That Which Does not Kill us… A Martial Arts (and Media) Ramble
“If you break your neck, if you have nothing to eat, if your house is on fire, then you got a problem. Everything else is inconvenience.”
One moment I had hold of the reins and the next I was tumbling through the air. All my training, all those constant repetitions of break-falling and rolling left me for a split second. Raw instinct took over and my left arm shot out to take the impact. There was a sickening crack and white hot pain shot through me. The sound might as well have been a drum roll to announce an abrupt temporary change of pace in my training schedule. Dislocating your elbow typically means that you won’t be able to drive for a while and contact training is not a good idea. So there I stood, with a deformed arm and a good 10 weeks of rehabilitation ahead of me. It was somewhat depressing - no matter what the positive thinking fascists will tell you to think – but I did have one advantage; although I was only in my mid-20s, I had been here before.
Dislocating an elbow was certainly something new. Hell, being thrown from a racing camel was certainly novel. During my day job, working for my parents’ company in the supplying of trained animals to the media industries, I had ridden a variety of camels and always stayed on. I had no formal riding training, but somehow the grip strength and sense of balance I acquired through my years of martial arts training had served me well. Either that or I had been pretty lucky. On that fateful day, however, the training or my luck abandoned me and I let go as the animal bucked. It wasn’t the first time an animal and I had met on precarious terms and I had come off with the sore end of the deal. When you grow up in their presence every single day of your life the Law averages dictates certain things are going to happen; especially if you are as cocksure as I occasionally became. At 16 I disobeyed my mother’s orders – as 16 year olds are wont to do – and one of our hand-reared hyenas took a chunk out of my right hand. Despite first growing up on a travelling circus and then living on a zoo, I thought I had done pretty well to have not been a patient in a hospital since my birth. That record was about to well and truly change.
Two years later and I was back in again, this time for an issue that was of less interest to my ward – an operation for appendicitis. I did find out that I had a resting pulse rate of 42, but otherwise the whole incident was anything but uplifting. By then I had become very dedicated with my martial arts practice and having gained a black belt in one style I was on my way to another in a different discipline. Now, I had to be content with the fact that I could manage to walk the day after my operation. I had been able to train around my hyena bite fairly well before, but this new level of injury enforced rest. When I was 14 I had torn my hamstring whilst performing a scissor kick and was back training in my normal class within a week. However, this was a different situation altogether. What didn’t help matters was the mainstream martial arts school I attended did not tolerate training around injuries in any way whatsoever. Having said that, the type of surgery you have in order to remove your appendix is not that easy to train around when I you are doing a contact activity.
So, I was left to my own devices. When it comes to any sort of training you need to have your head in the right place. That has always been my fundamental rule. If you don’t have the desire to learn, then I don’t have the desire to teach. For me, when I am down I need to latch onto appropriate motivation. Sometimes it comes from the oddest places. For example, I prefer realistic and even jaded quotes over ethereal optimism or quasi-religious positive thinking. At other times, it will take a cheesy movie or a line from a pulp fiction novel. Laid up in bed in hospital, I recalled recently seeing a double video pack in my local newsagent. The films were “Rocky III” and “Rocky IV”. As a movie buff, I know these pictures highlighted the franchise at its least poignant. This was not the original story of the American Dream with its surprisingly bittersweet ending, or even its worthy sequel that still bore the scuffs and grittiness of the era it had illuminated. The first two films contrasted with the cynicism of the 1970s whereas the next two were representative of the superficial values of the ‘80s. However, they were the fairy stories I just felt I needed to tell my mind.
It seems to be fair to guess that as soon as humans developed language they began to tell stories. Logic, reasoning and critical thinking are essential and much neglected tools in the world of physical education, especially combatives and martial arts, but when it comes down to survival we need something more than just the cold, hard practical. Ben Sherwood’s “The Survivor’s Club” provides us with an analysis of many various situations, where individuals drew upon largely mental resources in order to successfully defy incredible odds. We need stories – fantastical stories - and that is why we create them and listen to others who can tell them. Perhaps the fantastical aspect of the tale is a type of psychological overloading. In the same way that we need to overload our muscles or technique in order to improve ourselves physically, or to set ourselves challenges to force us to learn more, imaginative metaphors encourage us to climb higher than is possible.
