Tuesday, May 31, 2011

Muga-Mushin, Part 1: Sucker Punchers, Defensive Flinches, SPEAR, Dutch Muay Thai, British Doormen


Practitioners of Asian martial arts and meditative practices have often described an idealized performance state in which the epiphenomena of "self" is lifted and the martial artist is able to function without conscious regulation. Training in the physical mechanics has been embedded so deeply that the techniques flow as if by pure instinct, and an egoless, transcendent mental state has been cultivated so thoroughly that an uncluttered mind can essentially "get out of the way" and allow the training to run without interruption.

This is a worthwhile goal, to be sure. Today's post and the ones that follow will discuss some impediments to a free, ferocious expression of martial arts and other fighting skills during an actual physical confrontation, and offer a few measures that may be taken to try to mitigate the problems. The context here is the individual who encounters serious real-world violence and wishes to dominate himself, his opponent, and his overall strategic environment.

In terms of structure, I have tried to organize the posts by starting with the most basic and primitive issue and then concluding with problems related to strategic uncertainty. The themes will be:

1. Defensive flinch reactions that can interfere with trained responses.

2. Management of panic, anxiety, and other self-destructive emotions during an immediate crisis.

3. Training programs to "install" motor skills at a level that they are accessible on demand as established neural subroutines (freeing up limited, conscious working memory capacity resources).

4. The introduction of the COS model, a basic analytical framework for making strategic and tactical decisions under conditions that think-tanks refer to as "VUCA": Volatility, Uncertainty, Complexity, Ambiguity. The COS model has potential application in problems on the battlefield, in the financial markets, and in the realm of social relationships.

Hopefully this will be an entertaining series...

I will for the time being assume that it is taken as a given that training that is unrealistic in the single most important dimension of conflict---an active enemy who wants to win, just like you do---runs the risk of immediate, catastrophic shocks if and when such resistance is eventually encountered.

At the other extreme, people who did attempt to train with 100% resistance at all times would find that technical development was difficult. The urgency of the moment would probably preclude experiment or play with new ideas and tools (in other words, desperation would cause students to stick with what they already knew, and development would be stunted). A complete training program will have provisions for both the embryonic learning stage, trial-and-error incremental learning, and the realism and pressure of a live, competitive situation.

To keep things simple today, I'm not going to add variables such as the presence of weapons or recovery from immediate injury in order to try to fight back. These are very important elements that can present new challenges and decision problems, but the scenario of the moment is a comparatively simple one in which an individual decides to try to ambush another with a surprise punch before the would-be victim realizes that hostile intent is present. We'll start with a straightforward base case and the extrapolate from it to deal with more complicated and dangerous situations later on.

Defensive Wounds and Startle Reflex

One potential obstacle to the mushin goal would be a situation in which training was simply not accessible because a more primitive movement had essentially overridden the learned one. A subject of some controversy within the tactical training community has been the existence of a hardwired "startle flinch" reaction to surprise. The flinch reaction, which usually happens at great speed, becomes an interesting field of study when the researcher is looking at small-but-potentially-influential pockets of time within an emergency situation.

From a fighting perspective, the concern is that a physiological flinch reaction to sudden unpleasantness(say, a sucker punch thrown in a bar fight) may dominate any other response, including years of martial arts training, causing a trained individual with years of experience to behave as if he was untrained. It would be necessary to recover from this initial startle-flinch position (although recovering psychologically is probably much more important, as we will see) before trained techniques can be accessed.

Blueprint for a Startle Flinch Response

The origins of a protective flinch reaction are somewhat controversial, as it is not fully understood whether or not this is a truly instinctive reaction that is hardwired into the human nervous system or a learned response that follows from the experience of collisions and physical pain early in child development. An example of a truly reflexive flinch reaction would be the "Moro" that newborn babies display:

The Moro reflex appears to be an instinctive response of an infant to being dropped; the arms spread and close and the infant typically cries out. One can readily imagine the evolutionary basis for this behavior.

There is some evidence that an equally primitive reaction is present to deal with loud noises and impending collisions with other objects. Experiments conducted with laboratory rats found a "startle" reflex that attempted to protect the neck (by hunching the shoulders) and the eyes (by blinking and turning the head away). Note that most mammals are quadrupeds and are not well-equipped to attempt to shield their heads with their paws.

