Martial Expertise in the Modern World

Marie Isa

December 15, 2006

Is expertise necessary in our society as well as on the individual level? Yes, may be the answer and the reason why may simply be for one purpose: success - success on a performance level, on a motivational level, and emotional level. Moreover, success often brings wealth, brings progress and can permit one to have the ability to have more control over one's life, over one's time, one of the only commodities that once gone, can never come back. Ironically, as I will attempt to show, the precious substance of time, or its mastery, is in direct correlation with expertise, and therefore success. Thus, if expertise is simply a question of mastering time, then whether one is advantaged by good genes or not, becomes irrelevant if a science to control time can be unlocked; a science that can be learned and applied by the median.

To offer a more concrete environment for the reader concerning the very abstract and yearning-to-be-discovered topic of time, I will focus on the importance of time in martial situations, and develop on the how and why it is responsible for the expertise of a military General or a martial artist. After this, I will more specifically focus on martial artists and enumerate of a few of the techniques used to increase one's awareness and sensitivity, key skills that have as single goal, mastery of time and space, on a human scale. I will offer a short bridge from the martial world to our everyday societal world (or to be fair, the North American world), offering perhaps ways for the everyday person to improve their level of expertise in any field. Lastly, the breakdown of how awareness can be achieved will be contrasted with a well known phenomenon of our society: stress.

Time is of the essence in a martial situation. Nathan Bedford Forrest, Confederate General, regarded by many military historians as the Civil War's most innovative and successful general, required only one maxim: “get there the firstest with the mostest” (Wikipedia).

It is the first half of this not too eloquent maxim that we will focus on, or rather, the hidden principle that would allow one to get there “the firstest.”

The ability to take the initiative and to maneuver at will is one of the most prized abilities on the battlefield. Taking the example of a military General's standpoint, the value of the ability to hit faster than your opponent, of the ability to think faster than your opponent becomes only too evident, when your life, those of your soldiers, friends, and sometimes nation depend on it. Underlying these abilities is one “essential stuff” (as Benjamin Franklin would call it), time.

To rein time, to gain the initiative on the battlefield, a commander maintain a constant assessment of surroundings, anticipating changes in resources or opposition nearly as they occur (Endsley, 2006). As Mica K. Endsley states in “Expertise and Situation Awareness:” “Situation awareness is the foundation for thinking and decision making from which all plans and actions are conceived” (2006, p. 644). Faced with a myriad of obstacles due to various stressors from the battlefield atmosphere , the commander can only manage if he is prepared, mentally prepared above all. As most decisions are driven by the uncertainty factor and the passage of time, today's military commanders emphasize “intuitive decision making” over “deliberate analysis” (Endsley, 2006). That is, making the right decision needs to become an instinct, a reflex. Or in other words, analysis is paralysis. If the instinct is properly trained, then this ability provides the flexibility to deal with uncertainties of a battle adroitly, and by extension, efficiently, in regards to the limited resource of time (Ross, Shafer, and Klein 2006, p. 412).

If the instinct is not properly inculcated, then a wrong decision is a stronger possibility and can be costly, even critical. The intuition of military generals is trusted because of their expertise, which is developed through training, influenced by talent, but motivated above all by the will to win. Mica K. Endsley's description from a 2001 study in which novice platoon leaders “became quickly overwhelmed by information, slow to grasp important information, and didn't know where to look for follow-up information” (2006, p. 644) illustrates the contrast between expert and novice decision making in this context. What sets the General apart is his ability to manipulate time in decision making. In contrast to the novice leader, the General can absorb information quickly, and given the same time as the novice leader, will derive the countless pros and cons of several possible strategies. More importantly, he will be able to make a decision of which course of action to take. This is his expertise; his ability to recognize patterns quickly and to act and react appropriately, and instantly.

This better grasp of time, facilitates the chances to profit from the opportunities that win military conflicts. War is like a chess game, where every mistake can be exploited. In a military conflict, attacking and retreating at the right time and place is what battles are fought for. Understanding that “time” is of the essence, is one thing, the application of this knowledge makes the difference between a soldier and a General, between a bloodied fighter on the ground and the martial artist looming over him, victorious. So how does one learn to rein time? Again, to contain a very broad subject, we will focus on how a martial artist learns to do so, and this will bring us to the next subject; the secret of awareness.

