Thursday, June 21, 2007

The Descent

Following on from my previous post and the discussions that concluded it, I'm staying on a similar track with this one and I want to talk about how pressure can affect us when we face danger and how we can deal with that pressure by making simple decisions right now, that will increase our chances of survival.

When faced with the stress of a life-threatening engagement, we don't rise to the occasion, we descend to our level of training.

I think this is very important for everyone involved in a discipline such as our own or even martial arts to consider - and I wanted to share it with everyone that reads my blog.

If you don't think your training is thorough in preparing you to save your life and escape from dangerous scenarios then perhaps there are some things in this entry that might help you - and if you do think that your training is thorough enough then I really would appreciate your input so please leave a comment after reading this.

As some of you will know, my current understanding and practice of Parkour is different to some other people's and I really see Parkour as being much more than simply the movements we see in so many videos... I believe Parkour is about being strong in every sense of the word and being able to survive when the going gets tough which is why my studies extend beyond that of learning how to move efficiently.

To quote my friend Thomas Couetdic,

I believe that Parkour, however wide it may be, is not a discipline in itself, but a piece of a bigger thing. If you follow the idea of Parkour (at least as it was when i got into it) to the extreme (being able to save your skin from any dangerous situation), then you should not only train to jump, run, climb, etc... You should also be learning about survival techniques, escape techniques, fighting, and things like this.

You can read some more of Thomas' thoughts here but it is this 'extreme' mentioned above that I am following and interested in discussing in this post.

Most of the time we train in comfortable environments, perhaps with friends, not really in any more danger than we put ourselves in. In these circumstances we can put all of our focus and attention in to our techniques and movements without having to worry about any other danger such as coping with the chemical changes in the body that occur when we are faced with danger.

When we are faced with the stress of a life-threatening situation, our body's natural defenses are engaged and frankly most of us, myself included, are not prepared for this.

Here in the Western world, we have become a generation of protected individuals; protected by law enforcement, CCTV, prison systems, physical deterrences and satellites. It's easy to become complacent under these circumstances but all of today's and tomorrow's technology cannot (yet?) change human nature. There will always be murder, theft, rape and crime in general, not to mention natural disasters - and this is why I find it's important to always be aware of our surroundings and to prepare for dangerous situations. But the likelihood of us preparing for these things are slim until we've experienced them for ourselves. It is not until we have become a victim ourselves that we realise that we are not as protected as we think and I think we need to make more of an individual effort to train ourselves more thoroughly.

All of our modern-day advantages become truly useless when we are faced with danger. We even forget all about our family and friends (unless they are directly involved) and what might scare you is that we also forget a significant portion of our training in a crisis.

When we have plenty of time to think and plan and calculate, we are capable of amazing things during our training sessions. We can use our experience and physical ability to decide on the best course of action to tackle a new obstacle but this generally takes some time to take everything in to account and plan the new jump. But what if we remove that period of time from the equation?

If we were being chased by a crazy man with an axe who was trying to kill us, our best chance of survival would be to put a worthy obstacle between ourselves and the man, be that a large wall, a drop that he would struggle to take without breaking a leg or a massive arm jump over a ravine. The bottom line is, an experienced traceur would have the best chance of survival if they could employ their training and experience effectively.

However, the techniques that we are still trying to perfect, the ones we haven't done thousands of times before are immediately considered unreliable by the brain and therefore are not instinctual in our escape process, we can't naturally do them without thinking about it.

Now if we were chased by this psycho in a place we knew, a place we trained at every week and a place we were comfortable moving in then the chances are we would escape. We already know the distances, surfaces, loose bricks and paths to escape and all we would have to do is feed off of the adrenaline to heighten our senses and try to stay calm to some extent to allow our training to be useful.

Now I think we would all agree that these chances are significantly reduced in an unfamiliar environment but there are things we can do to overall improve our chances of survival in these new circumstances, besides regularly drilling the usual techniques in new areas.

So how can we replicate these conditions to prepare for these situations? It is very difficult but it seems possible to some extent since some martial arts, such as Krav Maga, attempt to prepare the student of their combat system more effectively by simulating more realistic situations than a dojo, such as sparring in a darkened room with flashing lights and deafening music. This simulates a nightclub, where there is obviously the potential for danger and gives the student experience in defending themselves in a situation where it is likely to be necessary.

We can't force the body to release adrenaline when we know it is only our friend chasing us when we play tag, but things like this can help you learn how to stay calm under pressure and to act when there is someone behind you putting pressure on you.

Here is an example of a good training session you could have to prepare for a potentially life-threatening situation:

Get a friend to get a big black permanent marker pen and get him to chase you, trying to draw on you... this might sound really funny and I laughed when I thought of it, but this is fairly effective training for escaping someone with a knife, a situation where you couldn't afford to be hit even once. At the end of the game, if you have any ink on you then your peruser could have potentially stabbed or slashed you in that location.
You might think this will be easy for the pursuer since he only has to hit you once but think of the advantages you have! Unless they can do a one-armed climbup, which probably results in less than 2% of the entire world population, then a simple medium sized wall pass would be sufficient in slowing down your friend as they will have to put the pen in their pocket or attempt to struggle over whilst still holding the pen.
The great thing is, the majority of the population are not trained for overcoming obstacles so if you can escape your traceur friend, you can easily escape a random thug.

With this simple experiment we can experience how a knife gives a pursuer at least one major and immediate disadvantage during a chase. It is experience like this that can give us the confidence to remain calm in a real life-threatening situation as we know first-hand the likely benefits you are going to have as you flee. It is all well and good to simply read these things but go out and try it so you experience it rather than imagine it.

Without this type of training and others like it, I believe we are severely limiting ourselves and lying to ourselves that our training is thoroughly preparing us for the day we may have to save our lives.

'We descend to our level of training' is the key to my earlier statement since our brain's will disregard anything that it considers unreliable and untested. Any 'maybes' will be considered not worth trying and we will be left with a very watered down version of our level.

By training in more realistic scenarios we can succeed in turning more 'maybes' in to facts, that the brain will have confidence employing if/when the time comes to put it in to action.

There is another problem that lies in the brain having too many options! You may have perhaps 5 different techniques that you consider effective in passing an average height hand-rail so how can you pick one in a crisis over another? Can you do that quickly if you haven't already thought about the possible consequences? Are you certain that you will just be able to adapt to the situation and pick a technique at the time?

What if you can't..?

Many hand-to-hand combat experts have recommended learning as many combat techniques as possible to prepare for every eventuality - but many of the same experts also recommend spending time deciding on simply 3-4 different techniques that you are certain you can execute with adequate power, speed and confidence to end the confrontation... so that you're not faced with the 3,000 techniques you learnt in the dojo running through your mind and trying to pick one in the heat of the moment.

I think it is in times of safety that we must consider these things logically so that we don't have to suddenly make the decision under pressure. Don't give the brain so many options as this causes it to panic - give it solid, concrete decisions and training based on previous logical thought so that it can lose all doubt in your ability to successfully employ this technique to save your life. Your brain has enough jobs to do during a crisis as it's trying to manage chemicals, muscles, oxygen intake etc. Give it one less thing to worry about, today.

Decide now which ONE pass you can use most effectively when faced with the average hand-rail so that when the time comes you're not faced with such thoughts as, "SHALL I CAT? SPEED? JUMP OVER?!" as you approach the obstacle.

These decisions today, might just save your life tomorrow, as you descend to your level of training.