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Overcoming Muscle Memory to Incorporate New Martial Arts Skills | Pacific Wave Jiu-jitsu

Overcoming Muscle Memory to Incorporate New Martial Arts Skills


Whether you have years of experience or are beginning martial arts for the very first time, you’ll find yourself trying to learn techniques that feel unnatural or counter to your usual way of moving. It can be quite a challenge to force your body to do things it has never done before, or that feel awkward.

For those of you unaware, Lori O’Connell Sensei works in the movie industry when she’s not in the dojo, and I work in the security industry. Both of us have been training in the martial arts for a lengthy period of time, and we’ve both recently begun adding new physical skills to our repertoires for our work outside of the dojo. Lori Sensei has been working on her fight reactions for stunt work, while I have been working on my handcuffing skills. We have been practicing together, and it has led to some challenges.

Some of the movements are familiar, and are quite easy to pick up, while others are too similar, making them difficult to do because our bodies are already trained in a specific way. Other techniques are so very different that we have the same trouble, in that our bodies would much rather do something else entirely.

In both cases, I’ve been presented with some challenges to overcome. A while ago, I took part in two short courses on handcuffing taught by an RCMP trainer, and I found the movements he taught very intuitive and picked most of it up. I didn’t realize how much I’d picked up until doing the provincially sanctioned handcuffing course for security professionals a few weeks ago. While mostly quite similar, there are some differences, and I found myself, when under pressure, defaulting to the RCMP method.

In exchange for the opportunity to practice my handcuffing on Lori Sensei, I have been assisting her in her fight reactions. The challenges I have faced there are very similar to those I’ve been doing with handcuffing.

For instance, when conducting a movie fight, you’re not actually supposed to be aiming for the head, but about 8-inches in front of it. But when landing shots to the body, you can actually make contact, but not with much force. Both of these movements are very counter to my training, and I found myself routinely missing her by fractions of an inch as I pulled my punches at the last second, or landing shots to the body with a bit more force than necessary. It’s also difficult to exaggerating the strikes in larger, more telegraphing motions when I’m used to small, efficient movements.

In order to overcome my bodies trained reactions, I have been focusing on 3 different points.

Take Away The Stress

In order to make my body more open to doing something different, I remove all the potential elements of stress. I remind myself there’s no urgency, I ask my partner to keep any resistance to a minimum, and I…

Go Slow

I go slow… very slow. I focus on each movement and element of the technique I’m doing and work myself through it. I keep my brain engaged, and make it give orders to my body to overcome the trained reactions my body has. As I get more fluid with the technique, I can start to take my brain out of the equation, and speed will naturally start to develop. I get there by…

Practicing At Every Opportunity

Anyone who was at class yesterday would have seen me during open training running around handcuffing everyone in sight. In the case of Lori Sensei’s fight sequence, every time we run across each other while not teaching we run over the fight sequence. That doesn’t mean having to spend half an hour a day going through the moves, but just making sure to do it once or twice a day, in little two to three minute gaps. And that can be done performing the techniques on someone, or just mentally walking through the steps required to get the movement correct.

The methodology for overcoming the challenges of going against muscle memory I have recently been facing is not restricted to martial artists working on expanding their repertoire, but is also a good basis for anyone learning any new physical movements. Start by performing the techniques in a relaxed, comfortable and safe environment. Go slowly – speed comes with fluidity, and fluidity is developed by careful and repetitive practice. As with anything in life, if you want to improve, you have to practice at every opportunity.

Are there mental tricks you use when learning to do something new? Is there a certain approach that works well for you? Everyone learns a little differently, so please share your experiences in the comments and perhaps it can help someone else.

