The Importance of Training for Situational Readiness
Let’s face it, most Martial Arts programs today don’t adequately prepare the practitioner for a real life-threatening situation. There are certainly exceptions but the fact is that as civilization has become less violent over time, the training has shifted to be heavier on the “Art” and lighter on the “Martial” aspects. Most styles that teach effective physical techniques (striking, grappling, throwing, choking…whatever), often don’t include the mental framework to go along with the techniques that are critical to ensure the best chance of survival in a real situation. Sure, one could argue that muscle memory and superior physical conditioning alone makes a Martial Artist more prepared for a violence encounter than the average person but that is a far cry from true readiness.
I recently had an experience that reminded me of the importance of preparing the mind for combat along with the body. Back in 2013, I moved my family to a house on large piece of land surrounded by woods. It is a very private lot and neighbors can barely be seen far off in the distance. It seemed like a good idea to install a security system so we did. It gives us piece of mind both when we are not home but also while we are asleep. In the four years that we have had the system, the alarm has never sounded aside from something we knowingly did by accident or was quickly explainable (the dog triggered a motion sensor, etc.).
A couple of weeks ago, well past midnight, my wife and I were woken by a sound that we had never heard at that time of night…the security alarm going off! Let me tell you, this system has a very loud audio alarm output. It took a few seconds to even grasp what was happening since I was waking from a deep sleep. Once I gained consciousness and realized it was the security alarm and not the fire alarm there was another surprise. This system includes a human voice feature that basically screams out which security zone was triggered. It indicated that the sensor for the garage door attached to the house had tripped. This was concerning since this particular sensor has never tripped before. I immediately realized that it was within the realm of possibility that someone actually broke into the house!
Note that all of these things were flashing through my mind within the first few seconds after waking up. I could feel my adrenaline kick in and my heart rate increasing. Now here is the key point of this article. If at that very moment an actual intruder had attacked me, I can say with certainty that my Martial Arts training, ability to execute techniques, and my physical conditioning would have been useless. The reason for this? My mind was frozen. I was essentially a “deer in the headlights”.
Luckily, one of the things that I have incorporated into my Martial Arts training over the years are focused mental exercises to strengthen my situational readiness. It may be impossible to mentally prepare for every survival situation that could arise especially since they seldom do in real life (unless perhaps you are in the military or law enforcement). However, you can train your mind to be better prepared for threatening situations since they typically invoke common physiological and emotional responses. Deep within us as humans we all have instincts that likely evolved back in the days when we needed to avoid being killed or eaten by predators (fight or flight response). If you make a deliberate effort to identify and/or invoke these responses, and consider them complementary to your Martial Arts training, you will see a difference in how fast you can regain control of your mind when something unexpectedly happens in real life.
For me it is that sudden spike in blood pressure (heart rate) that I have been able to train myself to identify and use as a mental response trigger. The goal is to minimize the reaction time between the frozen mind and regaining control to be able to physically act. To do this, you must be in touch with your body at a deeper level. In the Martial Arts we often talk about balancing the mind, body, and spirit. The subtle difference here is that your focus needs to be on the transition from the unexpected subconscious state of mind to that of a conscious state of mind. When training your techniques in class or even when exercising them in a competition against an opponent you are typically already focused and conscious. You are in a known environment. This is not the case when an unexpected real life situation occurs especially outside of a Martial Arts setting.
So back to my story…
After the first few seconds of the security alarm sounding, I would estimate it took me at least another ten seconds for my mind to detect the “mental trigger” from my body that my heart was racing. Once I did, I was able to very quickly relax, regain control, and take action. But the problem here in my opinion is that ten seconds is an eternity when it comes to survival. So I’m going to give myself a grade of “C-“ for reaction time on this event. The only reason that I am not giving myself an “F” is that I do recall being aware of my body’s response trigger which means that my mental training actually did help. I could come up with several excuses as to why it may have taken this long to gain control where in other scenarios I may have been back in control in just a few seconds. For one, in addition to my own state of confusion with the alarm sounding, my wife’s emotional response was a distraction that I had not considered in the mental training exercises I have practiced in the past. For me it has always been more stressful when I feel my family is in danger than just myself. In fact, protecting my family was one of the main drivers to start training in the Martial Arts to begin with! Regardless, I am so grateful for this experience since it revealed a weakness in my mental training that I can now attempt to correct. It falls right in line with the goal of constant improvement in the Martial Arts.