There is now a stylized, prototypical example of the human startle-flinch protective reaction that many use as a template. Specifics will of course vary, but the general depiction of this flinch is a sharp, sudden compound movement that raises the subject's hands to form a shield or buffer between the threat and the subject's head. At the same time the stomach tightens, the shoulders hunch upwards, and the knees bend into a quarter or half-squatting position. The head usually turns away from the threat and the eyes are often closed, and this all happens at extreme speeds and with an absence of executive planning or coordination by the frontal areas of the brain.

The idea here is that a human being who suddenly encounters danger in his or her environment may, depending on intensity and proximity, first launch into a flinch reaction, and then may recover to a trained response a bit later (assuming a trained response is possible because the person has in fact been properly trained). This line of reasoning usually continues to state that the reaction exists on a deep enough level that de-training the startle-flinch would be for all practical purposes impossible; instead, the logic suggests that we should go with the flow, piggybacking trained responses on top of the flinch and using it as a sort of fighting platform from which we can employ more deliberate techniques.

The Protective Relay-Race

There are three networks within the human brain itself that help to provide further detail when considering what goes on within a protective flinch situation. The networks map fairly closely to the triune model of the brain---reptilian, mammalian, primate---that is often proposed to show how relatively newer parts of the brain are built on top of---but do not replace---older parts that saw evolutionary success. Together, the three networks manage questions of "approach" and "withdrawal" that are the basis for much of sentient life.

First we have the alerting network, which manages "intrinsic alertness" and clearly relies heavily on visual and auditory cues. The alerting network must receive a "danger" snapshot, a piece of information indicating an immediate threat.

Next, the orienting system, which is rooted in emotions and could be thought of as a more advanced approach-withdrawal system, would normally receive the baton from the orienting system and attach an emotional significance---a "salience"---to the package (the cingulate gyrus and amygdala use dopamine markers to emotionally charge events, and this plays a significant role in how some things are remembered. More on this later when we talk about emotional capacities and survival). Think of the orienting system as the cylinders of a revolver, with each cylinder containing a different circuit of Panksepp's emotional command system. The trick with this revolver is that the cylinders spin to match the appropriate system to the information (a more elaborate and abstract take on the revolver model would be to use Kenrick's theory of multiple, modular selves and to insert a different self-module into each chamber).

Finally, the executive network would get a chance to add a strategic, more explicit decision-making overlay to the experience. In physical emergencies, this network tends to play a greater role in designing the preparation and training program than it does when the problem actually presents itself and has to be dealt with.

What we have during this initial, "oh f*%$!" moment of shock and defense is a break between the alerting network and the orienting system. In some ways, the alerting network has failed to do its job and provide ample warning to the orienting system; instead of a smooth transition or hand-off of the baton during a neural relay race, the alerting network has suddenly screamed that a problem exists. The reflexive cover is activated as a failsafe. More mechanically, the type of covering reaction appears to be linked to visual reaction time---the lag between the sudden appearance of a visual stimulus and the ability to take physical action to deal with it appropriately (catching a ball, swinging a baseball bat, slipping a punch, etc.).

Frequently the protective flinch is mistakenly considered part of an evolved and emotional fight-or-flight reaction within the orienting system, but that's really a secondary issue relating to the psychological impact of the threat as it is more fully recognized, marked as urgent, and a pre-conscious strategy starts to form. Because all of these things happen so quickly and below the level of our conscious awareness, they may be experienced as a single package.

The initial consideration that creates the sense of urgency and alarm---demanding a protective flinch---may be based on a measure called "tau" (size of the image of the stimulus on the retina divided by the rate of change of the image). Tau gives a sense of speed. The eyes cannot continuously track small, fast-moving objects at these incoming angles: studies of baseball players successfully swinging at bat confirm that batters see the initial stage of the pitch and then are functionally swinging blind at the time of connection between the bat and the ball. They must base their swings on the first 50-70% of the ball's flight; after that, the ball has become "invisible" in the sense of the human eye's ability to continuously track it at that speed and angle. The brain makes a "predictive saccade" (a visual jump in the mind's eye, used to complete the information gained in the first jump or two) to trigger a physical response, and a big piece of hand-eye coordination is this immediately linking of the visual cue to the correct physical response.

