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The Nervous System

The Nervous System

Andrew is 37 years old and lives in Devon with his wife and two children. He has been involved in the martial arts for over thirty years and is currently third dan and chief instructor of Mushinkai Karate as well as a student of Kendo.

In addition to martial arts, Andrew has worked as a fitness professional and personal trainer for the past eighteen years, and is currently employed by the University of Exeter as Health and Fitness manager.

He acts as fitness advisor and trainer to a number of martial arts groups, and is working to improve the knowledge of Anatomy and Physiology amongst martial artists.

I first met Andrew at a seminar I taught quite a few years ago in the south of England. Andrew had travelled quite a way to get to the seminar and as luck would have it I would be passing his part of the world on my way back up north. I gave Andrew a lift home and in the couple of hours he was travelling with me we talked at length about the pragmatic application of karate and how knowledge of anatomy and physiology was vital for efficient, effective and safe training. Andrew and I have been in touch since that time.

I truly am delighted that Andrew has offered to make this contribution to the guest writer's section. His work is very easy to digest and it is sure to be of great value to all visitors and members.

All the best,


The Nervous System

by Andrew Adams

As mentioned in my previous article, the Nervous system is one of the three elements that make up the kinetic chain and also its controlling element. Not only does it allow us to learn and store movement patterns, it also monitors our environment and our reaction to it whilst regulating and monitoring the functioning of the body.

The Nervous system does much more than simply allowing us to learn movements and make improvisations to suit the task at hand. It is the body's “control centre” and as such is constantly assessing data through the senses and nerves in order to control the body and react accordingly to internal and external stimuli.

A simple example of this is that if we went out into the snow in a T-shirt, our body would asses that we were cold through our temperature receptors; known as“Thermo receptors”. This information would be relayed back, assessed and the correct response activated, e.g. we would start to shiver and then seek extra warmth.

As martial artists we rely heavily on sensory feedback to tell us if we are in pain, if our muscles are being stretched too far or how fast/powerfully a technique should be performed. In addition, the Nervous system controls the Endocrine system in order to release and regulate hormones: “Hormones act as catalysts in that they affect the physiological activities of other cells of the body” (McGuinness 2006). The “fight or flight” response is a typical example of the Nervous and Endocrine systems working together to effect a response to external stimuli.

Geoff Thompson has done extensive work examining this response and training people how to use it to maximum effect. It is the physiological result of this response that you feel every time you take a grading or spar with the best fighter in the dojo. This reaction is perfectly normal but unfortunately as a result of poor education, many students label these physiological effects as fear. Unfortunately many instructors do not have the knowledge to “brief” their students on this subject. As a result, many often feel that the feelings they experience in these situations are unique to them and eventually give up training as they think that they are “not cut out for it”. I frequently talk to my students and explain what they may feel in advance of a grading or competition. Most find that the knowledge is very comforting and a great help when the big day arrives.

The “reflex arc” is another action of the nervous system that we often exploit as martial artists. As its name suggests, the reaction to a harmful stimulus is so fast that it is termed as a “reflex”. The reflex arc bypasses the brain and movement is achieved without any conscious thought.

If you were to touch a hot stove, the sensory receptors would send a message to the spinal cord and from there motor nerves would be stimulated in order to move the hand away. The pain is then registered by the brain a split second later.

We often exploit this reaction in martial arts by the use of pressure points or striking sensitive areas. The recoiling action of our opponents often gives us the opening or time to perform a second strike or move away from a threatening situation.

If we are to understand and influence movements both in ourselves and our opponents, it is vital that we gain a fundamental working knowledge of the nervous system and its component parts. As we will highlight in this article, as martial artists we not only rely an effective and fast movement, but also knowledge of the autonomous reactions of the nervous system when facing an opponent.


Structure of the nervous system

The Nervous system can be thought of as the:

Central nervous system (CNS)

Brain and the Spinal cord: The brain is made up of two main hemispheres which are the Cerebrum and Cerebellum. It is the Cerebellum that controls the skeletal muscle; stores learnt skills and controls balance.

The Hypothalamus is a part of the brain that regulates the pituitary gland and in turn, this regulates and controls the Endocrine system.

The spinal cord is the communication link to and from the brain. It acts on commands from the brain to achieve movement and also receives and responds to information from the Peripheral Nervous system.

