it attempts to regain a base, the brain tells the body to readjust. However, due to the precision of the block, the body cannot respond in time. Once movement occurs between the two, the ideal moment, that causes one to tumble, evolves until it peaks, and once past, the moment is lost and a new opportunity must be cultivated. There is one and only one moment that causes the opponent to fall with the thrower using minimal effort. Any attempted throw on either side of this “peak moment” demands the use of added muscular effort, compounded by the time past the peak. It is not impossible to accomplish the throw but it becomes more difficult if the moment is not used and the opponent regains any stability.
Seizing the Moment
Where was the man when he jumped off the bridge? Not on the bridge, that was before he jumped. Not in the air, that was after he jumped. The thought process used in answering this question can be used again in finding the solution to the question, “When is the right moment to throw an opponent?”
The moment of time, when it is best to sweep or block the leg, leading to a successful throw, is born when the opponent begins to place his foot on the mat in an attempt to regain balance, the moment peaks when he has placed half his weight on the advancing foot and has past the instant after. When his foot is not on the mat, is not the moment and when his foot rests firmly on the mat the peak moment has also past. The intelligent competitor must master this moment in time in order to use minimal effort, in toppling a lager opponent.
The Use of Levers and Fulcrums
Greek philosopher Archimedes once declared, “Give me a firm place on which to stand, and with a lever I can lift the world”. Not only would our friend Archimedes need a firm place to stand, he would also need a solid lever that would not snap!
A lever is a something used to lift an object. Placing an object under our lever helps gain lift. This object forms a fulcrum at the point where it meets the lever. The closer the fulcrum is to the weight, the easier it is to lift.
The two combatants have now landed on the ground and have entered the final stage of the battle. The knowledgeable fighter must now think like a master of applied science. With two different sized, three-dimensional bodies, there are an infinite number of ways to apply principles of leverage, but our smart fighter has chosen juji-gatame or cross arm lock as it might be called in Judo. Older schools of Jiu-jitsu called it ude nate, arm break, nonetheless, attacking the arm.
With the larger man now on his back the smaller of the two sits beside, facing him and places both his legs across the chest and neck, the larger man’s arm now stuck between them. Pressing the backs of both legs to the mat the smaller man now pins the larger and at the same time, squeezes his knees together, trapping the arm. It is not impossible to escape the arm but it becomes more difficult. The big man’s arm now becomes our lever, the smaller man’s hips, and the fulcrum. In getting the hips as close as possible to the heavy man’s body, we make it easier to lift. Grasping the end of the “lever” (the man’s wrist) the smaller man now leans back straightening the arm and locking it into this extended position. Since our intention is not really to lift the weight of our opponent’s body, our legs hold downward pressure, then, by applying pressure under the arm and lifting the hips we hyperextend the arm breaking it at the weakest point, the elbow.
If a fighter uses only brawn to overcome an adversary, he may or may not win. If the fighter knows nothing of the principles of combat he can push, pull, and shove, but these tactics will be random and therefore be very ineffective.
However, one, who understands the laws that govern movement and balance then puts to use these essential principles of combat, has the knowledge and tools to use in their quest to control a larger opponent, and with minimal effort thereby defeat him.
For further information:
The secrets of Judo; A text for instructors and students
Jiichi Watanabe and Lindy Avakian
Neil Ohlenkamp 2006
Martial Arts- the spiritual Dimension;
Peter Payne 1981
Secrets of the Samurai;
Oscar Ratti/Adele westbrook1973