Think of the foveal cone---the most information-dense piece of our visual field---as being correlated with our selective attention, or the components of our environment that we are actively devoting resources to caring about. If an object comes at us from within the foveal cone, we may be prepared to deal with it because, at least theoretically, we have been paying attention to it (whether or not there is training to actually reinforce this selective attention is another story and we will get to this very soon).

If something comes at us from outside of the foveal cone---the baseball coming in from the periphery, the big haymaker punch thrown by the ambusher, whatever---then the opportunity for a prepackaged response is almost certainly going to be less developed, as by definition we were not paying attention to this emerging threat.

Readers may recall from the previous post that evolutionary psychology Doug Kenrick has put forth a fascinating thesis regarding the existence of multiple "selves"---personalities with attention goals and priorities---in the human brain.


The mind is modular, and we all use different cognitive software when we are confronting different problems. There is not one single executive decision-maker inside your head, but a number of different subselves. When you’re in a threatening situation, your inner night watchman takes over; when someone attractive bats their eyelashes, your swinging single takes the helm; when you’re in a dirty public restroom in the back of a bad restaurant, your compulsive takes over your mind, and when you’re around your children, your inner parent steps up. Each of those subselves uses different decision-rules, values different things, and feels good or bad about different things.

An issue in social situations that offer an emotionally complex, information-rich landscape is that there are many potential decision cues to be attending to at any one time. Priorities will be established depending on which of Kenrick's revolving gallery of CEOs is functionally in charge, and that will depend on a complicated interaction between the information coming in from the environment and one's own psychological disposition when one entered the environment. Thus, being "alert" to the threat of a sucker punch or baseball may depend on a host of other uncontrolled variables, including the proximity of attractive mating opportunities, desires to make friends, the presence of children, and so on. As I stated before, I think a synthesis of the Kenrick and Panksepp material, if possible, would represent a truly significant advance in the fields of both evolutionary psychology and cognitive science.

However, our situation begins with an event that has not yet been given emotional significance. The existence of an incoming, fast flying object at a collision-freaked corner of the visual field, under surprise conditions, seems to be quite important here: this initial flinch is a defensive, protective reaction to the truly unexpected. A professional athlete like a major league ball player does not have a panic reaction to an incoming ball, but a member of the crowd who is removed from the concentration of actually playing the game may react with a startle display if a ball suddenly veers off in his direction. Both are dealing with the tau/visual reaction time issue, but one is surprised and one is not. "Surprise" in this case has a training and preparation content; there is a difference between an athlete's behavior in an unpredictable game that he is trained for and the same athlete's behavior in an unpredictable game that he has not trained for.

Now let's change our hapless victim candidate and say that the member of the crowd has his back turned when the baseball arrives. There will be no startle flinch display because the ball never entered his visual field, and thus never triggered it.

By the same token, being surprised by a loudly barking pit bull who suddenly appears 25 yards away, chained to his owner's Harley, meets the "surprise/startle" condition but not the "incoming flying object" condition. The flinch reaction in this case will actually be a tendency to suddenly freeze (more on the freeze reaction and the related cascades next time).

Tony Blauer and the SPEAR System

The man most responsible for raising awareness of startle-flinch reaction in a tactical context is probably the Canadian instructor
Tony Blauer. This clip gives a flavor of Blauer's argument:

So there are two different issues at work here: 1) the hypothesis that an unavoidable startle-flinch reaction occurs when we are surprised; 2) the hypothesis that if a flinch does occur, we will do better (during a violent emergency) to have trained to execute techniques directly from said flinch rather than to recover to a more traditional fighting stance or platform first.

This can be a polarizing debate, and some would probably enjoy it if I became pedantic here and tried to criticize Blauer's work on the grounds of the jargon used or a technical detail, but I think that would do all of us a disservice. It is easy to issue complaints against a practitioner, working in the field, for failure to use the vernacular of the lyceum, but doing so often serves to increase the distance between theory and applied practice. In addition to several other contributions, Blauer has done the tactical training community a service by bringing the startle-flinch problem to its attention. The jargon and acronyms may be unavoidable, both for practical marketing purposes and because even packaging the concept for discussion probably has to involve the creation of a precise, descriptive vocabulary.