Awareness is the key to being able to act before others. In a hypothetical fight situation, when two martial artists face each other, seconds begin ticking. Every second, information is being studied, analyzed. The martial artist that can fully analyze a situation before the other often wins. How? A good example to introduce here is the reflex phenomenon. Reflexes are a common experience of most humans. When one touches a hot pan, one hardly knows that he is no longer touching it before the pain reaches the brain. Reflexes to pain are instinctive, however reflexes to preemption are what a martial artist attempts to acquire.

According to Schmidt and Lee in “Motor Control and Learning,” normally, an average person encountering a situation or stimulation of any kind goes through 3 basic steps: stimulus identification, response selection, and then response programming (carrying out the action) (1999, p. 81). By training to be preemptive, training to make his art reflexive, the martial artist bypasses the “response selection” phase, therefore allowing “one movement to be planned while another is being executed” (Schmidt & Lee, 1999, p. 81). Additionally, developing sensitivity, increasing a finer-tuned sense of anticipation, heightens the “stimulus identification phase”. An often repeated adage in xingyi quan puts it in a clearer vernacular: “My opponent starts before me, but I arrive first” (Wudang).

Martial artists force themselves to learn to make their bodies quick as reflexes in any offensive or defensive situation. They will spend hours training single movements and principles to boredom and routine, for the few seconds that could mean the difference between victory and defeat. Having one good punch, or great spatial abilities are enhancing talents, but alone, are not of much use. The martial artist needs to have his entire body coordinating as one unit. Movements and body parts will be isolated to improve them, but having these skills work as a whole is what the true practice leads to.

Coming back to our two facing adversaries, the seconds are ticking. Then suddenly, one fist is thrown. If the reflexes are good, the counterattacking martial artist will avoid and retaliate with deft precision and deadliness. The combat is over. The victory was won because the victor was aware of the incoming attack, aware of the enemy's undefended holes and aware of the window of time at his disposal to react.

Victory was achieved via superior reflexes. But how were reflexes developed? As mentioned above, countless hours of repetition and practice. This is the one crucial element of practice. The answer may be simple, but deliberate practice, not so. When a martial artist practices, he practices mind and body. The body learns through repetition of techniques, as does the mind. But the mind must also learn more. It must learn not to resist. It must learn to absorb an entire situation, process information, and act, and it is only able to do so, by refusing to let its awareness clouded by obstacles, whether these be pride, false perception, failure or even fear of failure. Talented individuals may learn a technique more quickly, but without deliberate practice, they will not be able to act by reflex in a situation. Only once a technique is practiced to ad nauseum, can it react instinctively in a situation.

The type of training necessary is what cognitive psychologist K. Anders Ericsson refers to as “deliberate practice.” In Ericsson's definition, deliberate practice entails highly repetitive (low inherent enjoyment) practice of activities that represent skills that must be enacted in an actual performance (high relevance), with an emphasis on concentration as an important feature of this deliberate practice (high effort) (p. 373).

One of Ericsson's major research areas has been on the relationship between deliberate practice and high-level performance. Ericsson concludes that diligence, or more specifically, deliberate practice, and “one's willingness to engage in sustained training” (Gawande, 2002, p. 20) is necessary to acquire “expert performance” in any given field. According to the empirical studies of Ericsson and colleagues, this relationship is evidenced in a range of disciplines, from medical study and physics, to writing, music, darts, and athletic endeavors, such as martial arts. Top performers in each of the wide-range of fields they observed, all engaged in deliberate practice, as the result of a conscious decision on their part, to learn and excel. One such study, a 1997 collaborative effort, in which the performance of chess-players was reviewed, further supports the claim. One of the key findings in this study was that the superior performance delivered by the “experts” of this domain, when compared to the less talented, largely reflected skills acquired by the experts during their lengthy periods of training, not so much the result of an “effortless and natural” special talent (Allard et al, 1991; Ericsson, 2006; Starkes et al, 1996) .

The result, or benefit, of deliberate practice can be applied to anything. In an essay by Dr. Atul Gawande, “Education of a Knife,” he states that, “surgeons, as a group, […] believe in practice, not talent” (2002, p. 19). He continues by stating that persistence is the key to success in the surgical field. Gawande, who also references the work of Ericsson, notes Ericsson's discovery that, “top performers dislike practicing just as much as others do…but more than others, they have the will to keep at it anyway” (Gawande, 2002, p. 20).

The ultimate goal of deliberate practice is to make something become natural in doing something, training reflexes. When the efficient execution of a movement or set of skills becomes effortless and natural, this is expertise.

