Troubleshooting Your Performance
Are you looking for a way to maximize the benefits of your conditioning work in your martial art performance? Would you like to eliminate unnecessary, unproductive and harmful practices from your training? What sane person wouldn’t? Maximizing your conditioning allows you to minimize the total training time that you spend in your school while simultaneously super-charging your training with a high octane performance platform. Perhaps most important of all it also prevents you from crossing the line into overtraining with its attendant costs of burnout, illness and injury.
Barnacles on the Hull
Unfortunately, whether from come from a modern gym or a traditional dojo, most people carry a burden of rules, exercises and skills passed down by their coaches and teachers and in turn passed on to them. Like barnacles adhering to the belly of a ship, they are at first (in the early generations) nothing but an annoyance. Over time (with transmission from one generation of athletes to the next) the barnacles, these unwanted and counter-productive passengers, grow and multiply, slowing down the progress of your ship, reducing speed, agility, stamina and strength. Finally, these parasites create catastrophic failure in the integrity of your hull, manifesting as chronic pain, debilitating injury and in some cases, death.
The longer you wait to jettison these inherited “training scars”, the more painful it is to scrape them off. You may even experience resistance from the rest of the crew, especially the captain. Many of them take extreme “hard-core” pride in how salty they and weathered the ship have become. Even the most modern gym suffers from unproductive hazing exercises, adhered to because “That’s the way it’s always been done. We did it, and look at us. We survived and are stronger for it.” Unfortunately, most people are stronger and better in spite of their training, rather than because of it.
Don’t think that this applies only to old ships. New captains sometimes come along, full of fantastic ideas and theories. However, only the safe navigation of harsh waters determines the efficacy of a map. Even the most intelligent new coach cannot substitute textbooks for experience. We are all in the same boat together. It’s the nature of evolution in all things.
Adapt or Exapt?
In anthropology, there is a distinction made. It is the difference between adaptation – the slowly, steadily improved responses that result from the influence of external stimuli – and exaptation – the sudden mutation which results from genetic copying errors.
Remember the game you played called “telephone“? Kids sit in a circle and whisper a story to the person next to them, who whisper it to the next, and so on until it reaches the first child again? The result is totally dissimilar to the original story. This is precisely how these copying errors happen over time when reproducing training programs from one generation to the next. It’s like
a faxing a copy of a copy of a copy of an original. It becomes useless, and in the case of physical training, it becomes an unrecognizable danger. This is the worst kind of danger, because it has co-opted purpose for itself. It has attracted explanations, rationalizations and beliefs to justify its existence.
Over time these beliefs build up a monumental resistance to evolution. An example from the medical field is the belief that frontal lobotomies resolve emotional pain — they do, but at enormous cost to the patient. Rules, exercises and skills can co-opt beliefs.
For instance, it is believed that the reason leg locks are so strongly emphasized in Sport Sambo is because choking someone unconscious only takes one soldier off the battlefield whereas breaking a leg takes two or more, since his friends must carry the hobbled soldier off the field. However, historical records indicate that chokes and strangles were removed from Sport Sambo in order to differentiate it from Sport Judo. As a result, leg locks evolved very rapidly as players adapted to the lack of need to defend the neck. Developing in an anthropologically isolated environment, the exaptation develop a high degree of specialization in leg locks. When reintroduced into a “mixed” (homogenous) martial art culture, the specialization had to be adapted to meet the needs of the fresh blood, so few of the “fancier” submissions have been retained.
How many exercises do you know of that should be thrown on the evolutionary garbage heap? Let’s see: traditional exercises like crunches, neck bridging, and the continental barbell clean, to newer silliness like the iGallop, Shakeweight and vibrating kettlebell.
The Three Energies of Flow
Traditional martial arts have referenced three energies throughout recorded history. The Sufi tradition of Silat expressed it as affirming, denying and reconciling energies. Traditional Russian martial art calls it prav, yav and nav energies. And of course the most famous example belongs to Ginchin Funakoshi, who described it as Shotokan’s “Red Triangle”: kata, kihon and kumite.