At any rate, Blauer has developed a hand-to-hand combat training system ("SPEAR", or "Spontaneous Protection Enabling Accelerated Response") based around this notion of using the startle flinch body position as a loading mechanism or springboard for an initial, battering-ram type counterattack against the ambusher. His logic, at least as I understand it, is that: 1) the flinch, rooted in an evolved reflex, will happen spontaneously; and 2) the fastest next step would be to launch a technique right off of the flinch (rather than, say, recovering from the flinch to adopt a more formal martial arts stance, and then launching the technique from that stance). Those adopting the SPEAR system are adding a third condition: 3) the best tool to use from the flinch is a sort of extended wedge frame position with the arms that normally attempts to drive the nearside forearm into the side of the opponent's neck.

(a couple of views of the stylized SPEAR master-counterattack that Blauer proposes as an initial movement from the defensive flinch. The brachial stun via the forearm strike to the neck would be used to try to turn the tide of the fight and put the sucker puncher on the defensive)

I think that Blauer would argue that, in a surprise encounter on the street or in a bar fight, the pre-conscious defensive flinch would arrive first, his proprietary approach to springboarding off of the flinch (the SPEAR---a kind of diving wedge) would come next, and then the techniques of a preferred fighting system would come last. In other words, SPEAR would be Blauer's way of bridging between the completely untrained (the flinch) and the trained response (martial arts).

In terms of using the startle flinch display as a platform for other tools and techniques, there is a real lack of evidence for or against any particular ideas. We just don't see the SPEAR type of counter being successfully used enough in street fights or mixed-martial art competitions to know how to value it.

Although the general absence of a SPEAR-type counter in combat sports (there are some techniques that could qualify as being in the same family, if not the same genus or species, but they typically have a different purpose---perhaps being used as a physical frame to maintain space for a Muay Thai knee strike to the abdomen, for example) is not completely damning, I find it troubling: it is worth noting that a SPEAR-type double-arms drive to the side of the neck is fully within the rules of MMA competition if someone did want to try it. On the other hand, we have a great deal of evidence about what tends to work in real (uncontrolled) or realistic (synthetic, done in the mixed-martial arts laboratory) unarmed fights, and we would logically want to go from an untrained protective flinch reaction to a skilled, high-percentage counter as quickly as possible.

Note also that the flinch reaction as stylized by Tony Blauer is far better suited to a fully committed, looping, haymaker style punch or overhand right than it is to a trained fighter's rapier-like straight jab or cross directly to the face. In addition, a skilled sucker puncher who throws a quick feint may cause a flinch reaction that he can then exploit with a shot from the other side (indeed, we will see that checking for reactions is something many fighters will do). An argument could be made that the sucker punch of a street or bar fight is categorically different than a tight striking combination made by a trained combat athlete, and thus we would should not hold SPEAR to an unrealistic standard.

I do not believe these problems are particularly troublesome for Blauer, because his study plays the percentages well: the majority of streetfights are highly emotive affairs and do tend to involve wild, aggressive headhunting with looping, angry, uncontrolled shots. The disciplined, professional streetfighter equipped with years of structured Muay Thai training and a systematic approach to violence is, thankfully, still a rare animal outside of Marvel Comics.

If we do want to increase our search radius and include the potential for highly trained streetfighters, we may find that going from a startle protective reaction to a mixed-martial arts-based solution does not actually pose much of a conversion issue: the protective flinch posture that we adopt "automatically" can be quite similar to a standard high guard cover used in boxing (albeit less refined), and so there may be less of an attendant need to try to install a "bridging" technique between flinch and training.

Paul Howe, a noted firearms and tactics instructor with a background that includes service as a member of the U.S. Army's elite special mission unit (SMU), looks for technical consistency in different training and operational milieus.


Select a system that will go from dry fire, to range fire, to Sims (Simunition rounds used to shoot each other safely in Force-on-Force training), to live-fire CQB, to combat or a tactical encounter on the street with little or no changes to the system.

Perhaps hand-to-hand combat deserves its equivalent statement:

Select a system that will go from shadow boxing, to pad work, to sparring, to an MMA match, to combat or a streetfight with little or no changes to the system.

Perhaps the combat athlete could eliminate the middle man and look to go from flinch to accessing, say, boxing or Muay Thai fundamentals with little delay in between. After all, at least we know that boxing and MT work against skilled opponents; we cannot say with confidence that some of the alternatives work well under the same circumstances. My own preference would be to look at the most reliable trained responses and to work backwards from there until we hit the untrained startle-flinch, with the goal of converting the flinch directly to a mixed-martial arts counter.

