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Friday, 24 February 2012

Taking a Hit

I was listening to the Jeremy Vine show today (Friday  24th Feb) on Radio 2 and the discussion was about what to do in a bar room brawl. There was a "self defence expert" in the studio and in response to his advice  Jeremy Vine  said something along the lines of "it's all very well but no-one ever trains to take a hit. And when you get hit the shock of it freezes you up". The reply of the "expert" was that training to take hits is dangerous - because one hit can kill you, so if you train to take hits you will let people hit you in a fight and one hit could kill you.

Now reading between the lines - and I may be being unfair here as I don't know the guy personally - what I took from that was  "no we don't have people getting hit in class because they don't like it" and/or  "we don't have a mechanism in place for training either impact management or fear control". Because these are the two major things you get from taking hits in training - when carried out properly. I felt obliged (Outraged of Bedford) to e-mail in a response, which Jeremy read out (fame at last!) along the lines of "in our training we place emphasis on learning to take hits because in the chaotic situation of a bar room brawl, you are likely to get hit. If you have never experienced this before you might freeze. If you experience this under the right conditions you will learn how to cope with the impact and shock of taking a hit".

Seeing people take hits is very common in Systema - there are a lot of Youtube clips of Mikhail, Vladimir and other instructor hitting people, with a range of effects and for a range of reasons. The purpose of this work is not always obvious so here are a few of my own thoughts on different types of taking hit training and the reasons for doing it

Iron Shirt
No, I've not gone all domestic, Iron Shirt (or Golden Bell) is a term used in Chinese martial arts to denote external or internal conditioning of the body to withstand strikes. The particular method I went through prior to Systema training involved progressive levels of limb knocking, striking the body and limbs with bamboo rods, complex qigong methods, the use of herbal linaments and other types of "toughening". It was effective to a point - in demos I used to have wood broken over my arms and legs (cost a fortune at B&Q), audience members punch me in the stomach and so on. My colleague Dave Nicholson was particularly good at this, he's not a big lad but I've seen him take hits from boxers twice his size with no effect.

This type of work has developed into a mainstay of martial art demonstrations - I'm sure you've seen Shaolin monks having iron bars broken over their heads and similar. How much of this is down to "internal power" and how much to body mechanics and showmanship is open to debate.

Tough Guys
 Shaolin monks aren't the only ones breaking things. There have been numerous circus performers, strongmen, wrestlers, boxers or just out and out tough guys who have demonstrated similar skills - Houdini is probably the most famous example. Their methods included muscle control, conditioning, showmanship or just being able to deal with pain.

Why Learn to Take Strikes?
To me the question is more "why would you not?". If we narrow our outlook to just purely fighting - can you name one boxer, MMA champion or bare-knuckle fighter who has never been hit in their career? Even one? And these are guys who are fighting in a controlled environment (albeit a tough one) against one other person. Take that out to a tear up, ruck, bar fight - and what do you think the chances are of never being hit? Virtually non-existent I'd say. So it seems eminently sensible fight preparation to learn how to deal with a punch.

The question then is how to go about this - methods can range from crude to the refined. Whichever method you choose needs to fulfill three criteria:

1. it should not cause long term physical or psychological damage
2. it should be practical
3. it should be properly structured and progressive

 Point one is the first major problem. Taking hits is often associated with being tough, macho grimaces, braced posture. Systema confounds and confuses by encouraging people to relax. Through understanding the fear process, through understanding selective tension, through understanding the power of breathing, we take hits with none of the the associated "toughness". This method teaches the body to deal with stress rather than just getting used to it and ignoring the pain. Pain is there for a reason - you can de-sensitize parts of the body with stick, bottles and iron bars, but is that a healthy thing to do? Same goes for the mind, people can put themselves into trance-states and put skewers through their skin, but is this a good thing?