For instance, no one will ever be able to attempt, let alone complete, the 12 Labours set down for Heracles (Hercules) to atone for his filicide, but his example continues to inspire and influence those who wish to push themselves beyond normal physical boundaries. Likewise, the highly exaggerated story of the Spartan 300[i], who fought to the last man at Thermopylae against a 100,000 strong invading Persian fleet, has become woven into the very fabric of the modern combative mind. Killology founder, Lt. Col. Dave Grossman inspires his audience of soldiers and law enforcement officers when he delivers lectures that are laced with references from “The Gates of Fire”, a novel about the Spartan 300 by Steven Pressfield. After the 2006 film “300”, a whole cult of interest surrounding functional fitness for combat arose. This was largely down to the clever marketing strategy of Gym Jones, the company employed to train the actors in the film.[ii] The Spartans, perhaps the most militarized nation in history, represented the ideal of honouring combat above anything else. Their own mythologized story provides the ultimate example of using physical exertion to the limit. However, can mind really conquer matter?
The Central Governor Theory states that this is indeed the case. Its tenet is that our limit of exertion is neurally calculated to retain homeostasis and to prevent damage, particularly anoxia damage to the heart. In short, the brain tells the rest of the body to give up for fear of causing serious damage. It was first proposed by Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine winner Archibald Hill in 1924, although not named. The theory was not given any serious credit at the time and was disregarded in favour of what has become the traditional fatigue model. The traditional fatigue model puts exhaustion down to the muscles running out of fuel or build-up of lactic acid or other toxins.[iii] Interestingly a key criticism of the existence of CGT is the fact that people do push themselves beyond their limits and, in extreme cases, even into catastrophe. However, CGT does not state that the Central Governor cannot be over-ridden. On the contrary, the limitation set by the CGT is based on previous experience and Tim Noakes, the sports scientist who is credited with coining the term and being its most enthusiastic promoter[iv], believes that performance improvement is largely down to re-training the CGT.
Therefore, understanding the CGT enables an individual to re-set the bar of their capabilities. This isn’t to say other physiological factors do not have a direct effect on muscular tiredness, but it goes some way to explain why HIIT (High Intensity Interval Training) is showing such good results across the board of sporting activity. Noakes believes that the high intensity bursts re-train the CGT to accept higher levels of pressure on the body. The traditional fatigue model puts it that we are exhausted once our resources are used up. As one set of muscle fibres gets used up, a fresh set is brought into play. However, tests[v] have shown that athletes appear exhausted long before their muscles have run out of these resources.
The Central Governor Theory puts it that if our mental boundaries can be pushed, our perceived physical limits can be exceeded. However, injuries are very real physical limitations that should not be aggravated. Having that, disadvantageous situations offer us a potential opportunity to improve in different ways. My friend and self-defence pioneer, Geoff Thompson called it the “Art of Restriction”. He used it as a physical means to isolate a certain technique, like a punch, and train it from increasingly difficult positions. Geoff argued that by working through artificial restrictions the student is forced to adapt and therefore improve. This concept is then conveyed over into motivational philosophy; using obstacles and hindrances as a type of mental gym equipment rather than as excuses not to achieve your goals.
Of course, injuries immediately provide us with a very real and tangible opportunity to improve through restriction. No sooner was the L-shaped cast fitted to ensure that my elbow joint healed in a stabilized position, than my mind started racing for inspirational references. It came up with a low budget kung fu picture, “The One Armed Boxer” and its sequel, the ingeniously titled “One Armed Boxer II”. I hadn’t seen either film, but now just felt like was a good a time as any to get stuck into them. Both are absurd chop socky affairs in the 1970s tradition and this is not really the place to review them. At the time I was practicing wu shu and Shaolin martial arts for performance purposes, and such films resonated more with me then than they do now.
It took a week before my L-shaped cast was cut off and replaced with a hinged cast. This enabled me to move my elbow joint again and to begin straightening it out. My profession is to coach self-protection and martial arts, so I made sure that everyone involved with my recovery understood this fact. I cannot emphasize enough to people who suffer any form of injury that requires more than basic First Aid to make sure the medical professionals know you need to be 100 per cent operational as soon as possible. When I was 15 I suffered a bad ankle sprain after jumping over a wall. Almost annually I suffered another sprain on the same foot. The experience taught me two things: firstly, how to do deal with ligament damage and its rehabilitation, and secondly to not be fobbed off by those in the medical or physiotherapy profession. If something is important, make sure that those who can help you the most are on your wavelength.
When I had the hinged cast fitted I was told that I should move my elbow for five repetitions several times a day. I asked if I could cause further damage by overdoing this action. Once I knew that this was highly unlikely I became a dedicated elbow-mover, working whenever I remembered throughout the day. As soon as the cast was removed I was straight into physiotherapy. Again, a huge part of good training is to learn about rehabilitation. Sometimes “sucking it up” isn’t just about battling on through hardship and pain, but having the discipline and patience to repair yourself properly. Let us not forget that functional fitness, the brainchild behind today’s most effective combative conditioning, has its roots in physiotherapy. Having gone through the possible psychological benefits of telling ourselves positive fantastical tales about heroism I guess it is here that we must be wary of buying to the whole misguided concept of “manning up” over injuries and not treating them. My old freestyle karate instructor used to bemoan individuals who made an injury part of their personality long after it should have healed properly.