The Spinal cord is rather like a Platoon of troops. Whilst it is ultimately controlled by the General, it can also react to threats effectively without first seeking orders.

Peripheral nervous system (PNS)

Whilst the functions of the PNS are vast, as martial artists we are primarily interested with the elements that enable us to learn and perform our techniques and apply them as necessary. We are therefore chiefly concerned about coordinating our muscles whist receiving feedback from our sensory receptors to allow adjustments to be made.

In the interest of simplicity, we will concentrate on the motor and sensory nerves that are employed to achieve or regulate movement.

Sensory receptors are located all over the body and are constantly sending feedback to the spinal cord and brain via the dorsal or posterior horn. When practicing in the dojo, the receptors could be telling us if we are experiencing pain/pressure, if we are hot/cold, if our joints are experiencing dangerous force or if our muscles are being stretched too far or fast.

Motor nerves exit the anterior or front portion of the spinal cord and transmit commands from the CNS to various structures in order to participate movement.

As previously mentioned, if an immediate threat is detected e.g. a scold, the spinal cord can by-pass the brain to facilitate movement.

Motor Learning and movement

Having covered some of the theory of the Nervous system, we can now understand its component parts and its relevance to us as martial artists. We can now examine how we learn movement.

All of us walked into the dojo for the first time once and put ourselves through our very first martial arts lesson. I am willing to bet that virtually every one of us felt uncomfortable as we tried to perform movements that felt totally “alien” to us. In fact a good proportion of students never come back after this first lesson as a direct result of feeling “out of place” or awkward. Many instructors, in their eagerness to make the students first lesson interesting compound this problem still further. They try to teach too many techniques in that first lesson leaving the poor student totally bewildered.

Humans can only digest a certain amount of information in one go, therefore it would be wise to only concentrate on a couple of techniques and ensure that they are achieved before moving on.

In my professional work, I often do gym inductions for new users of the gym where we demonstrate how the equipment works and talk about health and safety. If we assume for example that my new gym user can take in and understand 10 pieces of information in one go, it would be foolish for me to demonstrate how the 68 pieces of equipment in my gym work. I usually demonstrate a maximum of 7 or 8 pieces of kit as otherwise people start to struggle.

In the Kinetic chain we examined the risks of learning faulty movement patterns. It is vital that new students are given adequate supervision, encouragement and praise. If a student is allowed to learn a movement incorrectly, it is very hard to undo. Crossley 2006 states:

“Ingrained patterns of movement take about 300 repetitions to learn. If a client has learned a movement incorrectly it takes roughly 5000 repetitions to relearn that skill and reform a correct motor programme. This highlights the need to instil good technique right from the start and regress any exercise if it is being performed incorrectly”.

When undertaking a movement or technique for the first time, the body will first select a motor programme from its memory bank that is similar, and then adapt it to suit the task at hand. During this time the body will be assessing feedback from sensory receptors and making adjustments as each repetition is performed. It is vital that during this stage, effective coaching is employed which should include plenty of demonstrations and verbal feedback. As the student progresses, less feedback will be required until finally the technique can be performed perfectly without the need for external coaching. Corrections can often be made by the student at this advanced stage.

Ultimately, when someone has been training for some time, they will know whether a technique “feels” right or not. This is particularly important when trying to understand Kata Bunkai. You will often know whether the application is likely to be effective or work by the way it “feels”. This instinctive feeling can only be achieved by numerous repetitions of the basics in order to forge those new skills. Jonny Wilkinson (World Class English Rugby Player) has often said that he knows at the moment of striking the rugby ball whether it will go over the post or not. Snooker players will know at the moment of striking the cue ball whether a shot is likely to be successful. No matter what martial art we study, all of us will be able to relate to this in some way.

Motor learning can be simplified into the following 3 stages:

Stage 1:

Movement is often clumsy or ineffective. A great deal of coaching is required coupled with sensory feedback.

Stage 2:

Movement is more deliberate less sensory feedback is required, coupled with less need for correction and coaching.

Stage 3:

The movement becomes automatic or “second nature”. Mistakes can usually be self rectified.

I think the following words from one of my old Sensei best summarises effective motor learning.

“If you want to be good at Karate you have to practise, practise, practise! Whilst it's great to be told you are doing “it” right, you should aim to “know” when you re doing it right.”

Andrew Adams © Copyright 2007

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