This is a very formal guard; there are variations in boxing and Muay Thai that are even closer to the protective flinch hand-and-arm display.

To be fair, perhaps there is something else going on here and Blauer's SPEAR system exists in a quasi-instinctive shadow realm between a purely untrained response and a completely trained one. This argument would depend on evidence that it is faster (and equally effective) to go from a flinch to a SPEAR-type counter than to go from a flinch to a boxing barrage, a Greco-Roman clinch tie-up, or some other MMA-based response. Blauer might make the case that, working backwards from MMA to startle, we will find a gap in coverage that the SPEAR can bridge. I really don't know, and I think that this will probably come down to anecdotes, subjectivity, and speculation.

In the absence of a good reason not to do so, I think we should consider the initial startle flinch to be neutral or agnostic in terms of follow-up techniques, and then line up some major alternatives of things to do next and consider them in terms of observable performance. I think it is legitimate to ask what professional athletes do to get out of trouble when they are hurt, tired, and put against the side of the ring or cage and subjected to incoming strikes.

Sometimes it is a useful exercise to consider the evidence that would force one to change one's own mind on the matter. In the interests of Popperian falsifiability, I suppose that I can say this: to be compelled towards the need for a bridging system, I think I would need to be able to conclude that the type of initial counter that Blauer advocates is accessible---under these very specific conditions---in ways that preferred options are not. Thus, a competing alternative to the SPEAR would not be, for example, a standard boxing combination consisting of a left hook and right straight (or a right straight and left hook, depending on the side from which the counter is launched). The argument for SPEAR might be that the alternative is essentially being trapped in a defensive, protective flinch reaction and absorbing more damage. If recommending a bridging system between flinch and fighting skills, Blauer should try to establish that the alternative to something like the SPEAR would be allowing the opponent to throw additional unanswered strikes (due to an inability to fight back at all).

Unfortunately, it is very difficult to set up a reliable, reproducible experiment that would satisfy all parties. Indeed, the act of making it an experiment might be considered so contrived that it contaminates the data, since participants would probably be aware that this was a training environment and might become unrealistically vigilant as a result. Blauer may be right about the need for a bridging technique between an untrained defensive flinch reaction and the full expression of trained responses; my personal suspicion is that the bridging technique can come from a variety of sources and that ultimately there are more important issues to worry about, anyway.

Shaping the Flinch: Boxing and Muay Thai Training

The "surprise" visual trigger for a flinch reaction may present some interesting questions. Those who have trained in boxing or Muay Thai have seen first-hand how a new student typically reacts to punches coming at his face: hands go out pawing towards the incoming punches, head turns away, eyes are closed. The flinch-plagued student may not be an ambush victim in the classic sense; he is probably not being tricked or sucker punched in an elaborate way, and is probably just engaged in relatively safe, consensual sparring with a training partner. He knows that he will be punched, knows that protective equipment is being worn, etc.

However, a flinch can still be there, and it is frequently exploited by more experienced fighters who will use feints to trigger the flinch prematurely, will move in and out of range to raise the experience of dread and panic, and will throw hook punches from outside angles to get around the new fighter's undisciplined pawing motion. In full-contact bouts, many knock-outs come from just this sort of scenario.

Skilled Muay Thai strikers and boxers will often use the first round to run a kind of diagnostic check on their opponent, and part of this process will involve using quick feints to see what the other guy's response is. If the opponent reacts to a feint with a high-strung, wild flinch reaction, this will be taken advantage of in short order as the more experienced, well-trained fighter can now throw longer and more sophisticated compound attacks without fear of being caught by a sharp counter.

(one of the best strikers in the world, Peter Aerts is a veteran of the K-1 circuit and a product of the revered Mejiro Gym in Holland)

I have noticed a lot of this in my own Muay Thai training, which is now heavily influenced by a coach who is the U.S. ambassador of Amsterdam's famous Mejiro Gym. The Dutch approach to Muay Thai is generally more concerned with footwork, angles, and optimal use of distance than is the traditional Thai version (the Thai fighters often take a hardcore "badman contest" approach and stand in the pocket to trade blows until someone is unable to continue).