What appear to be reflexes to the outside viewer, however, is "awareness" from the martial artists' internal perspective. Once awareness is developed through routine, it becomes a valuable, if paradoxical friend. Awareness, will allow a martial artist to see more, absorb more, and in a sense “slow” down time. Concurrently, this very ability will be perceived by the opponent as speed, or in other words, “accelerated” time. As the losing martial artist will be struggling to absorb a situation, the opponent seen in action and reaction will appear to move faster, even though from the winning martial artist's side, it is not a question of speed, but of simply being aware. Time, therefore, becomes an ally, only when awareness is developed, and awareness, is developed, only through dedicated practice.

To better understand the martial arts, some key information is necessary. This information will then further help us understand the functioning of awareness in the fighting arts. Contrasting between the two groups of martial arts will help us discriminate the subtle from the gross.

Martial arts are usually classified as internal or external. Although at the higher levels the line between the two usually becomes blurred, there is an approach to the instruction and practice that is inherently different.

Moreover, the development of the bodies and minds of practitioners usually differ as well. That is to say, the muscles form differently due to the difference of practice; and the way the mind approaches obstacles is also distinguished.

External martial arts, also known as “hard” styles form the majority of styles. They are characterized by hard, quick and explosive movements that focus on physical strength and agility. The stronger and quicker a fighter is, the better they usually are. Examples of such styles are western boxing, muay-thai (Thai kick-boxing), karate and the Shaolin martial arts. Although some of these styles may have a more mind-focused approach at later levels, they initially and primarily focus their training on augmenting their physical attributes, such as muscular speed and power, and applying these enhancements with the fighting techniques they practice.

Internal martial arts, soft styles, on the other hand, while still focusing on muscular development, put much more emphasis on developing awareness of the mind and the use of angles and leverage in their attacks rather than brute muscular tension. Moreover, the muscle training of the internal styles often focuses on developing the subtler muscles, such as those which cross the radius and ulna, which will improve a practitioner's torque; that is kinetic energy stored in the individual's body while in movement by twisting motions, and then released at the appropriate time. Also, a key training characteristic found in the internal arts is the breath work, which will be expanded later. Examples of the internal styles are taiji quan , xingyi quan, baguazhang and yi quan, to name the major ones (Wudang).

Internal martial arts are fewer due to several reasons. One reason is that they are more subtle and therefore more difficult to learn. Another is that they are often less flashy than external martial arts (which are visually more spectacular and understandably what we are most exposed to in movies). Perhaps another reason is that despite popular misconceptions, internal martial arts are much younger than external martial arts. Because they were developed more recently, they have had less time to spread and have had fewer styles derived from them. The science of the internal martial arts required the fundamentals of the external, grosser martial arts to come into existence.

As the internal martial arts deal with topics a little less simple to understand than the simple punch, kick and break approach of the external martial arts, more time needs to be taken to explain them. As mentioned earlier, although the training characteristics that will soon be listed are found in some of the external arts at later levels, most of the research of this paper comes from the practice of the internal schools.

Internal styles usually are taught at a slower pace to allow the students to pay more attention to key elements such as balance, coordination and attention to the minute changes that the body goes through as the weight shifts from technique to technique. This training of awareness also applies to the skeletal structure of fighting positions. The practitioner needs to understand which body structures offer maximum balance, and which attacks provide maximum damage while concurrently causing as little damage to one's own body while performing the attack. Focus is also put on training and developing tiny muscles (the Psoas Major being a key example) that will increase flexibility and more importantly, muscular torsions that will generate more mutability and more explosive power. In an actual fighting situation, internal martial arts are performed quickly, with the entire body involved in every motion, the mind and breath relaxed and the motions of the body respecting balance and solid fighting body structures.

Once a student begins becoming more comfortable and aware of their own body, emphasis is then put on training the mind to become more alert and more aware of its surroundings, as well as of one's homeostasis. A key feature of this level is to practice the mind and body to coordinate with each other. That is, a student must execute exactly what they intend to execute and not just move haphazardly. This practice is in many ways similar to most arts or sports requiring high-levels of skill, such as in music or gymnastics. Where martial arts may differ is that they are required in situations of enormous stress, where one's life may be at stake. To practice the mind to become as sharp and aware as possible, importance is put on breathing. The breath controls blood flow, which is interrelated with every major organ of the body. When the breath is controlled, then the mind and organs receive more blood and operate with more efficiency. This increases awareness of the body, stimulates the senses to higher levels of perceptibility and quickens to mind to absorb more of its surroundings.

