Martial Resilience

How martial arts has resilience training pre-installed into its philosophy, culture, training methods and community.

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Re·sil·ience / rəˈzilyəns / noun

  • the capacity to recover quickly from difficulties; toughness.

“the often remarkable resilience of so many British institutions”

  • the ability of a substance or object to spring back into shape; elasticity.

“nylon is excellent in wearability and resilience”

Two basic definitions of resilience, both of which I disagree with when this term is used in a human capacity. I want to challenge the idea that people bounce back from traumatic or challenging situations, I do not believe anyone bounces back to exactly how they were, however slight the challenge or trauma was. We are an evolving species, every second, every minute, every day we are changing, I put forth the idea that resilience is something we grow into, something that is determined by our environment and experience.

From birth to death we interact with the world and survive tremendous challenges, those who are challenged in various ways tend to grow more resilient. Those who are not challenged as much may not grow as fast or as far. A child born into a war torn country, forced to flee everything they ever knew, losing family along the way, refused entry to other countries, surrounded by conflict and confrontation, their lives constantly in danger… have resilience forced upon them.

The traumatic effects are not to be minimized and the mental health effects of such experiences can obviously be significant, but if that child ‘survives’ both physically and mentally, their ability to deal with situations that are not as challenging as what they have been through are greatly increased. A child born into privilege, who grows up with every opportunity at hand, received everything they ever wanted without hesitation or delay, who never receives any form of social challenge and/or is not held accountable by an authority figure, will have a relative different amount of resilience. Their ability to deal with the smallest of challenges outside of their world may be greatly reduced.

This concept is no different to how our muscles grow stronger, they must be given resistance, they must be broken down a little so they can be ‘re-built’ stronger than before.

Getting punched in the face for the first time, even with a glove on, is a frightening thing to experience. In fact I would say the first 50 times is a terrible thing to experience! Constant training can reduce the effects of being punched in many ways from a biological perspective, where the actual touch is not new anymore and you are able to reduce the amount of fear and surprise because of the previous experience. To a much deeper psychological level where you are able to compute a much greater number of scenarios about the ‘punch’; intention, situation, response level, importance etc….

For example, the difference between a training partner punching you while sparring with a glove on, to them punching you in the face a little too hard with bare knuckles while demonstrating is significant. The difference of a newbie messing up and giving you a fat lip, to someone with a little too much ego throwing wild high force strikes is significant. The difference between participating in a high end competitive match where there is a lot at stake, to a social situation where a non trained individual pops you in the mouth or someone sucker punching you from behind, is significant. Once you have experienced a little combative training these situations become as different to athletes as shooting hoops in the park or trying to make the series winning shot in game 5 of the NBA championships.

If all I have ever experienced is a few hits to the head while sparring lightly in a gym, I am unlikely to be able to transfer much of the resilience learned from that (of which there is quite a lot) to a professional fight in front of 10,000 people with tens of thousands of dollars on the line.

If I have only had a bunch of street fights, I am unlikely to be able to transfer much of the resilience learned from them (of which there is quite a lot) to a sparring match with a relatively very well trained athlete.

Even comparing the highest level, there is discrepancy. Put a high level military operator in the ring where they must abide by all the rules of the professional MMA fight, against a veteran UFC champion and they will most likely lose. Put a World Champion UFC fighter into a war zone and they will be well out of their depth with regards to skill sets needed to succeed. Both have high degrees of resilience, but in specific arenas. Specificity is a concept I learned in kinesiology and it is important in many other areas, including resilience.

Guro Daniel Lonero is a very high level martial arts instructor based in the USA. As a former US Amateur Shooto Champion he has had his fair share of competitive combat matches. When he teaches ‘defense’ he speaks of layers or progressive ways to defend yourself against striking attacks. I believe the order is; Footwork, Block, Evade, Body (muscle & structure).

‘Body’ resilience means having muscle mass and good structural integrity, but also learning what it feels like to take a hit is part of the defense. Anyone who has ever fought knows it is unlikely you will step into the ring and come out completely untouched, becoming resilient to impact through conditioning is a key part of any combative art. But all the other defenses are part of the resilience training as well. Learning how not to get hit (as much) via footwork and evasions is also key to resilience, I would compare it to avoiding those who may bring you down with negative behavior.

Avoiding situations completely that cause or have caused negative emotions in the past, is a part of resilience that is learned through experiencing the negative emotions associated with X situation. I would compare ‘blocking’ to being very comfortable in your skin and not giving too much heed to what everyone thinks of you. Knowing yourself well and understanding that when someone tries to take a jab at you verbally, that their opinion does not always matter and to not let it affect you too much. It is like having a good blocking defense, no matter how good the attacks are, the tools you have built up over time, allow you to ‘block’ the potential negative effects to a better degree.

To add to Guro Daniels list there are other concepts of fighting and combat that we can look at with regards to resilience; pre-emptive striking, counter attacking, faking/feinting, drawing in etc….

Some of these could be construed as offensive rather than defensive, but I like to compare them to how we use the same concepts within our daily lives and not just in martial arts. A more macro look at what individuals can do to become more resilient would be becoming active in your community, engaging in local and national politics to ensure that your way of life is protected from changes that could affect your way of life negatively. In the ring this can also account for research on your opponent, watching tapes, assessing strategy etc…No different than being informed of what measures are being voted on in your town, city, county, state, and ensuring you understand the implications of them. This type of engagement prepares you for what could potentially happen instead of it potentially being a shock that causes more traumatic effects.

© Marie-Lan Nguyen

This type of broad resilience tactic can also be translated as the evasion defense, taking what steps are necessary so that you do not have to deal with the extreme trauma that may come if you do not act upon it early. An unprepared fighter is far more likely to receive harm, sometimes irreparable than a fighter who has thought about all the potential ways to avoid harm through training the levels of defense listed above.

The knockouts in the video below may make you cringe, shriek, cry and/or scream! I in no way advocate the glorification and or socialization and commercialization of violence in any manner. But for the purpose of this article they do represent a broad spectrum of what physical damage can be done when the appropriate defenses are not in place from sport to street to stupid! I would say that the more invisible damage, that is more psychological, emotional in nature should be taken just as seriously as it is often more devastating in the long term.

Much of the literature out there tells us that certain tools can aid in building up our psychological and emotional resilience; meditation, mindfulness training, a supportive community, thinking positively, being decisive etc… nurturing these things can be translated to the defenses we use when training in martial arts and when you are able to train with the right instructor, academy, community they are already built into your life #Inosanto Academy.

Take stock of your position now. Project your future and maybe make some decisions on how to protect yourself in the future by enhancing your general resilience, because we really never know what will hit us next. How often are you training the defense concepts used in martial arts for your general day to day life?

Take Aways;

  • While a definition may say that with resilience we ‘bounce back’ from trauma or stress. I say humans adapt and can become stronger.
  • Training martial arts gives us a daily dose of ‘conflict’ that does not break us, but adds to our general resilience.
  • Martial Arts defensive and offensive concepts can be used at a much broader level to increase our resilience to the big bad world!
  • What are you doing to strengthen your body mind and soul in preparation for what comes next?

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