Well, sorry in advance for an anticlimactic ending to the story. If you were hoping that I had to engage in a battle with a drug induced hoodlum or a serial killer that didn’t happen. It was, as typically is the case in real life, a false alarm. Earlier that day we had the outside of our home power washed to clean dirt and mold off the siding. Because of the high water pressure sprayed horizontally at the garage door, some water leaked into the garage through the door frame. The alarm sensor sits on the inside of the door beneath the top of the frame. It appears that over the course of the day some water eventually seeped into the sensor and somehow caused it to falsely trigger. Once I took it apart and dried it out it was fine for the rest of the night and has not been a problem since.
The moral of the story is that there is real value in situational awareness training. If an intruder was in my home, the faster I was able to get my mind combat ready the better. There are certainly no guarantees of survival (especially if firearms are involved) but it’s all about improving your odds. This is simple common sense.
So let’s talk about situational awareness training. Some schools (especially Krav Maga and other reality based styles) have begun to offer such programs. Again, I see this as a complimentary form of training to whatever Martial Art(s) you already practice. It is worth checking out what programs are available in your local area. For example, the Krav Maga school in my area sometimes offers Saturday seminars without any long term financial commitment to the school which is good especially if you are already committed to an existing school/style. A serious Martial Artist should always explore other styles and techniques outside of his or her “principal” style but that is a topic for another article.
Then there is solo training that you can do on your own in multiple different ways. The key is to exercise your mind-body connection to naturally help you develop awareness of your trigger response. Since everyone is different, you may need to modify for yourself but here is how I do it:
1) Clear the mind: I need clear my mind of chatter and distraction first or the exercise won’t work. Sometimes if I am really wound up I’ll use sitting meditation or standing meditation (Chi Gung style forms) to achieve a calm mental state.
2) Next, I play out a scenario in my mind that will invoke the trigger response. I usually envision some form of violent or dangerous life-threatening situation. The situation can be as simple as an altercation in a bar, or as extreme as imagining I am present somewhere when a mass shooting occurs. I “see” the situation in my mind similar to as if I was watching it on TV or in a movie.
3) As soon as I feel my heart rate increase (my trigger), I continue playing out the scenario but simultaneously focus on my breathing and center my mind in my lower dantien. If you are unfamiliar with the term dantien (also known as tantien) just Google it.
4) As I attempt to gain full mental control, I’ll monitor other body mechanisms for feedback in addition to my heart rate. For me, it is typically my shoulders and abdomen muscles that tense up from the adrenal response. Once I am able to control my shoulders and abs to relax, I know I am where I need to be mentally to take action.
5) The last step is to image the action I would take to either defend myself or escape (fight or flight).
Having a successful mental training session usually comes down to how much I can initially clear my mind of other thoughts and convince my subconscious that I am in danger. Like anything worthwhile, this mental training takes time and effort. One way to help quantify progress is to utilize a heart rate monitor that can stream your heart rate data to a smartphone. A lot of people use the Fitbit style wristband products these days but I don’t like the feeling of training with something tight around my wrist so I use a product that comfortably straps across my chest made by Polar called the H7 Bluetooth Heart Rate Sensor & Fitness Tracker. After the training session, there are various apps you can use to review the data to see how effective you were at both invoking a trigger response and the subsequent response time to bring your heart rate back down to a lower level again.
As it relates to potential real life situations it is important to note that situational awareness goes hand-in-hand with situational readiness. The more you can remain in the moment and be aware of your surroundings (especially when in public) the shorter your situational readiness response time will be.
If you are looking for a more in-depth and thorough perspective on this topic of situational readiness, check out Rory Miller’s book: Facing Violence, Preparing for the Unexpected. He has other books focused around this topic as well. His writing is well researched and authentic based on his life experience.
I hope this article sheds some light on what I feel is a critical subject often overlooked by today’s traditional Martial Arts schools that claim they are teaching “self-defense”. Their techniques might be effective…but the mind must be calm and present for success in action.