Learning to absorb impact means lessening damage, not ignoring it. The associated understanding that comes from dealing with fear and impact has, in my experience, a much more beneficial effect on a person than shutting themselves off from the experience and retreating to a mental fortress.
The second point relates to the first, in that to brace yourself or "prepare your energy" to take a strike takes time. If you need a special posture or the correct conditions for your method to work it is of limited practical use. Systema work is initially in a set, steady position, but as it progress it crosses over into regular training - so you learn to cope with hits on the move and from all angles.

Point three is important. There is a fine line between getting someone to confront their fears and reinforcing them. Sometimes being pushed into the deep end a bit can be beneficial, other times a steadier approach is called for - that is for the instructor to determine according to the experience of the people involved. Having said that, because the Systema method relies largely on simple breathing and a bit of movement, it only takes a couple of minutes to teach the basic outline of the practice. There is no need for prolonged meditation practices or complicated,  expensive routines - it is actually very simple (but not neccesarily easy!)

Training to get Hit?
I sometimes see comments on forums along the lines of "I'd rather spend my time training not to get hit". Or the view that if you learn to take hits you will let anyone hit you in a fight. This ignores the fact that good Systema training is balanced out. I wouldn't expect someone to practice only taking hits for a year anymore than I would expect them to do only slow press ups for a year. It's common sense that all these things are part of a whole and all drills and exercises should be integrated. The aim is not to just get good at just taking hits anymore than it is to get good at just doing press ups or being about to roll beautifully. So good movement and avoidance skills are still a major part of the fight training, but if and when you do take a hit you will have a good method of limiting its effect.

Other Benefits
 Taking strikes is just one aspect of impact control - we also learn how to deal with the impact of falling, being thrown, being hit with sticks, hitting a wall and virtually anything else you can think of. Of course there will come a point where only so much impact can be dealt with. However I find that this type of work brings a very real sense of what you can cope with, so no-one goes out thinking they are super-tough or invincible. And of course the better people can cope with impact the more intense the work can be, with less fear of damage or injury.

Aside from damage limitation the biggest effect of this method is the ability to cope with fear. Not to ignore it, but not to be controlled by it - the mind allows the body the freedom to do what it needs to do rather than over-riding it with a "freeze" response. That is something that applies to any situation you might be in, from physical violence to dealing with phobias or nerves.

From a health point of view, striking work ties in closely with Systema massage and manipulation therapy. An experienced teacher can pin-point areas of psycho-physical tension and work on them directly and effectively. This work can unlock areas of emotional tension in a very short space of time. It isn't work that comes over well on Youtube and is perhaps best experienced for yourself, but ironically hitting a person the right why can have dramatic positive effects!
This is where the Systema method rubs up against "conventional" training. To progress you have to "open up" and accept the experience, not hide behind physical / emotional armour. It is not always a pleasant experience, to feel so open and vulnerable, yet the benefits far outweigh any investment we have in our self-image.

When you see a martial arts clip of someone being hit, the exercise is often purely for the benefit of the "hitter". I cringe at clips where the teacher hits a student then smirks as they crumple in agony to the floor, left to their own devices. This is purely a one-way arrangement. I feel that as much as possible training should be two-way, especially when a student is placed in a vulnerable position so you can demonstrate your "liver exploding palm".  Maybe some teachers may be concerned that if they teach students how to take strikes then their hits won't work anymore and they will lose face.

Conversely I saw a thread a while back where a guy argued that if he could ever hit a teacher, then he couldn't learn from that guy. I suspect this has more to do with some Yoda fantasy than anything else. Of course this view can be bolstered in an environment where freeplay with the teacher is severely restricted or missing altogether. But is this healthy for all concerned? I don't think so. Personally I've been hit, kicked and "stabbed" much more when teaching than outside the class - and I wouldn't have it any other way. I have students with whom I now  struggle to make an impact on when hitting - which means not only that I have to up my game but also that the training is working!

I hope this goes some way to explaining those odd Youtube clips and also that training to take hits isn't the same as training to be hit. If your training doesn't include any type of impact-management I'd urge you to adopt some. Keep it practical, keep it healthy, take it steady and I'm sure you will get nothing but benefits from it. Now if someone could just teach me how to cope with the impact of filling my van with petrol.......

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