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Neil Cook
Neil Cook's picture
Training out bad habits

Hi all,

This is my first attempt at writing a blog, i would like to get people thoughts please. Thank you to Graham Palmer for helping me with editing

“Ooops, sorry”

“Ooops, sorry”, if you’ve been doing martial arts with sparring then you have probably said these words. Usually it immediately follows hitting someone, perhaps when you were trying not to or a little harder than you meant. Often beginners will stop completely and start asking “are you alright?” These things happen, when you to learn to swim you will need to get wet so learning kicks and punches means you will hit/get hit. When training for self-protection however this can be a very bad habit. Let me explain, your brain relies heavily on experience to work out what is going on in any given situation and then what to do about it. Essentially it tries to remember what happened last time, what you did and the outcome. Let’s say you are a brand new student in a striking art, once you have been shown basic striking you would probably hit focus mitts/bag to practice but eventually you will be standing in front of a live person. You are going through your drill/spar and ‘whack’, contact is made. Pretty much everyone the first time you hit someone will stop and apologise, and why wouldn’t you? Probably because for many years as a child you were taught that hitting people is wrong, which for most of the time it is. It is important though to not ignore the context, self-protection, meaning if you need to hit someone there is a damn good reason for it. Back to your drill, you make contact and “ooops, sorry”, if you keep doing that you are conditioning your brain to react a certain way to the circumstance, literally programming it. Don’t forget you are practicing hitting people, which is the goal. Last thing you want happening is stopping mid assault to say sorry to the guy trying to kick you head in! I am not saying for a second that every drill you do should be full contact, that’s stupid, for a start you would run out of people to train with plus the obvious harm to your health, nor am I saying contact should never be made. The key point here is training out these natural responses, in the context they do more harm than good. So when contact is made just keep going, don’t stop, keep doing whatever you are doing, only once it has ended you can say sorry. That’s if you need to, you are training to hit people, I don’t see footballers saying sorry to the oppositions goal keeper when scoring. With continued training you can gage if the contact was too much or even not enough, then once the drill is over you can say sorry.

The person being hit has an important part to play, they also need to continue. When sparring they should hit back but it is essential that the contact is not escalated and hurt the new student. When this happens your brain says to itself “hang on, when I hit someone I get hurt” meaning that you will not want to hit someone again. I would say most people have at some time seen or been part of a lower grade tag a higher one only for the latters ego to demand blood in payment. Doing this physically punishes the student for doing what they are supposed to be doing, if you are the higher grade then suck it up! Especially if the higher grade is the instructor, take it as a compliment that your student is getting better. The other side of the coin is that you experience being hit, how it feels, how you got hit, was it because your defence was off and could you avoid it in future. You can learn so much from failure, the dojo is where you want to have all the mistakes done so you don’t make them for real, and if it does happen then you have been there before so know what to expect.

There may be people out there saying “well in real life I wouldn’t do that”, if that is you then I have a little test to show how deep this sort of conditioning can go. Every native speaker of the English language knows what the word ‘stop’ means, it is used all the time for a single purpose and can’t be misinterpreted. When you are next sparring at some point shout at your opponent “STOP”, if you want to put your hands up (palm facing away) do this also. I can guarantee that your opponent will either stop completely or at least pause long enough for you to have a free shot. We are so used to this command that we get hard wired by it, even if your art uses the Asian vocabulary (Yame in Japanese). Even this can be trained out though, try this again after doing it a few times and it won’t work, the same way “ooops sorry” can be trained out. In our dojo we use the word ‘zero’ when we need to stop at any time, this way we avoid using the ‘S’ word completely.

There will of course be some people who take to it quicker than others, but it the ones who find hitting people emotionally difficult that need the help most. Ultimately they may still not like to do it, but they should be at least capable if needed.

I hope I have given the reader something to think about.

Happy hitting

Neil Cook

MCM180's picture

Along similar lines, this was just posted at "Enter the dojo":

Warning: Some crude humor, as always with Master Ken.

Mark B
Mark B's picture

Nice piece Neil. A few years ago I asked a similar question of people with a post on this forum. Essentially, I was asking if people could apply the same aggression on a person in a self defence situation as they do on pads - pads are not people! Having the ability to destroy pads in the dojo does not necessarily foster a mind set that can overcome the years of social conditioning that says we mustn't apply impact on people, regardless of provocation. In my dojo we are aware of the excellent points you've made, and the adults certainly don't do it, and in most cases neither do the juniors. Place these issues into the real world. A young person who comes from a background that doesn't have the same social conditions at home will possibly have been brought up to hit and not worry about the person in front of them, or the potential outcomes (injury/arrest /court) and this attitude can often only grow as that person becomes older. This scenario combines the points you make with the issues I raised a few years ago. 1- while the person with "better" social conditioning (person A) is thinking whether they should strike first, the opponent (person B) is already doing it. 2-while the person A is worrying about any potential damage they might cause, (even thought they blast holes on pads in training) person B has no such internal strife and will go about there work. I do think many dojo need a little more honesty in so much as" what works", and a dose of reality with regards as to "how it will be", (if they train for the original reason the arts were formulated in the first place) Thanks for sharing your thoughts Regards

Neil Cook
Neil Cook's picture

Hi Mark, I know exactly what you mean, the right mental attitude is so important. We have a couple of pads with faces drawn on, that way it makes it easier to treat the pad as a person. Rory Miller has written great stuff on the subject (which is where the face idea came from) Thank you for taking the time to read my article Neil

Iain Abernethy
Iain Abernethy's picture

A really good article Neil and I included links back to it in yesterday’s Practical Karate Weekly and the BCA’s / WCA’s Combat Corner.