When I was out of the cast I worked hard with my physiotherapist. I demanded ultrasound due to the deep massage it provided. I found it had been the best thing for my ankle. I was determined to make sure my arm was straight and back up to 100% efficiency. This is the way I am with any injury. Don’t get me wrong, most of the major ones come back to haunt you as Old Father Time taps you on the shoulder, but I am never satisfied until I have done my very best to overcome an injury.
In “Training for Warriors” Martin Rooney addresses injuries in a very pragmatic and productive way. He has a 10 step strategy for dealing with injuries, which includes accepting the injury, learning from the injury, preventing a reoccurrence of the injury and working around the injury. He puts it quite succinctly and stoically in his opening sentences:
“If you are a warrior involved in mixed martial arts, you need to face two facts: you will get injured and you will have to learn how to deal with pain. There are no ‘ifs’ about these facts, just ‘whens.’ With most warriors the crux of the problem is not ‘if’ an injury happens, but how the warrior responds to the injury ‘when’ it happens. What I mean is that it is the reaction to the injury, in terms of rehabilitation and continuity of training after the injury, not the injury itself, that is most important.”
Of course, physical injuries are not the only major personal obstacle that affects our training. If we are to wind our way back to the mental state of the athlete, what happens when that person is suffering from grief or personal issues? They can totally demotivate the strongest of fighters. I have seen individuals who appear unbeatable totally destroyed by a personal tragedy. The fall of great warriors due to emotional problems and weaknesses is a reoccurring story. Being intangible, sometimes unavoidable and often inevitable, it is very hard to learn how to cope with psychological trauma.
There is so much nonsense spouted through pop psychology and unscientific self-help books that it can be a veritable quagmire to find what will help you prepare and deal with the impact of life’s downs. For example, the concept of venting to take out one’s anger has become accepted by most people. Given that when we feel anger we are controlling our most violent instincts, it seems perfectly reasonable that using the heavy bag to strike until these feelings have subsided might help our mental state. After all, the immediate feeling of euphoria you often feel afterwards seems to prove that the venting has worked. Our views on the pressure are shaped by a metaphor. When we look at the literal physical build-up of pressure in manmade and natural objects we understand it needs a vent otherwise the object will explode. So, it seems to follow that humans just need to “blow off some steam”. In truth, the data from behavioural scientists just shows that those who take their anger out on objects are just teaching themselves to be violent when they get aggressive impulses. It’s not that far removed from the concept of having a smoke to settle your nerves. Nicotine in a stimulant, so it is not calming you down on a physiological level; it is feeding a habit though. The same applies with venting.
“Anger is the enemy” said fictional boxing coach, Noah, in the movie “Gladiator”.[vi] There is nothing wrong with turning your anger into something productive, but that must be your intention. You are not just mindlessly thrashing out, but being mindful of your training. This is where you channel what you are doing into your work. The opposite end of this is sadness. Grief for whatever reason – be it the death of a loved one or the break-up of a relationship – is going to demotivate a lot of people. It can prompt deep philosophical and self-destructive thoughts. Such thoughts can make you want to do nothing or even question the point of your training. Ultimately the decision is yours, but if you do want to progress with what you do then you are going to need to take steady steps to get your mind back in the game. Do we need a lift? Don’t get me wrong, there is nothing wrong with encouragement, inspiration and motivation. After all, I have been championing it as a means for mental recovery from injury. However, my concern is that we end up developing a type of dependence.
