Training Out the Fight-or-Flight Response in Sparring
I have just delivered an easy thrust toward my student’s chest. It is the action that she has been setting herself up to take advantage of, but, for the third time, instead of deflecting my sword aside and striking with a counter attack, she has thrown her weapons sharply to the side. This panicked movement has left me in an advantageous position. What’s more troubling is that 5 minutes before she had been conducting this technique perfectly. What has changed?
Throughout the training session, we have been doing all of our fencing at medium speed. (We call it speed 3. It’s the midpoint in a 5-point scale of movement speeds that range from glacial to all-out combat.) We’re still fencing at the same speed. The difference is that we have put on fencing masks.
When I ask her about how this change has affected her, she comments that she now feels more vulnerable to my attacks. I could strike her in the face at any moment, and even though it’s protected, this scares her on a less rational level. My attacks might be more vehement now that her armour is being trusted to protect her, instead of our simply relying on my level of control.
I decide to return us to the unmasked training exercise to see if we can recapture the feeling from before and, if so, reattempt the technique masked. However, things remain the same. Her “fight-or-flight” (and in this case, flight) response has been engaged. She is reacting, not responding. She knows what she wants to do but every time the particular stimulus comes, her body leaps to its most conditioned panic response.
When the threat response of the brain is activated, oxygen and glucose are rerouted to the brain’s basic survival functions. Studies have shown that while this can lead to quick reactions, it impairs analytic thinking, creative insight, and problem solving–all key qualities for dealing with an opponent.
If you believe you can beat your opponents through simply being faster or stronger, dumping adrenalin and relying on your brain’s most primitive responses could be your ticket to success. But in any encounter where the sides are mismatched or the environment adds complexity, having the capacity to reassess the situation, analyze your opponent’s weaknesses, change your strategy away from a failing one, and maximize your own strengths while moving toward your opponent’s weaknesses is ideal, if not vital. It’s also a heckuva a lot less tiring.
Cultivating Combative Calm
There are two sides to managing a high stress performance environment. One is conditioning your stress responses to be more useful. Through tactical training at scaling speeds you can work on conditioning your flinch response to be one that accomplishes your martial goals more reliably (e.g. putting your point on line or keeping your sword within a controlled area that doesn’t throw you out of position.) The other is learning to enter into a state of mindfulness instead of “fight-or-flight.” This is the state that will allow you to respond more intelligently to a given situation and not only avoid the flinch response, but also build and adapt your strategy to your opponent.
With the student mentioned above, to begin working in this more mindful place, we slowed down and reframed our practice objectives (with masks on.) The purpose of our slow sparring was not victory; instead, we thought of it as dancing. I invited her to participate in a fencing dance with me, where sometimes I would be struck and sometimes she would be. Her main goal was to stay in rhythm with me, to move in sync with me (my coaching also transitioned to this new goal.) From this place she was able to relax her flight response and become engaged in a more creative and open fashion in our fencing. The quality of the fencing increased considerably and her awareness of what was happening along with it. In this calmer state she was more able to observe, respond creatively, and guide her physical reactions.
After we had established this baseline we began to increase the speed from 2 to 3, and from 3 to 4. Through each transition I would return her attention to the mindful practice we had established before, and we worked together to maintain the dancing quality of our interaction. Any time things began to fall apart we brought the speed back down and re-centered.
Dance to Observation
In our next session we moved from the dancing paradigm to a martial one with an observational objective. The goal was still not to strike or avoid being struck but instead to ask questions (with our fencing) and see what the responses would be. Now, as we fenced, beyond the questions I asked her with my sword, I verbally asked her, “What happened there?”; “How would you solve this?”; “Can you do that again and fix it?” and, “Can you make me do that again?”
The control of our speed and the observational objective kept the flight response at bay, inviting her to open up her creative and strategic mind even as we increased the upper end of our allowable speeds.
While this is a process that needs to be continued for a prolonged period to fully find results, the immediate returns can be quite dramatic. Immediately, you may find yourself across from a smarter, more competent partner, not because you have given them new proficiency, but because you have created an environment that allows them to access the competence they already possess.
The Training Continuum
I have found slow fencing and scaling speed fencing to be effective tools to help put combat into context and to bridge the gap between drill and implementation. However, they are not the only tool. As in the case outlined above, a student may benefit from spending time at full speed in order to build their confidence, simply by being in that environment. Drills, tactical exercises, focused fencing, and good old-fashioned conditioning are all part of building a solid and effective martial artist.
Every trainer and trainee needs to apply a full toolkit of strategies and approaches to be effective. If slow sparring is not included within your own, I recommend that you look at it seriously–in all of its permutations. Making slow sparring a regular part of your approach can be an important step toward building combative effectiveness.