“Never was anything great achieved without danger.”
- Niccolo Machiavelli
When I feel endangered while practicing martial arts, I feel like something has gone horribly wrong. I’ve been trained to think it means that someone is being irresponsible, and we need to stop immediately. My teachers have almost always erred on the side of caution, and for good reason. We want everyone to be able to continue practicing safely without accumulating injuries or disabilities over time. But a recent experience led me to question my assumption that danger and responsible training are mutually exclusive.
While researching martial arts schools, I met a teacher of classical Japanese martial arts who had some controversial ideas about safety. He is interested in accessing the raw, primal violence and power he has found by pushing himself to the edge. For him, that is indispensable to his training, so he incorporates danger into his practice. Like most classical Japanese martial arts, his art is based around two-man weapons kata, performed with bokken and other wooden weapons. But with senior students, he told me, he also practices with full-intent blows and no protective gear. When all goes well, no one is struck, because kata are choreographed. But if one person makes a mistake, they stand the very real chance of receiving a full force strike from a bokken or other wooden weapon. This teacher also occasionally practices sparring with protective gear, but at a much higher level of intensity than is common among modern practitioners of swordsmanship. If you have practiced swordsmanship before, you’ve probably detected several red flags. Quite frankly, this sort of thing is just dangerous.
But I knew that this particular teacher had been strongly outspoken about teachers who recklessly endanger their students. I knew he was not simply disregarding the risks. Rather, he felt that the potential benefits of this sort of practice outweighed the risks, and had therefore chosen a reasonable solution. He made it very clear that I, a prospective student, would not be required to do such training if it made me feel uncomfortable. In other words, the danger is strictly consensual. It’s also reserved for very high-level students, those whose control he trusts. His exercises were unsafe, but responsible – a combination which I had never before considered.
Of course, every risk worth taking must correspond to an equal or greater benefit. It’s true that if you recklessly endanger your body, you will not be able to practice beyond your youth. But fighting is dangerous. If you’re interested in martial arts as a way of becoming a better fighter, then you have to learn how to cope with danger. There are a whole range of psychological and physiological effects which come along with the experience of danger. Your adrenaline starts pumping, your heart beats faster, and you feel fear. Maybe your mouth feels dry, maybe your hands shake, and maybe your pupils dilate. Maybe your fine motor skills fail and your muscles tense involuntarily, so your body moves differently than you expect. Suddenly, you can’t manage to pull off your precise, sophisticated technique anymore, which in turn creates more fear as you realize that you can’t fight back as well as you expected. Worst of all, you may panic, effectively abandoning control over your own body and mind.
This isn’t an unsolvable problem. In the world of education, teachers have to address similar problems in students with acute test anxiety. For these students, tests trigger the fight-or-flight reflex, releasing a stress-induced hormone called cortisol which shares many of the same side effects as adrenaline. To overcome their anxiety, students have to be repeatedly exposed to the tests. In other words, they have to get used to the stress, to realize that their anxieties are predictable and understandable. They need to know how to manage themselves under stress, and they need to understand on a visceral level that the test is not actually a threat to their existence.
A fight, on the other hand, can very well be a mortal threat. A martial artist is, in fact, quite right in experiencing those levels of stress. His life may depend on that adrenaline. But that does not mean that he can’t get used to the stress. Just like a student with test anxiety, a martial artist can benefit from repeated exposure to the same stressful stimuli, learning to cope with the stress.
It’s not just about feeling stress; martial artists would also do well to experience physical pain. Pain is a great motivator, but only when you really feel it. When I train with swords, I know that it’s bad to get hit, but I don’t really feel the pain when I lose. By contrast, when I’m grappling and I get choked, it hurts. My world slows down and I have to focus on the fact that this is the part where I would die. It makes me fear that position in me, like my body has become allergic to vulnerable positions. That’s what we want: an automatic affinity for powerful positions and a visceral aversion to vulnerable ones.
I once heard Billy West, the famed voice actor, give a great explanation of this sort of experience: If I have a hammer, I know objectively that if I hit my hand, it will hurt. But I have to hit my hand to know how much it will hurt. That’s the value of experience. As martial artists, we are interested in being able to get out of the way of that hammer. Anyone knows that we should get out of the way, but only someone who has been struck understands how important it is to do so. That’s why pain is such a powerful motivator.
Now, those are perfectly good reasons why a martial artist should experience danger. But how do we go about doing it? We can’t simply attack each other. We have to be responsible about it or the risks will outweigh the benefits.
To be responsibly unsafe, several conditions need to be true:
- Consent: You must only endanger your partner with their consent so they can take the risks knowingly.
- Purpose: The danger must serve a greater training purpose. By extension, the amount of danger should be proportional to the importance of that training purpose.
- Control: The participants must have a very high level of control so that they don’t unnecessarily add to the risks. The danger should be of intentional pain, not of accidental injury. This means that responsibly unsafe exercises are best practiced directly with the teacher.
- Pain, not injury: Participants must not set out to deliberately cause lasting injury (as opposed to pain). Lasting injuries reduce your ability to function as a martial artist, so they are much harder to justify for training purposes.
- Supervision: Participants must be supervised by a responsible teacher who understands and respects the risks involved.
If you meet these conditions, it’s possible to be responsible and unsafe at the same time. This possibility is particularly important for those martial artists who have given up on the idea of free practice. These martial artists aren’t willing to change their technique to make it safer (they see the way that martial sports corrupt good technique), but nor are they willing to use the uncorrupted technique for fear of hurting one another.
These practitioners are usually unwilling to sacrifice technique for safety (they see the way that martial sports corrupt good technique) and unwilling to use the uncorrupted techniques for fear of hurting one another. But there is a middle way, and it is to be responsibly unsafe.