In traditional Japanese martial art, these three energies form: zanshin, fudoshin and mushin. Zanshin, or “remaining mind” would be affirming force fostered through practice; Fudoshin, or “unmovable mind” would be denying force cultivated through training; and Mushin, or “stilled mind” would be the reconciling force forged through competition.
Only when these three forces check and balance each other can one tap what sport psychologists label flow-state: the ultimate demonstration of physical excellence. Sacrifice or neglect any one of the three and the door to flow-state closes.
Across culture, throughout time, flow has been the most sought after prize, not trophies, wealth or fame. Ultimately, it is that fleeting moment of physical enlightenment where the universe reaches out from you connected to everything and everyone. Every child knows this experience intimately, as we are all natural, innate athletes. When one can physically, mentally and emotionally recover from intense stress, distraction, error and surprise while facing the challenges of resistance, chaos and failure, one can transcend oneself and tap into this optimal performance zone.
The Performance Diagnostic Trinity
As USA National Team Coach, I developed a specific diagnostic tool to separate effective methods from kaka del toro. So successful is my model that you can apply it to any style, sport or discipline. You can use it like a gold panner’s bowl to sift out the silt so that only nuggets remain. I named it the Performance Diagnostic Trinity.
The Performance Diagnostic Trinity is a formula for analyzing the balance of these three energies of physical development.
Practice: the act of acquiring, isolating and integrating skills into one’s total performance, but moreover the act of forging these skills under the heat of resistance, the fog of chaos, and the friction of perceived failure and surprise so that the athlete can cycle rapidly through the ongoing process of reorientation and thus enter and remain within flow-state.
Training: the act of incrementally developing physical attributes such as power, strength, endurance, stamina, et cetera, but ultimately of developing these towards and integrating them with essential mental and emotional attributes which form the cornerstone of flow-state: awareness, focus, concentration, toughness, control, et cetera.
Competition: the act of developing effective efficiency by systematically encountering competitive resistance; not merely creating greater opportunities than risks (effectiveness), but also expending less total work while accomplishing more useful work (efficiency). Effective efficiency under resistance gives one the toughness to spontaneously improvise solutions to challenges, the hallmark virtue of experiencing flow-state.
When one incorporates a practice with even a slight misunderstanding of its purpose within the Training Hierarchy Pyramid, that practice gets co-opted for an unknown and potentially irrelevant reason.
So to come back to our question, how can we know the truth about a rule? We take that rule, exercise or skill and honor this prime directive: how does it specifically give me access to flow under the duress of combative stress? One must be able to rationally explain the purpose of a rule, exercise or skill towards fulfilling that goal. Even if it can be logically expressed it must also be successfully repeatable, externally verifiable and universally applicable. Creating a beautiful painting is not a science, but the laws which allow us to see and create color, perspective, depth, et cetera absolutely are.
An unquestioned belief is not worth conditioning! In other words, what you believe and what is reality will eventually collide if the two do not match.
I can’t tell you what in your training is an adaptation and what is an exaptation – but you can! With due diligence you can place any rule, exercise or skill in the cauldron and remove the slag from the pure gold. The hardest task at first is being able to see that the potential problem isn’t you, that it isn’t your fault but merely an outcome of conditioning. At any time you can choose to counter the conditioning of an ineffective and unproductive rule, exercise or skill. But you cannot do so, if you don’t see that there’s a problem in the first place.
You remain invalid and incompetent if you cannot and do not question the beliefs that rationalize each and every rule, exercise and skill. Any teacher or coach worth their salt will not only support your respectful investigation but they will assist you. Sometimes this assistance takes the form of showing you how the skill kicks ass under pressure. Sometimes it takes the form of showing you that the exercise specifically enhances the performance of those who practice it and doesn’t for those who don’t. And sometimes the coach gets to learn from the athlete when they realize that an unquestioned belief has gone on too long, so long that a barnacle had slipped under their view and has attached itself to the hull.
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