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Stress and Realism in the Martial Arts

by George Mattson

Stress and Realism in the martial arts:

[From Van Canna’s "Realism" Forum. An important topic that is normally not discussed in a dojo and one where no pat answers exist. I’ve written about it and in accompanying chapters, discuss what I consider to be the best, albeit, limited solutions.   The subject is part of my new "memories" book, which will be published for next year’s 25th anniversary SummerFest. Thanks to Gary S. for opening up the topic on Van’s forum. . . based on his personal experiences.  GEM] 

GEM & his CZ500 Race Bike
I was an avid motorcyclist back in the 70s and 80s. I had a Czechoslovakian race bike (CZ 500) that I raced through the Plymouth reservations three to four times a week with my good friend Dick Bettencourt, who owned the local Honda/Suzuki dealership in West Bridgewater, Ma.

Susan will remember the many days I would come home after a five-hour romp in the woods taking off my leathers, and displaying a body filled with bruises caused by the many falls resulting from the learning process of progressing from a bicycle to 250cc Honda street cycle to a high powered racing motorcycle.

I persevered, and eventually became adept enough to actually enter some amateur motocross races and further progressing to agree on participating in a month-long advanced motorcycle trek. Beginning in the black mountains of California and progressing to Mexico, where five of us retraced the Baja 500 motorcycle race, an experience I’ll never forget.

N.H. International Cross Country RallyThe point of my story, is to relate the original stress and tension of simply getting on a high-powered motorcycle and experiencing the thrill of speeding through a narrow wooded trail, inches from protruding branches tree stumps and over gaping gullies and down steep ravines and through water and mud valleys, attempting to keep up with the breakneck speed of the experienced riders.

Fast forward a month, countless bruises and aches and pains accompanying the training, and suddenly all of what appeared originally to be unattainable, suddenly became commonplace and as uneventful as driving a car.

Fast forward 30 years-and not having sat on a motorcycle all that time, and suddenly finding yourself on the seat of a simple 250 CC motor scooter and once again discovering both the thrill and stress of performing a new and different experience. Deciding to go on a 10 mile jaunt, I discovered at the end of the 10 miles, that every muscle in my body was sore. In spite of the fact that I did not encounter anything dangerous or out of the ordinary, my body exerted enough tension so as to drain all energy from my body.

NH RallyMy feeling is, that anyone studying the martial arts, will benefit tremendously, from the internalizing and reinforcement of fighting techniques that come from the repetitive performance of Kata, drills, Bunkai and free fighting. However, I equate this type of familiarization with fighting as more of a dry run than being ready to actually engage in a real life fight with inexperienced and tried/true streetfighter. It is important, that all martial art instructors realize the limitations and expectations resulting from their training. Having an arsenal of tools and the training to use those tools in the confines and safety of the dojo, is not the same as being surprised and overrun by one or more highly experienced (to the actual feeling of being hit, bloodied, incapacitated-on both sides of the giving/taking spectrum.) street Thugs who regularly engage in this type of fighting.

For many years, I believed it possible to gain all fighting abilities, “streetsmarts” and potential to actually successfully utilize the tools of the traditional training in an actual and real street fight. True, occasionally a traditional martial artist had the confidence and was able to quickly utilize his training without mishap. However, it has been my experience in interviewing my students who found themselves in real fights, to have fared well initially until any setback occurred. At this point, a realization set in, that in fact, the fight was going in a direction that the individual had never experienced before. It was at this moment, that the fight entered a more conscious level-a level that became ineffective and one where the traditional tools were not available. And generally at this point, the traditionalists reverted to former, more instinctive techniques, that had little semblance to the traditional tools of his art.

When some of this information and data began to appear, the natural reaction on my part was simple: "you must study harder; you must have more faith in your traditional weapons and more confidence in your ability!"

From a personal experience standpoint, nearly all of my fighting experiences reinforced my belief in the style – in traditional martial arts, and in the believe that finely tuned tools of the art could be imprinted sufficiently in one’s psyche so that in the time of need they would magically appear and do the job intended.

My brother John and I owned a pub/restaurant/nightclub in Brockton, Massachusetts, one of the highest crime areas in the country. I could write a book about the four years John and I would alternate evenings acting as doorman/bouncer and the different strategies John and I used in dealing with the bikers, drunks, troublemakers and thugs that both frequented our place and at times fine-tuned our skills in both verbal and physical self-defense.

My philosophy was a little different than John’s – John would hit first and buy the person a beer later. I tended to attempt talking the person out of causing trouble, using whatever tactic possible-and only resorting to violence as a last resort. Whenever I actually had to fight, the encounter couldn’t technically be called a fight, because I would always do something that surprised the other person, with enough speed, power and intensity that the fight was over before it technically got started.

I’m not proud of what I had to do, but whatever success I had, I owe to my training.