One of the ways to avoid a panic and associated, maladaptive flinch/freak-out response is to keep on top of how distances are closing and opening during the fight, and to have a way to directly link a visual cue with a tactical decision. In creating an awareness/decision trigger to use for initiating various techniques, my coaches have been training me to maintain a peripheral awareness of the opponent's feet: if I can see his feet, he's out of range; if I can no longer see his feet, I need to either hit him or get out of there, because blunt trauma impacts are coming my way. In an MMA environment, the situation becomes even more urgent because the striking threat is combined with the threat of being taken down by a superior wrestler, or using one's own takedowns to drive the fight to the ground.

I think it goes without saying that one cannot simply stare at the other guy's feet; the ability to pick up on these visual cues while tracking the opponent's shoulders and hands takes many months to develop, and in practice it can require a constant, small movement of the eyes to direct attentional resources on a moment-by-moment basis.

I think this is one of the reasons that the Dutch-style Muay Thai training has such a heavy cognitive load: even with light, controlled striking, sparring and situational fighting drills can be very mentally taxing and some students later note headaches and sleep disruption. Hours are spent just learning to be able to maintain composure and attentional focus when punches and kicks are coming in, and to execute defensive techniques without going into a flinching, panic-driven reaction (a reaction that usually ends up having us attempt to turn our heads away from the threat while simultaneously throwing our hands out and making futile attempts to push the incoming strikes off. This is the stereotypical novice fighter's reaction to being hit, and it dovetails nicely with Blauer's depiction of a prototype flinch response).

"Hit to the Back Glove"

An essential part of the Dutch Muay Thai training program is to have training partners face each other in fighting stance. One man will then execute techniques---say, a jab-cross combination---while the other holds his rearhand glove---his power hand---next to his face as a target. The glove is held with the palm facing forward as a catcher's mitt for the incoming punches; a small movement is used to snap the palm at the punch at the last moment and create some resistance (note, the technique is slightly different for hooks and uppercuts).

Students tend to progress as they train. In the first stages, the glove is held away from the head because of fear of getting hit. As the student becomes more experienced, he starts holding the target glove closer and closer to his face, eventually reaching a point where the student stays in his fighting stance and his training partner can simply punch directly at his face. At this point, the glove will snap out from the fight stance to intercept that punch with a solid catch.

Variations on this theme take place with other training aids, such as Thai pads and boxing focus mitts: the man holding the pads learns to hold them closer and closer to his face, both to create more realistic targets for his partner and to train his own defense.

Instructors watch carefully for signs of flinching, blinking, leaning away from the punches, anticipation and fear leading to a reaching out for the punches to try to catch them early, and so on. Typically they will tell the student who is doing the punching to slow down if the defender is still dealing with a panic reaction, then they will speed things up again later as proficiency is achieved. It is a classic case of conditioning being used to cause a previous reaction to go extinct. This is not a quick process: conditioning takes many months because it is so difficult to retain composure when being stalked down by a trained striker.

Frequently the link between effective offense and equally capable defense seems to be muddied because of a desire to view them as distinct categories, but the two merge in an important psychological element. The development of an "auto-pilot" defense may create a sense of safety (even if it is sometimes an illusion of safety) that, in turn, allows one man to view another as a prey item rather than a rival. Controlled, cold "predatory aggression" requires this ability to stand apart from the opponent as if he is a member of a lesser, prey species: with this mindset, the attendant and enjoyable hunting emotions can then emerge. The objectification of the opponent may help to suppress panic reactions and to keep attentional resources devoted to exploiting vulnerabilities and hitting targets, rather than to concerns for one's own safety or doubts.

Bar Fights, Sucker Punches, Fences

Many real-world fights occur because of an irrational escalation of commitment: threats, insults, humiliation, and aggressive physical postures ramp the situation to a point where a blow is thrown or, more commonly, first contact involves one individual shoving the other. Thus, the ability to remain on top of a situation and prepare for violence, but to do so from a non-provocative position, offers an advantage. In these real-world scenarios, violence is not a given: one needs to try to remain safe while trying to exploit diplomacy opportunities and talk the situation down (usually by psychological appeasement methods that allow the belligerent party to withdraw with his perceived honor intact).