At a higher level, practices train to stimulate the adrenal glands and the release of adrenaline. As these practices are fairly difficult as well as dangerous, they are usually only taught to inner-circle students. This level of control is attained by a few in part due to the high levels of concentration needed to master such techniques. Moreover, interfering with the body's automatic systems does not necessarily guarantee proper control, and practitioners sometimes hurt themselves or deregulate their systems. Under qualified supervision though, the benefits usually offer a healthy life, with fewer ills. And in fighting situations, awareness of one's state under adrenal helps control the stress level. The fighter can thus stay calm and sharp in a high-stress environment, while still having access to the benefits of adrenaline. Moreover, the exhaustion period that usually follows a period of stress is usually much less present and therefore less damaging to the body (Wong).

An earlier footnote mentioned how the first styles of taiji quan exported to the West focused primarily on the health benefits. This early style essentially removed much of the fighting techniques and applications and rather focused on the body and mind training to enhance physical health and to decrease the damages caused by stress, by exerting greater control over one's body.

The spread of Yang taiji and the ease with which it can be practiced by young and old alike is a clear example of the possibility it offers to promote health as well as control stress.

A better control over one's body also makes it easier to pick up new activities with more facility. A clearer mind, in turn, makes it easier to learn new knowledge, whether it be languages, math or any other intellectual endeavor. And a greater control over stress, not only promotes better living and less illness, but also opens to way to exceed the limits of what one is capable of achieving. These are not trivial achievements.

Awareness occurs when the senses are at their peak, including both mind alertness to coordination with the body as well as to the surroundings. At the higher levels of internal martial arts training, one seeks to become more aware of the body's biological processes. That is, through combined practice of breathing techniques, alignment of the body, and posture, the martial artist begins feeling the unified functions of the body. The ultimate goal of a martial artist's training, and if we extrapolate, of a military commander's training, is the maintenance of control and of awareness in a situation of chaos, in a situation of intense stress.

Situations of violence, of conflict, of combat are some of the most stressful situations because they involve potential death or harm. On a daily basis, in North America, we are usually not faced with such menaces. However, we are faced with different types of stress related to work, relationships and money. Just as the military suit was adapted to become the business suit, perhaps martial training can be adapted for the laymen to combat his daily stressors.

In our modern world, we've developed the culture of wanting things faster, quicker with maximum convenience and minimum effort. Fast-paced living has contributed to the rise of stress in our society. Or more specifically, the faster pace makes it more difficult to handle, to adapt to new situations, “obstacles”, when we encounter them, and ergo, the body moves into stress mode. Whereas, before the stress mode would only be triggered in a life or death situation, our bodies now go into stress mode and secrete powerful hormones over little things like making bill payments on time or handing in an assignment, and this in part due to faster living, and in part due to the lack of danger in our environment.

Intense stress can have negative affects on the body, regardless of the context. Stress in the medical and psychological community is defined as the body's long term and short-term reaction to an internal or external factor that causes the body to undergo and adapt to new pressures (Myers 331). Typically, this adaptation goes through three stages: Alarm, Resistance and lastly, Exhaustion. At every one of these stages, the body then releases hormones in reaction to the situation, such as the catecholamine hormones, epinephrine and norepinephrine, as well as the glucocorticoid hormones, cortisol and cortisone. These hormones essentially prepare the body for a fight-or-flight response by accelerating the heart and lung action, blocking off the digestive system, constricting blood flow to less immediate needs, liberating nutrients for muscular action, dilation of blood vessels for muscles, inhibition of tear glands and salivation, dilation of pupils, inhibition of elimination and reproductive organs (Myers 334). In short, the body is preparing for intense action.

This state is precisely the state that the fighter seeks to enter before combat. With better senses, and a more attuned awareness, with ready muscles and better oxygen intake, the martial artist increases the chances of victory. However, martial arts aim to go one level beyond. Why? The secreted hormones may be beneficial on a short-term basis, but if the period of stress lasts too long, these same hormones wear out the body and can include such side-effects such as infertility (in women), heart-failure, anxiety, depression to name a few (Myers 324).

As mentioned above, stress typically has three stages: the alarm reaction, resistance and exhaustion phase. The martial artist wants to avoid being a prisoner to these stages, especially the latter two, and does so by developing awareness of his body (body functions), as well as awareness of the environment. Awareness of the environment will allow the martial artist to minimize the stress level, or in other words, the more comfortable and the more aware a person is of their environment, the easier and the faster it becomes to adapt (see stress definition).