In one instance, late on a Saturday evening when I was on the door and we were closing up for the night, the staff and I were enjoying a "last round" with the band upstairs, when we heard a loud crashing sound outside the building-as though someone had hit the building with their car. We all ran downstairs and discovered a very large and muscular individual placing our marquee that was attached to our building, into the back of a large vehicle filled with other thugs. Without thinking I ran to the car and punched the individual square in the nose as hard as I could. His nose, which appeared to have been broken many times before, spurted blood all over and he dropped to the ground suddenly. I thought he was out and I wanted to get out of the area before the others got out of their car, so I grabbed the marquee and placed it along side of our building and headed for the door.

As I was walking to the door I heard a voice behind me say "so you want to fight? Let’s see what you got!" At this point my demeanor suddenly changed. Here was a guy I had hit with everything I had, square in the face, and there he was, blood running down his face and clothing, staggering towards me with this gang behind him as backup. At that moment, I entered a space that I had never experienced throughout my (at that time, less than 20 years) many years of training-a moment of self doubt and concern about my ability to deal with this situation. Instead of a confident and instant/instinctive preemptive secondary attack, I hesitated and thought over my options-all the while watching this monster approaching me in his boxers’ stance and southpaw hand position. I told the people who were gathering behind me to take the marquee inside and call the police, hoping this action might scare the individual and his people to return to his car and go home.

Instead of defusing the situation my request seemed to encourage and intensify the thugs’ desire to fight. My ego wouldn’t allow me to retreat into the confines of the building where I could lock the door and wait for the police. Instead, I consciously forced myself to take the alternative action-to escalate the encounter and do whatever I had to do to take this bully down. With my reflexes weakened by the late evening celebrating and cocktails, I decided it best to attack first with both punches and kicks. Unfortunately my first punch glanced off his head and he was able to actually deflect a strong front kick by simply flinching as he lunged backwards while grabbing my shirt and ripping it from my body.

At this point I decided that this was a fight best left for another day, and while the thug was trying to regain his balance I turned and ran into the building, preferring to listen to his taunts and requests for me to return rather than going another round. To him and his buddies, this was a regular form of evening entertainment. Win, lose, or draw-it was all the same. But to me, this was a strange and harrowing experience; one that normal and average citizens don’t experience and certainly not an embarrassing situation for a martial arts’ instructor to have-where his normally effective “one punch – one knockout” traditional technique failed.

As any traditional karate practitioner can attest, such a failure is one that stays with you for a long time. It is an experience that you relive over and over, attempting to determine where your traditional martial arts let you down; what could you have done better, prepared more fully, so the next time it happens the results will be more predictable and reassuring.

Since that experience, I’ve talked with many other martial artists, both students of mine and Associates from other styles, who have been in real fights-real encounters where their dojo experiences didn’t “kick in” as anticipated. Generally, people only wish to talk about proud moments in their karate. . . “. . . he was going for his knife, so I punched him and broke his face and as he was falling I kick him in the gut so hard he puked all over himself." O.K.. . .

Then I would tell him about my one "bad" experience and how I felt my karate had let me down, or worse, how I let my karate down. Invariably, people that I spoke with all had their "bad" experiences as well… although it often took awhile to draw these experiences out of them. To some extent they were able to bury the experience or pretend it never happened.

It is my hope that each of you reading this book, will never find yourself in a life or death struggle. But if you are a martial artist, and you wish to be as well prepared as possible for this unforeseeable and mind boggling situation, please heed my words of advice: practice and train the skills found in your traditional martial arts. This is essential for building the tools necessary for providing you with the best chance of surviving a violent encounter. I liken this to the experience of learning how to drive a car. First study the textbooks where you learn the rules of the road, you learn the tools and implements of the car and finally you take the car out on an empty parking lot and become comfortable and familiar with the actual driving of the car. But if you stop there, and only practice your driving within the parking lot, it is like mastering all of your self-defense skills without ever testing them or without ever using them under realistic conditions.

Certainly, you would not turn your car over to a driver, who only had experience performing maneuvers in an empty parking lot. How can you expect to deal with a realistic fighting situation, with tools you’ve only used in a controlled environment of your dojo?
How can you take your martial arts training to the next level? How can you test your skills in a realistic yet safe environment? If you haven’t asked yourself this question, or if your instructor doesn’t have the answer, or worse yet, is completely unaware of the importance of considering this question, then you are in serious trouble should you ever find yourself in a situation where your first line of defense fails you, and what you thought to be a subconscious action/reaction to danger fails and you are left with the possibility of fighting in a zone you had never experienced before. . . be prepared for a new and possibly unpleasant experience.

Having said all this and in the process, relating a particularly bad experience in my memory bank, I can only forewarn you about something that most of the senior martial artists are well acquainted with. We don’t condone fighting and we promote a tactical retreat whenever possible over salvaging our ego and doing something stupid. The bottom line remains-there are no guarantees in life and certainly none when it comes to violent encounters. There is nothing in the way of a perfect self-defense course. But, if you wish to give yourself the best odds of survival, in that specific encounter that is highly unlikely to ever occur in your life, then your training should include realistic scenario training.
"Do or do not. there is no try!"

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