Focus Your Mind/Go with the Flow: Martial Arts Training Tips

I just finished reading a great book, Slowing Down To The Speed Of Life. I found it had really useful tips for helping to establish a more peaceful, simpler, happier life. It also gave me some great insights that apply for martial arts training, which I’d like to share. The main premise behind the book is that we spend all our time in one of two mental modes, the analytical/processing mode or the free-flowing mode. Both modes have their purposes, and this is apparent when you consider their usage in martial arts training and application.

Analytical/Processing Mode

This mode is most useful for learning new skills and concepts. It allows you to deliberately think through each step and consciously learn a physical technique. When you first learn a joint lock, throw, or other martial arts technique, the instructor breaks it down into steps to make it easier to follow along, and offers corrections along the way for you to process and analyze, so you better understand the fundamentals of the technique. As you practice in this mode, you’ll often find that the technique feels slow and chunky, especially ones requiring fine motor skills. This could also be thought of as the conscious mind.

There are some potential negative side effects of being in the analytical/processing mode, however, that we all have to be mindful of. We have  a tendency to be judgemental when we’re in this mode, of the technique, or of ourselves. If the technique feels awkward and unnatural in the learning stages, a person may externalize the problem and judge it to be impractical or useless, causing them to give up on learning it too early. Alternatively, a person may internalize the problem judging themselves to just not be very good at it, potentially causing them to give up on the technique and in more extreme cases, the martial art altogether. It is important to use the analytical/processing mode as a tool, and to keep it focused on the task at hand rather than letting over-active judging thoughts to run rampant.

Ultimately, you have to move beyond the analytical/processing mode to be able to apply martial arts techniques effectively. If you have to think about what you’re doing before doing it, you’ll be two steps behind where you need to be if defending yourself against a real attacker or applying it in competition.

Free-Flowing Mode

After practising a technique for a while in the analytical/processing mode something clicks and you don’t have to think about it any more. It is at this point you’re able to perform it in free-flowing mode. You no longer have to work through all the individual steps, flowing through them smoothly and efficiently to perform the technique. It is at this stage that you should start to challenge your application of the technique a bit more. You can start working on performing the technique in a less staged manner. You can have your training partner attack you in a more unpredictable manner with higher levels of resistance, or when you get even more comfortable with it, you could apply the technique in live training (i.e. sparring, grappling, randori). If you never take your training to this level, your martial arts techniques will be static and you’ll find yourself getting stuck trying to apply them when the circumstances don’t match the ways you’ve trained them or when under heightened levels of stress. This mode could also be thought of as the unconscious mind. Many athletes describe this as being “in the zone.”

The free-flowing mode allows you to be spontaneously responsive so you can apply your martial arts skills in the moment. When you’re in this mode you’re not mentally or emotionally attached to the outcome, you’re just reacting to what you get with the skills you have hard-wired into your body and mind. This is the mode in which creative applications of the techniques you’ve learned come out of the woodwork in ways you may have never even practised. Your body and mind just intuitively know when the time is right for their use.

For most people it is difficult to learn new techniques in the free-flowing mode, however. If an instructor only shows techniques in passing, without ever breaking them down, then just throws their students into live training, students will usually struggle to try and apply them, not really understanding what circumstances allow them to come into play, and how to move their body for the most efficient application. It is true that students with more experience and a higher level of overall technical understanding might be able to learn in this way, but newer students with less experience are hamstrung if they only try to train in free-flowing mode. They are unlikely to ever get the tools they need to be in an effective free-flowing mode without concentrated learning in the analytical/processing mode.

Balancing Modes

A good instructor should be able to balance the two modes to give their students the best opportunities to learn and apply what they teach. The analytical/processing mode helps their students learn the intricacies of the martial arts techniques they teach, while effective training in the free-flowing mode builds their students’ abilities to react and adapt on the fly so they are able to apply the techniques in the varying circumstances that come with a real attack or in a competition.

How are the two modes balanced in your martial arts school? Please feel free to share in the comments.

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