So here I am sitting at the poolside of a private villa in the small Spanish town of Quesada. I’m knocking back a native bottle of San Miguel kicking back ready to start this article. You on the other hand are probably reading this piece shackled to a desk in an office or from some computer tucked away in a dank corner of your house, both a far cry from the palm tree lined garden I’m slumming it in, which is also sporting a lovely Spanish breeze by the way! It’s a hard life!

So what does all this have to do with Martial Arts? Perhaps a better question would be how am I going to turn this gleeful boast into a meaningful article?

Well, I’m currently on a quiet break in Spain (which you may have already concluded) and have finally decided to catch up on some Tai Chi and long put off work. The game plan was simple, practice some Qi Gong and Form by the pool, head to the fridge for beer, grab the laptop and extension cable, set up the sun lounger and crack on with my afternoon.

The Tai Chi went ahead unhindered. My beer, laptop, extension cable, and sun lounger were all exactly where they were supposed to be and if I may be so bold to quote Hannibal from the A-Team, “I love it when a plan comes together!”

All is fine and dandy as the gods appear to be smiling on me. Then without a shred of a warning the universe conspires against me. I find out the combination of my laptops UK power pack, European plug converter and Spanish extension cable are not getting along. Twos but a minor setback, after finding an alternative extension cable my laptop is powered again.

Everything is again at peace in the world once more. Well at least until I try to type something and notice that this blessed sun is actually obscuring the screen completely. After fetching and erecting the sun parasol along with some careful angling of screen I can now actually read the text. Surely the game was now afoot? Alas not, due to the way I’ve had to move my laptop I’m now being blinded by the sun. My last obstacle was overcome by borrowing my girlfriend’s sun glasses!

So the simple notion of writing an article has become far more complex than I originally envisaged. I’ve had to change the tools used, bring some new ones into the equation and ended up wearing a pair of girlie sun glasses! Funny how things sometimes end up more complicated than we originally think, t’aint it?

Strange as it may seem the clumsy way I went about approaching this article pretty much resembles the process we all go through trying to learn Martial Arts.

When we first go to a lesson we all have this game plan in our heads. We may have already watched the class and have a pretty fair idea of how we are going to put this plan into action. Think back to your first lesson, how badly did this little ill conceived reality come crashing down on you? Before the lesson we all knew exactly how to move, however once we actually attempted the movements we all found that our bodies aren’t particularly willing to play along. We end up discovering that we are tumbling clumsy oafs and not actually the next Bruce Lee. Most find it extremely disconcerting when they find out that there is a vast difference in what they think they are doing compared with what they actually are!

The simple reason for this is that the part of the brain that does the thinking is vastly different from the part that actually does the action. For the limited scope of this article the brain can simply be separated into two sections, conscious and subconscious. A good analogy for the function of the two parts of the brain is that of a SWAT team and their Chiefs. Our conscious brain can be thought of (from a Martial point of view) as the HQ command post where the Chiefs live. The subconscious part of the brain can be thought of as the SWAT team.

At HQ, the Chiefs have the luxury of time which allows them to plan strategies and devise ways for the SWAT team to be put into action. They have the time to debate various courses of action, discuss the pro’s and cons of said actions and, if needed, plan contingencies. The SWAT team on the other hand is out in the field and as such any hesitation could be catastrophic. A SWAT team has to respond immediately to the chaotic nature of life in the line of fire. There is no time for stratagem and hindsight is only the prize of those that survive the encounter.

In our general day to day lives we whisk along at a nice gentle pace which allows our conscious brain to plan exactly which course of action is needed to be done. It then makes its intention known to the subconscious brain. In our SWAT team analogy this could be thought of as the Chiefs back at HQ telling the SWAT team in the field where they need to be, the SWAT team will then report back and ask for further orders. In the general day to day running of things this system works well. The Chiefs can make educated decisions and then the team in the field can execute the order. In our day to day lives this is how we operate for the majority of the time, unfortunately though this is also how most of us practice our Martial Arts. Our subconscious brain is constantly waiting for orders from the conscious.

Imagine now this system of second guessing and tactical debate in a live situation. Picture the SWAT team in the field under fire whilst constantly waiting for orders from HQ. Once the orders have been completed the SWAT then reports back to HQ and waits for further instruction. Under live fire this system of decision making just isn’t quick enough and would probably end up with a dead SWAT team. Combat requires instant action executed on very little tactical information and leaves virtually time for decision making.