Awareness of the body, allows for a greater control of the body, including control over one's automatic bodily functions. Thus, when a situation of stress is encountered, the typical three stages would look more like such: the alarm reaction phase would no longer become a sudden surprise, or alarm. If the awareness were developed enough, the threat or new situation would be felt before it itself developed into a threatening situation.

Resistance, the second stage, typically has the body ready for action, ready to “resist.”

Ultimately, it is this very resistance that leads to the third stage, exhaustion. In combat, a martial artist cannot allow his energy level to deplete itself, just as a General with exhausted resources cannot win any battle. To therefore avoid this depletion, the martial turns his attention towards inner awareness. That is, the maintenance of calm in the face of stress, of chaos.

By developing a serene mind, by dedicated training, the martial artist learns to avoid having his body burn itself out by continuously perceiving an outer situation as a threat and thus releasing destructive hormones. Instead, the developed awareness, allows the martial artist to call upon just the right dose of readiness for a fight, but forgoing the negative baggage that comes with putting the body in fight-or-flight mode. To reiterate again, this mastery over one's body is developed by training to be aware of the functioning of one's mind, as well as one's bodily functions, when put in adverse situations.

This is where the goals of internal martial art can come into effect. The martial arts focus on developing well-being while concurrently developing combat readiness. If these principles could be applied to everyday life, then perhaps a new form of stress-relief could be applied. More than that, if humans can control and be aware of their bodies, and environment, then stress will become a situation only encountered in the most dangerous situations, relieving millions of North-Americans from a myriad of stress-induced diseases.

Unfortunately, despite the many advances in modern society to render cities and suburbs safe and harmonious, humans on a mass scale did not concurrently develop greater control over their bodies. The result being that the mechanism of stress started applying itself to less physically demanding and less threatening situations, and consequently a greater wearing of the human's physical and mental state. Martial arts or its awareness techniques can perhaps offer a solution to greater control over one's body, and this can lead to lower stress levels. Lower stress levels can mean higher work efficiency, lower crime, lower divorce rates, lower stress-induced disease cases and friendly societal relationships.

Few people have the time or desire to dedicate their lives to repeating punches, palm strikes, and roundhouse kicks. However, what is to be remembered of the martial artist's way of training is not so much what, but how they train. It is the repetition and focused attempt to become aware of one's environment and mental state that is the key to martial expertise, and perhaps just expertise in general.

With awareness developed, opportunities will suddenly become easier to see and there will be no rushing or anxiety either. In a more concrete example, the stock market: when a stock is a good deal, the buyer who is aware, buys at the right time, not because they are rushed, but because they absorbed a situation. Maybe several weeks after, less aware, but more rushed and anxious buyers will pick up to what is happening and will increase the initial buyer's wealth, without necessarily increasing their own. An aware chef, will know exactly when to put ingredients in a sauce, and when to take it off the stove. A less aware cook will serve you mushy vegetables because of a minute of lag in their awareness. An acrobat can flip from trapeze to trapeze because of the trained awareness of when to let go; a professional poker player will bet all on a bluff, because of their awareness of the psychological mental situation of the other players. It would seem that we can all learn to be experts, not by modifying our genes, but by learning to “control” time, by becoming aware of it.

So, we come to understand now that awareness is the key feature to train to acquire expert-level proficiency. Awareness, allows one to be in control of time (time as it is known, the 4th dimension of space). Awareness thus allows one to act at the perfect
moment; and this will create the perception of speed in the opponent's mind. That is, the opponent will see things happening only after they have happened (these actions being outside of their awareness level). These actions will therefore appear to the opponent to be faster and more precise; they will be perceived as the actions of an expert. Expertise, as we initially mentioned, held the prospect of success, and success, the prospect of an accomplished life. If expertise can be attained by becoming aware, and if awareness can be developed every second of our lives, by every individual in whatever they may be doing, then the logical conclusion is that expertise, and a sense of accomplishment can be developed by all. We can develop faster computers, faster trains, faster planes, but perhaps it is only when we can learn as humans to take the time to be aware, rather than running after time, that we can develop faster minds – or at least the appearance of faster minds to our opponents.



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Taiji quan as it was popularized in the West, as well as in the Mao years of China, is a diluted form of the Yang style which has lost most of its martial aspects, and therefore is not normally considered a real applicable fighting art. This paper will focus on the fighting internal martial arts.