Neil Cook wrote:
I would say most people have at some time seen or been part of a lower grade tag a higher one only for the latters ego to demand blood in payment. Doing this physically punishes the student for doing what they are supposed to be doing, if you are the higher grade then suck it up!

A very good point and a bad habit in more ways than one. The ability to “switch it on” in order to fight aggressively and effectively is obviously very important. However, the ability to “switch it off” is just as important.

What we have in the above example is a higher grade letting their ego take control and have them react aggressively (maybe even fearfully) to what should be an agreed part of training. This shows an inability to maintain emotional control and that’s a big no-no from a self-protection perspective.

If people say the wrong thing, insult us, accidentally bump into us, etc then we need to be able to keep emotional control and the ego in check. If we can’t do this in the dojo when helping lower grades progress, then it reveals a character flaw that will be problematic when it comes self-protection. There are time to switch it on in training, and there are times to switch it off.

Being unable to maintain emotional control (i.e. deescalate yourself) means you are every unlikely to be able to deescalate others. You will be a “hair trigger” resorting to conflict when it is not necessary.

You will be defending “ego” and reacting violently to societal faux pas as well as escalating the lack of emotional control in others into unnecessary and illegal conflict. We have a legal right to self-defence; we have no legal right to “put someone in their place” because they upset us. You will be creating violent situations when there would have been none if you had been able to keep control.

If we have to get physical, then the ability to switch it on is vital. But for true self-protection – where a physical repose is a back up to better options – then we also need de-escalation skills too. And to deescalate others, we need to be able to deescalate ourselves first. Bataris box and all that.

If my attitude and behaviours are ones of aggression, then I am very likely to have aggression coming straight back at me. If I can stay outwardly calm, then I am in a much better to position to deescalate because I will encourage calmness. And, if that fails, then the pre-emptive strike will be all the more unexpected and effective (at lot less shocking when a seemingly clam person strikes; you will be expecting it more from an aggressive person).

Of course, you can’t reason with the unreasonable. Not every situation can be de-escalated. Some people will be committed to violence no matter what you do and say. Indeed, some will have woken up that morning with intention of physically assaulting someone before the day is out. However, many situations can be deescalated. It therefore needs to be one of the tools in our repertoire.

More on verbal de-escalation in this podcast: http://iainabernethy.co.uk/content/verbal-de-escalation-podcast

If we are truly training for self-protection, then we need drills that allow us to practise remaining calm, utilising de-escalation skills, and that don’t always end in conflict. Including dialogue is good, but if it always ends in someone getting smashed then the training is lopsided and incomplete. We need drills that can go either way.

We need drills where the “bad guy(s)” will allow themselves to be de-escalated (if a good job is done, and which will end in conflict if a bad job is done). And we also need drills that end in conflict even when a good job was made of trying to deescalate (you cannot reason with the unreasonable and not every situation can be deescalated.).

Back to the core point, the ability to de-escalate is in large part dependent upon the ability not to be a “hair-trigger” with a fragile ego. There are times to “let the beast off the leash” and there are times to stay calm. Habitually jumping to aggression, irrespective of what the situation demands, is going to see that individual come unstruck.

In the example given, the higher grade got hit because they are engaging in a drill where they can get hit. As you say they should have “sucked it up”. That would help the lower grade in their progression, and it would show that the higher grade has the emotional control that true self-protection demands.

Great article Neil! Keep then coming!

All the best,


Tony Smith
Tony Smith's picture

Great article! Here is something I have incorporated in my training for all those people out there who wear glasses. I’ve worn glasses since I was seven years old (Now 50 and unfortunately still not blessed with the gift of sight ;-) ) One day while working with a student my glasses where knocked loose, my instinct was refocused on trying to catch my glasses instead of finishing the technique, for several reasons actually, but one was for cost, for anyone who wears prescription glasses knows how much they cost. Therefore, I try whenever possible to wear a cheap set of safety glasses while working self-defense techniques to try and retrain my mind not to instinctively catch them if they get knocked loose. Taking them off often works, but having a pair on that I don’t worry about damaging helps to retrain my brain not to grab for them when they get knocked loose.  

JWT's picture

Very nice article Neil! Very good points.  

Good to see another person using 'Zero'!  

All the best  

John Titchen