Category Archives: Combat Psychology

More on Affordances

A major focus of mine in both Movement Science and fighting/self-protection skills training is the concept of affordances. Below is an excerpt from the book that first introduced me to the concept, which contains a great introduction to the concept as it applies to fighting skills:

“The theory was put forth in the 1960s by an unorthodox psychologist names James Jerome Gibson at Cornell University. Gibson, who died in 1979, said animals and people view their environments not in terms of objectively defined shapes and volumes but in terms of their own behavioral potential. In other words, you immediately apprehend what you see in terms of how you think you can interact with that you see. You see affordances. Affordances make possible and facilitate certain actions. So, handles afford grasping. Stairs afford stepping. Knobs afford turning. Doors afford passage. Hammers afford smashing…

Martial artists see a different set of affordances than people untrained in hand-to-hand combat. Lapels and shoulder fabric are gripping points that afford all sorts of leverage. Elbows and wrists afford a variety of locks and twists. Highly trained martial artists see these affordances directly, as inherent parts of the concept of the body, just as an accomplished pianist sees not just individual keys but whole interrelated harmonic complexes brimming with possible melodies that can be extracted from it’s wholes, not as individual finger and hand movements (Blakeslee & Blakeslee, 2007).”

Blakeslee, S., & Blakeslee, M. (2007). The Body Has a Mind of it’s Own. New York: Random House, p. 106-108.

Linked Article: Before Reaching War Zones, Troops Risk Concussions

Considering that concussion risks are compounded by repeated injuries, and that the risks of concussions can include slower reactions, impaired cognition, and even changes in mood this should be something that concerns non-military self defense athletes as well.

A new military study suggests that some soldiers suffer mild traumatic brain injuries even before they go to war. These concussions, as they’re also called, can come from taking “combatives” classes that teach hand-to-hand fighting during the soldiers’ training…

The study looks, in part, at soldiers at sprawling Fort Hood, Texas, one of the Army’s main centers for basic training. The preliminary findings, which NPR and ProPublica have obtained, suggest that a soldier got a concussion in those classes every other day, on average, over nine months.

“The more hits your brain takes, the less likely it will be that you will have a full recovery,” said Dr. Alex Dromerick, director of neuroscience research at the National Rehabilitation Hospital in Washington, D.C. Dromerick, who has studied brain injuries with the military, didn’t work on this new study on concussions. But he says that based on our description of the findings, they raise a troubling scenario.

Click here to read the article.

Motivating and Nurturing Students

I am always inspired when I see good teachers and coaches that understand and respect the interdependent nature of their relationship with their charges. Those that inspire and motivate while demonstrating a healthy respect for the challenges of daily life faced by their students, and their basic humanity always make me want to be a better instructor. In that vein I offer the following video:

Then again these guys are from Wall Street, so…

Tiger vs. Chicken

One of those random internet finds that really spoke to me:


Training Tip: Don’t Just Train to React to Visual Information

One of the greatest programing challenges for instructors and coaches of fight and self defense athletes is coming up with training ideas for the recovery or injury prevention periods of the training cycle.

Here’s a suggestion; use the time to practice established skills in new ways. Mastery of athletic skills requires the ability to adapt them to a variety of environments and conditions. Many established skills can be regressed allowing safe, low-intensity practice in ways that would have been unproductive, or needlessly difficult during the initial skill acquisition phases of training.

Many fight athletes— especially those who have not practiced sports that emphasize attending to non-visual information in their youth have some difficulty reacting quickly and appropriately to auditory, proprioceptive, and tactile information.

Quick and appropriate responses to non-visual information can substantially improve performance and reduce the risk for injuries. Including training to enhance reactivity to non-visual information can substantially enhance skill mastery while contributing to performance.

Ideally this type of training involves progressions from very simple and not particularly reactive, to complex and substantially reactive— while allowing the student time to experience the differences in performance represented by each step along the way.

Two very basic grappling skills that we practice at FSRI are mount escapes and guard sweeps. Because these are simple, yet crucial skills that when practiced slowly and carefully represent a low risk for injury, and because most of our students have significant experience practicing them they are great candidates for this sort of training.

These can each be rehearsed a few times as “dead” drills requiring no reactivity whatsoever. After that the person affecting the escape closes their eyes and performs the drills as before. Once they are in the superior position, they reopen their eyes. This is done slowly without much intensity.

Excessive coaching here is not productive. Their partners and their coaches watch the environment for hazards and intervene only where there may be a danger to the participants. The intension is to allow the participants to experience the drills in new ways.