The pubs and streets of the United Kingdom, particularly in the industrial North, have provided a rich laboratory for interpersonal conflicts of this type. As a result of the (sometimes nightly) selection pressure, the British combatives training community, with its base in doormen and bouncers who have to deal with these situations regularly, has historically led the way in terms of developing viable approaches to street-level conflict management. In the near future, I hope to be able to post some interviews with leading British and American practitioners and to allow them to share their thoughts in ways far more thorough and articulate than I ever could, but for now I will just touch briefly on one original piece of work that has provided a basic framework for many others to use and elaborate upon.

A leader of the movement towards more responsible, effective, and professional streetfighting capability has been Geoff Thompson. Thompson's approach, which mixes combat sports such as boxing and judo with realistic, emotionally-charged scenario exercises (adrenal stress training; to be discussed in more depth next time), amateur MMA bouts (so-called "Animal Days"), and penetrating, almost philosophical insights into human nature, has a flagship tool that he terms "The Fence."

(legendary British doorman Geoff Thompson is perhaps best known for his approach to mitigating the threat of the sucker puncher without resorting to a transparently obvious fighting position that could needlessly escalate a situation)

The Fence (and its many variations; some version of it has been adopted by almost every progressive "street work"-oriented fighting instructor) is essentially a way to manage the uncertainty present in many real-world social situations. Within these scenarios, the potential for sudden, explosive violence exists in a tension with the potential for peaceful de-escalation and resolution. Thompson does not want to provide the spark that ignites the violent fuel present, but at the same time he does not want to get hit with a surprise sucker punch, perhaps being knocked out immediately or perhaps having to wrestle with the startle-flinch problems we have been discussing.

His solution is a physical approach that combines many of the defensive aspects of a proper fighting stance without the provocative, aggressive vibe that a true fighting stance would give off. The Fence, if trained, provides a suitable platform for most of the techniques that one finds in boxing and Muay Thai; in fact, one of my coaches favors a palm-out, Fence-like fighting stance even under normal conditions.

Take it away, Geoff:

Just to tie this back to earlier discussions of Panksepp's emotional command systems and related behaviors: when Thompson mentions the tendency of many people, even trained individuals, to leave the proper "Fence" posture of control and preparation and to make large arm movements and posture, he is raising a real tension between two different aggression types.

As noted previously, territorial aggression, which is associated with the RAGE circuit, is frequently going to dominate in the type of emotional bar fight situation being discussed here. Someone typically feels disrespected, insulted, or otherwise threatened, particularly in regards to status or access to sex, and acts out in a dis-inhibited way (due to the presence of alcohol). You may recall that territorial aggression is experienced as unpleasant: it is a toxic emotion that wants immediate satisfaction (hence the RAGE network). It "wants" the opponent to back down, to display fear and respect; associated physical behaviors include posturing displays designed to make one look bigger (i.e., spreading the arms), a loud voice, shoving, threats.

In contrast, the predatory aggression of the SEEKING circuit is all about stalking and hunting. Researchers studying predatory animals will refer to it as the "quiet bite" because of the lack of a dramatic, unpleasant emotional display. This is an enjoyable experience and most predators are equipped with an algorithmic hunting formula---a blueprint for success ultimately rooted in the mathematics of Nature---that is employed again and again. I note that most top predators do not have reason to fear being physically hurt by their prey items, while a territorial situation between predators does raise the stakes in terms of immediate personal risk.

Before closing, I will simply mention a paradox that will be explored more fully in later posts. The best way to protect oneself is normally going to be a trained response built on a solid foundation of healthy intuitive reactions (assuming mental health is present, obviously). However, the best way to access trained responses may well be to objectify the adversary and view the scenario as a hunting experience, thus engaging the SEEKING system and allowing for an optimal psychological state.

This would serve to make the term "self-defense" an interesting one, as chance encounters between predator and prey become more difficult to classify if the prey item does not perceive the reality of what it is up against, feels confident, and makes the terrible mistake of entering into a fight with a creature armed with evolved traits to hunt and kill that particular prey.

Coming Soon:


  1. Thanks for all this effort. Looking forward to more.

  2. Brilliant, thanks for writing these.

    Kind Regards


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  4. Your information is really very interesting and useful..Thanks for sharing such information.

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  5. I have found that when someone decides to play a game of jockeying for social position, and they say something that is intended to offend; when I turn it around so that their words hit them in the face, they are startled and they flinch, or someone overhearing will react that way, possibly even jumping into the air involuntarily.