Martial arts did not provide me with all the current conclusions I am presenting in this article. Life did. Prior to being a martial artist I was a circus kid. After that my parents moved into training and supplying animals for feature films, commercials, still photography, pantomimes, theatrical productions, pop videos and just about every form showbusiness you can imagine. I created a production that was first intended for the Edinburgh Fringe and ended being part of a professional wrestling show. Wherever I have been in the showbusiness I have heard and witnessed the same stories of mental hardship. Talent, hard work and skill are not enough to truly succeed and sustain that success. The BBC comedy series “Blackadder Goes Forth” has its lead character explain that the reason for his lack of naivety and his astuteness came from his education. He describes himself as “…a well-rounded human being with a degree from the University of Life; a diploma from the School of Hard Knocks and three gold stars from the Kindergarten of Getting the Shit Kicked Out of Me”.[vii]
The darkly humorous independent film, “Swimming with Sharks” offers us perhaps some of the least sentimental yet painfully accurate lines about handling showbusiness and life in general. Buddy Ackerman is a hard-nosed and ruthless producer who learnt the hard way how to crawl to the top of the pile. He pushes his assistant to breaking point. However, when confronted with his behaviour Ackerman delivers the following pieces of wisdom:
"This is the only way that you can hope to survive. Because life is not a movie. Everyone lies. Good guys lose. And love... does not conquer all... What, your job is unfair to you? Grow up, way it goes. People use you? Life's unfair? Grow up, way it goes. Your girlfriend doesn't love you? Tough shit, way it goes... Because there are no story-book romances, no fairy-tale endings. So before you run out and change the world, ask yourself, 'What do you really want?'"[viii]
This quote from Sylvester Stallone’s sixth outing as Rocky Balboa describes the essence of absorbing the hardship of life and the only plan we can have to endure and progress:
“The world ain’t all sunshine and rainbows. It’s a very mean and nasty place. It will beat you to your knees and keep you there permanently if you let it. You, me or nobody is going to hit as hard as life. But it ain’t about how hard you can hit, it is about how hard you can get hit and keep moving forward, how much can you take and keep moving forward. That’s how winning is done!”
The professional fighter can use mental images, strong words of encouragement and the thought of others to get them going. I always found there was a type of energy in my deep feelings for those I cared most about. However, it was during my training with Mo Teague on his Red Flag Days that I found something else. He pushed me far beyond the point where I thought I could not carry on and, worse still, had thrown us all with mental traps – “There is no final round” and “Remember, when I told you that if you worked hard in the last round you would get a rest, well that was it. Did you enjoy it? Now get on with the next round”.
I encountered this type of mental torture before in what was being passed off as training. I had several instructors who trained me privately for free. Be wary of instructors who offer you the opportunity to train with them for free. It usually means you have just been invited to be a punch bag. Well, that is the way it often felt with me. Unlike structured lessons, I found that I would be sparring with the instructor for as long as they wanted to fight. And that was normally a hell of a lot long than I wanted. The Red Flag Days and my past training with these instructors presented me with the horror of not being able to know when the training would stop. I didn’t look at clocks nor counted repetitions. You ended up getting into a state of mind where you just did what you had to do because that was your choice. Mo told us as much as we went round a circuit a second time. There is a point where you get beyond shouting and grimacing. You become like a machine. You just do it. And this is the essence of the fighter. He does it because it is his job, his choice, his calling and his passion.
Now that state of mind can be applied to when we get hit with intangible trauma, when your whole world feels shattered and everything you hold dear seems to be in tatters. The motivational speeches have become so much blabber. The examples set by others matter little to you anymore. You cannot help but feel like a cynic. However, you know that you must train. It is part of you now. You know it will make you feel better, it will keep you moving and it will achieve objectives you set before this terrible thing occurred. You face the bag, the weights, the road, the mats, the cage and the ring. Whatever the world has thrown at you, whatever mistakes you have made, whatever injuries you have suffered and whatever terrors that face you become irrelevant. You choose to train. So, it is time to go to work.
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[i] There was a lot of unfair and pointless criticism targeted at the 2006 film adaptation of Frank Miller’s graphic novel “300”. The film is a scene-by-scene adaptation and is more loyal to its source material than perhaps any other film in existence, including “Leaving Las Vegas”. Using the highly visual medium of the comic-book Miller intentionally brought in fantasy elements, such as mythological monsters amidst the Persian army, and the film is very stylized in its look and design. What many anally retentive critics of the film’s accuracy fail to grasp is that that the Spartan 300 were not the only people who fought the Persians at Thermopylae. There were, in fact, at least 4,000 Greeks present to meet the Persians at the pass and 1,500 (including 298 Spartans and their 300 or so slaves, the Helots) who took the last stand.
[ii] Here coaches worked the cast of the film in a gym that had no heating or air conditioning and stayed away from machines in favour of performing exercises with tyres, sandbags, sledgehammers, kettlebells and various asymmetrical pieces of improvised equipment. They even came up with a high intensity exercise consisting of 300 repetitions.
[iii] “Why Do Your Muscles Get Tired?” Christian Finn
[iv] Noakes used the term in 1997.
[v] St Clair Gibson, A., Schabort, E.J., & Noakes, T.D. (2001). Reduced neuromuscular activity and force generation during prolonged cycling. American Journal of Physiology, R281
[vi] “Gladiator”, Lyle Kessler and Robert Mark Kamen (1992)
[vii] Richard Curtis and Ben Elton (1989)
[viii]This a mesh of several edited quotes taken from George Huang’s screenplay for “Swimming with Sharks” (1994)