Sticks and stones


Sticks and stones may break my bones but words can never hurt me.

Whoever came up with that particular saying might be shocked by how false it seems in the modern world.  I’m sure that every coach / instructor / teacher or businessman/woman reading that phrase is only too aware of how damaging  words can be.  In theory reputations can be salvaged through litigation, but  a word once uttered flies away beyond recall.

 My opening phrase is not about litigation though.  It is the adage that verbal abuse cannot harm compared with physical abuse.  In this day and age of psychological study we can see the fiction in this as well as the truth, and those that work in any form of education or group workplace are keenly aware that verbal bulling can be as great a problem as physical bulling.  What may remain a closed book to a number of martial arts instructors is that suffering verbal abuse can lead to an increased risk of  physical harm.

 I’m not talking about psychological trauma and self-harming here, but the damage that verbal abuse can do to our immediate physical state in a self defence situation.  I train my students to make appropriate physical responses to physical attacks.  I also teach my students pre-emptive striking techniques based upon their assessment of the probability of violence – in other words if they are unable to make a retreat and sense that their attempts to verbally de-escalate the situation are failing, and it is their honest belief that they are about to be hit, I train them to hit first.  In this approach I may fall into a smaller group of instructors.  In addition to this (where my surroundings permit) I have my students verbally abuse one another in role play simulations prior to the physical drill – and here I imagine I fall into a tiny minority.

 So, why add in a verbal element to physical practise?  This comes down to your training rationale.  If you are training in a martial art for the love of the competitive element involved, then you would naturally spend the majority of your time learning to fight or perform within the rule set of your chosen competition – drilling and sparring in the attacks, defences and tactics used there.  If however you are training in your chosen art for the purpose of self defence you should  want to spend your time drilling and defending against habitual acts of violence (haov).  That is a logical step to take.  But a large proportion of violent incidents  do not start with a push, a haymaker, a grab or a headbutt – they start with a verbal attack in the form of an argument, a misinterpreted glance or jostle, a torrent of unwarranted abuse, a demand or a con tactic.

 As an example I used to  do a drill where a person was pinned against a wall by their throat and threatened by and attacker’s fist.  Students quickly became able to break out of this position using a combination of high and low movements.  When the exercise speed was increased, and their attacker protected with body armour so as to take full physical contact, they continued to be able to do it.  Then I had the attacker put their face only a hand’s length away from their ‘victim’ and shout “What the f*** are you f****** looking at, you f****** piece of s***. I’m going to f****** smash your f****** face in!” Suddenly the drill fell apart, the victim froze and the technique was executed after a delay and with less conviction – if at all.  The impact of the verbal abuse reduced the ability of the target to access the gross motor skills they had previously been employing and left them vulnerable to physical attack.

 Some people might note the over-use of the F word in the above phrase and I stress that the students chose their own language.  We have become used to this and other words and probably use them ourselves under our breath or out loud, but rarely up close.  We see and hear aggressive language in television drama and it doesn’t really affect us.  Up close it is a different story.  I suspect that the F word in particular is powerful up close because of the contortion it gives to the  face, exposing the teeth in an unaccustomed way and  shortening the nose.  The combination of the volume of the shout and the primal (almost gorilla like) visual display gives it power and its aggressive use can sap confidence, awareness and conviction.

 Gradually my students became accustomed to the verbal posturing.  After they  experienced it about five times on the trot they were back to about 50% effectiveness, a percentage that gradually increased with more exposure.  But imagine what might happen to you if you never trained this scenario.  What if you only did your techniques in a sterile environment?  How certain are you that you would cope, that you wouldn’t ‘shut down’, that you would remain calm?  The impact of words on our mental state should not be under-estimated.

 What became clear from the performance of these drills was that although the majority of students had a low level of adrenaline running through their system during class, and had experienced high rushes of adrenaline in other activities, they were simply not prepared for the impact such intense verbal pressure had on their physiology.  In this and in other drills many were caught out by the fact that their unconscious reaction was to step backwards and away from the noise, others by the difficulty they had trying to speak whilst their digestive system had temporarily shut down.  As with normal physical drills, repeated exposure brought acceptance, confidence, and an increased ability to maintain dialogue – a key factor in trying to avoid conflict.

 In the years since I have run many heavy contact scenario training days for my own students and for visiting trainees from a broad range of other systems.  In these events it is not simply the contact and the use of haov that ‘de-skills’ the majority of first timers below their normal performance, it is the novelty of experiencing a personal verbal assault and the difficulty of making a decision under such pressure as to whether to pre-empt or to continue to attempt to talk.  With each exposure trainees become desensitized and improve, and crucially it is not simply a matter of their physical skills improving but their physiological state improving.  If the training is done well then they will experience some adrenaline, but not as much as before, which means that their heart rate is lower,  they can access a slightly greater range of motor skills, and they are able to make more rational choices.

 The Kiai used in paired kumite incorporates an aspect of this verbal assault, but I would stress that its effect at close range is insignificant compared to personal insults and threats. Some instructors might feel that they can’t do such things, even if they would like, because of the youth element of their classes.  You will find that it is possible to work these scenarios without using ‘swear words’ per se; “Get back to where you came from!” is an unpleasant thing to say with the proper inflection, as is the challenge “what are you looking at?”  I would actually advocate the  use of such drills with classes involving children along a carefully designed word and intensity continuum, simply because although we might try and pretend it doesn’t exist, verbal bullying of this kind does occur and can frighten young people.  Preparing young people for verbal aggression can help prevent problems and fights (at that age).  There are a number of tricks that can be employed to encourage normally reticent people to shout at their friends and to depersonalise both aggressor and target.  Whenever you are doing this form of psychological training it is important to be aware that if you are not careful in your methodology you may harm vulnerable adults and children, and  while we want our training to be realistic and effective, it should not cause damage.

 Whether you incorporate drills of this kind alongside your physical practise boils down to a simple question – do you want to teach something that is useful for self defence?   Our physical skills are of no use for self defence if they cannot be accessed under pressure, and that pressure can come as much from having to process the visual  and aural stimuli of a sustained verbal assault as any physical assault.

Train safely and have fun.

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