Like the HQ our conscious brain is fantastic at analysing and contemplating decisions but requires time to compile its plans. The subconscious brain like the SWAT team is designed to act quickly without hesitation. An ability of the subconscious that is often overlooked though is its ability to remember tasks that it has previously done and draw on past experience. With our SWAT team this analogy can be likened to them drawing on past training and field experience. As we’ve already noted once under fire in the field the SWAT team simply doesn’t have the time to run decisions through HQ, it needs to act and act bloody quickly! Not having the ability or time to make complicated decisions it has to resort to repeating patterns learnt from past drills and experience. This is exactly how our subconscious brain responds during combat!

Once we enter into combat our conscious brain switches off and hands control over to the subconscious, it deploys the SWAT team. We are now at the mercy of our subconscious and its ability to respond appropriately to any situation we are in. To do this it references back to past patterns and then will choose the most appropriate course of action. If it encounters something that it hasn’t already experienced it is forced to contact HQ (the conscious brain) to come up with a suitable game plan. As we’ve already discussed contacting HQ takes time and will cause a delay in the resulting action. During a physical conflict this hesitation could cost you dearly.

To maximise our chances of success in a conflict we need to have a subconscious that has enough experience to draw on to respond appropriately. In order to build this experience we need to keep our subconscious in the “field” as much as possible. Now we have two ways of doing this, through live encounters and training. What we strive for is to give our subconscious brain as much tactical experience as possible. A live encounter can be dangerous and therefore is not an ideal place to make tactical mistakes. Training in a controlled environment is obviously a much safer and the more ideal avenue for building experience. This is why the quality of our training is paramount.

Many Martial Artists train fixed patterns with very little variation. If “A” happens we must respond with “B”. We then train this “A” equals “B” response pattern. The equation “A” equals “B” is very rarely tested in a more dynamic situations and as such our subconscious brain is now accustomed with “A” always equalling “B”. This is sort of subconscious pattern drilling is what is often referred to as “Dead” training. The methodology behind this sort of training simply lacks the dynamic nature for the subconscious brain to build any form of useful tactical experience. Unfortunately the only chance these people have of testing this theory in a dynamic environment is in a live encounter.

Let’s think back to our SWAT team in the field and now they’re under fire, the enemy is going to storm their position. They recognize the formation the enemy is using and respond in exactly the same manner as they have done during their fixed training methods. This time however the enemy is being dynamic and diverting from the pattern they are “supposed” to be using. How does the SWAT team respond now? They are forced to contact HQ for further instructions. Their enemy has responded in a way that they had not prepared for. Experience like this could cost them their lives.

My plan to write this article was formed in my conscious brain and was then passed to my subconscious brain to execute. During the execution of this plan I experienced various hurdles which caused my subconscious brain to refer back to the conscious brain to find out what to do next. However the next time my subconscious is ordered to prepare the area for me it now has a whole host of options from which to base its actions.

I often quote a lyric from an old Jamaican song called “Croaking Lizard” which states “Who feels it knows it!” Until you’ve actually experienced or felt something you cannot really know it. Anything other than actual experience is a calculated guess or a plausible theory at best. Until you’ve actually tried it, you can really never know exactly how it will work. Our brains are fantastic tools, but they need to be put in the right situations to be able to grow and develop. During a combat situation our “thinking” conscious brain is bypassed and our “acting” subconscious brain kicks into action. Like the SWAT team it relies on its past experience to allow it to respond quickly under stress. The more tactical experience you subconscious brain has the more dynamically it will be able to respond. Its tactical on the job experience is that counts!

Too many of us think far too much and use our conscious brain excessively when training. This is pointless because this part of the brain is bypassed when we really need it. Our subconscious learns on the job and our conscious brain decides what the job to be done is. When we start training we should use simple drills to start training our subconscious brain. Then we need to take this basic training and put it into more dynamic free flowing drills. Decide where we need to be and what the outcome should be using our conscious brain then allow our subconscious SWAT teams figure out how to get the task completed. Our gyms and dojos provide us with a safe environment in which to build our tactical experience. This experience needs to be felt, not thought. Only once we’ve been there do we really know how something will actually play out.

So, in conclusion, whether it’s writing an article by the poolside or learning Martial Arts, those that feel it are the only ones who really know it!
Gavin King
Follow me on twitter @taichigav