Comments (6)

6 thoughts on “Overcoming Muscle Memory to Incorporate New Martial Arts Skills

  1. Why exactly would you need to know how to handcuff people? The law might be different in Canada but over here it’s the prerogative of the police to make arrests not ordinary citizens including security personnel. I’m pretty sure it’s even illegal to carry handcuffs on the street or in any public building. In any case it can’t be too difficult if you’re proficient with locks and throws: put him on the ground, roll him over if need be and put on the cuffs. That’s the way I’d go about it but then again I’m not with the police so I’ve never actually done this nor practiced it in any kind of training. This might be a good question to ask a friend of mine since he’s a police inspector. I do know in koryu styles there’s a discipline called hojojutsu or binding and restraining people with rope. One day I’d surely like to take a seminar in that.

    As to your question: I just proceed like when I first started in martial arts. Go slow, ask feedback from your partner and get help from an instructor or higher level student if you’re experiencing trouble. There’s no secret to it really, just have an open mind and check your pride at the door (i.e realise your previous experience has little bearing on your current task) or you’ll likely try to force a technique to fit your old way of going about it which is usually completely wrong in my experience.

  2. Zara,

    I used to work in security in Canada. I was in a mobile unit that responded to alarms and distress calls. We were not armed other than a big MagLight, but we always had and used handcuffs.

    • In BC you can’t carry anything that can be used as a weapon, so all the large flashlights are prohibited these days. I remember when I first got into security back in Ontario, we used to carry around big mag-lights too, though I don’t think they were strictly kosher. I never ended up using it as a weapon, so it was never an issue.

      • Chris,

        Thankfully, I never got into a situation where I had to make a decision to use the maglite or not. I was much better at diffusing situations by convincing the subject that just peacefully complying was their best course of action than I was at compliance through force. I didn’t even start my martial arts training until I had been out of that business for many years.

  3. Zara,

    As a security professional in the province of British Columbia, you are required to be authorized by the provincial government to carry handcuffs for the purposes of work.

    As part of that, I was required to do special training covering the legalities, the physical skills, along with the use of force model. I am expected to use the methods taught by the province to keep me out of liability trouble, which means anything I picked up while doing the other handcuffing course that is very different, (those courses I did just for fun), has to be trained out of my head.

    I generally work special events where alcohol is served, and in this province that means I can’t carry handcuffs 90% of the time I’m working.

    However, lots of security officers work in different situations, like loss prevention, alarm response, etc, where making an arrest is common. (Loss prevention especially.) Our powers of arrest come from the Canadian criminal code, as ordinary citizens however. In the province of BC, we don’t get any special arrest powers. Any Canadian citizen that sees an indictable offence (robbery, shoplifting, assault, break & enter, etc) can make a citizens arrest. There is no prohibition for carrying handcuffs as a private citizen, that I’m aware of, but I have no idea why any one would do so. They’re heavy and a bit of a pain.

    So, to simplify, I want to make sure the few times I’m authorized to carry handcuffs, if I need to use them, I’m highly proficient, and performing within the confines of provincial training, not simply relying on my previous training. I also want to blend my control techniques with the handcuffing techniques, and handling handcuffs is not a simply matter of slapping them on someone, especially when a subject is resistant. Holding down a guy jacked up on cocaine is hard enough as it is. I’ve seen 90kg guys do pushups with a 120kg guy on top of him. You screw up putting handcuffs on them, and all of a sudden they have a weapon that can be used against you.

    To top it off, our style of Jiu-jitsu has its roots in law enforcement and we attract a lot of law enforcement people.

    We teach police, provincial sheriffs, customs officers, and being proficient in those skills allows me to help them develop their techniques and integrating them into their Jiu-jitsu, especially since officers can end up going months or even years without having to use their handcuffs, depending on what they do.

    I hope that clarifies why I’m training in handcuffing.

  4. Obviously you don’t need to justify using handcuffs to me as long as it’s in accord with the local law, I know the use of handcuffs is forbidden amongst security-personnel in Belgium and most European countries. It does seem like an interesting discipline though. So how exactly do you go about this? Other than taking them down and rolling them onto their back of course. I can imagine handcuffing a reisting individual can’t be easy, that’s probably why police-officers usually operate in teams of two or more. It probably helps to carry firearms too.

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