Next coaches should introduce some small degree of reactivity. The partner in the mount position (for example) can change their weight, or post with a particular limb in a way that requires the person practicing the escape to find an appropriate response. This is also practiced far below performance speeds or intensities.

Finally the environment can be manipulated through a variety of means. A simple one involves blindfolding the person practicing the escapes and placing them in unusual locations on the training floor-such as near a padded wall then asking them to perform the drills. Small pillows can also be randomly placed around the mat and the person practicing the escapes can be coached to scoot around and avoid them as they practice.

Valleys can be created in the wrestling mats by placing pillows or cushions under it in places. This can be especially relevant for people interested in practicing escapes from attacks that might occur on compliant surfaces such as beds, car seats, or couches.

Being “stuck” in a valley can be an especially difficult challenge so coaches should watch this one carefully as frustration may result in the intensity escalating beyond what is appropriate for blinded training during the recovery phase. Coaches should avoid making the engagements too difficult in this phase. Slight elevations in the mats can significantly change the experience of the drills. Remember that the goal is to enhance spatial and positional awareness and improve reactivity to non-visual information at this stage, not to needless frustrate students or increase the risk of injury.

Development of Expertise in the Fighting Arts- Some Basic Notes

 What constitutes an “expert” in a fighting art or practice? Approaching the question from a motor learning perspective is highly useful, and has many obvious inroads into discussing pedagogy, practicality and transferability of a training method to a performance setting.Experts in any physical activity exhibit several common characteristics, regardless of the nature of the activity:
1. Superior ability to anticipate the likely outcome of a situation as it emerges. This is distinct from a conscious effort to guess what will happen, which we see in relative novices. Instead, this is more efficient perception-action linking. It manifests as shorter reaction time, with reaction time being the interval between stimulus and initiation of movement. RT is a reflection of the cognitive processing going on between perceptual and motor regions before a physical response is initiated. Combined with more efficient motor programs for the movement time, the result is a faster overall response time (RT and MT combined).
2. Less visual search for the important aspects of a developing situation. A relative novice looks everywhere, whereas the expert looks immediately at the salient areas (a shoulder movement before a punch, a slight drop of the forearm towards the belt line, etc.)
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DIY Electric Training Knife

FSRI students are familiar with a variety of close-range weapons evasion, control and aggressive response drills. A wooden dowel or flimsy plastic knife is typically used for simulating knives and edged weapons, as well as a variety of wiffle-ball bats and foam sticks. Although these proxies provide a good margin for safety they can encourage a few counter productive habits, particularly among newer students or people new to our methods. These include:

  • grabbing at the “edge” end of the weapon
  • allowing the “edge” of the weapon to rest on their body while attempting to control the attacker’s arms
  • wielding the weapon like a 1930’s movie villain, ie, making threatening  gestures or non-threatening attacks, and not providing serious and committed attacks

A second set of problems is created by the nature of training itself. Knife attacks seldom happen in the ways that entertainment has conditioned us to expect. So training scenarios in which an attacker brandishes a knife from a body length away, and then artfully parries and ripostes his way in to the attack might be fun (or the dreadfully standard lunge-punch with knife from 6 feet out), but aren’t good preparation for the reality of concealed weapons and ambushes. Over the years I’ve developed a number of scenario based drills in which one partner carries a concealed “knife”, which may or may not be known to the other partner. During a verbal escalation scenario, randori or sparring, the weapon may be drawn at random and used. The defending partner usually ends up receiving multiple simulated stabs and slashes before he or she even knows the weapon was pulled, especially in close grappling encounters. It can be an eye-opener, but even with the random nature of these drills it is still very easy for the defender to slip into a complacent attitude towards the possibility of the concealed weapon, or to ignore the contact as they try to apply some cool technique. A few important elements are missing from such drills: fear and urgency. Fear is not an element that should be present in much of training, but it is useful to explore in affective training and for scenarios that attempt to include an element of surprise. In a training setting, fear usually manifests as apprehension.

A few companies make low-voltage training knives that can deliver a jolt to the partner on the receiving end, adding a measure of apprehension to a drill. The sting it delivers is also very, very useful feedback about where the training knife made contact with one’s body and how many times. Unfortunately, these commercially available models are prohibitively expensive, running into the hundreds of dollars. They just aren’t cost-effective for smaller groups, or for groups that may end up breaking them during intense training (this is why we can’t have anything nice). Fortunately, there are other options.

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