Learning a new skill requires time to take in the information, hone your application, and finally achieve understanding. You cannot effectively apply that skill with the full speed of your reactions, without consistent training. (source)
The Nervous System, Reflexes and Krav Maga – Part 2: Training your reflexes and conscious decision making Audio by Jonathan Fader

This is the second part in another series about connecting the system of Krav Maga to your nervous system and day-to-day life. Specifically your nervous system and your reactions. (See Part 1) (previous series Awareness Colour Code, The Nervous System & Mental Health)

Now that you have a better idea of how your reflexes are affected by your brain, body, and conscious awareness, I can start to discuss how training affects your ability not only to have quick reflexes but also to make better decisions. This is the part that is heavily studied (meaning lots of research) and yet may still be the self-reflection that we humans are often most resistant to, as it takes time, commitment, and, often, money. Yet, when it comes to performance, it can be the difference between gold, silver, or no metal at all, and when it comes to personal safety, self-defence, or Job requirements, the difference between life and death. Regardless of your goals, the path to better and quicker decision-making is both practice, in the form of iterations, and quality, regarding how you actually train. I will take a basic learning theory with regard to skill development and use a case study in the form of the unfortunate and recent police-related death of Daunte Wright.

As briefly mentioned in Part 6 of the previous series there are four stages towards competence as generally accepted and it is harder than you think to achieve stage 4 in any given skill set. Before I delve into this, I would like to bring up the concept of the 10,000-hour rule, originally popularized in the book Outliers: The Story of Success, by Malcolm Gladwell, (a great book). In this book, Gladwell looks at many “outliers” (extremely successful people) who have excelled beyond anyone else. One thing he notes is the amount of time and, of course, energy, they put into developing themselves skill-wise, or otherwise, to being the best. He suggests that it takes up to 10,000 hours to achieve a skill level that would be considered mastery compared to your peers.

To give your mind an anchoring point to better understand what this means let’s give it a quantitative reference point and compare it to the standard 40-hour work week. Working 8 hour days, 40 hours a week, it would take 4.8 YEARS of continuous work to achieve mastery at your job and the basic skill set needed to do it. This however is probably not realistic as, let’s be honest, most of you probably do 2-4 hours of ACTUAL work towards that goal. This means for most it probably is closer to 10-20 years to achieve mastery. Of course, this is not an exact science, as some people may achieve mastery faster than others for a variety of reasons. One thing is for sure, mastery, at a minimum, takes thousands and thousands of iterations (repetitions) to be achieved. The more you do, the better you should get.

Let’s expand on this. I pose the question, “why is it some people spend their whole lives doing something but never reach the level they would like?” The first reason is that despite the constant barrage of positivity in the self help/self improvement world (industry) they often forget to discuss the reality of personal limitations, in particular, those to do with something you can’t control mentally or physically. For example, if you just don’t have a lot of fast-twitch muscles, no matter how hard you train, you probably will never break a world record sprint time. Add to this to the fact that humans, legitimately, can only run so fast before are bodies hit their mechanical limit. Period. There are certain realities positivity just cannot over come. Sorry.

The other reason is related to the quality of iterations (repetitions). Simply doing something over and over again may not increase your skillset if you are not doing it efficiently or effectively. The reason many of the best accomplish what they accomplish, and are selected for examination in the book Outliers, isn’t just the iterations they are doing, in the form of constant, driven, hard work, it also has a lot to do with the fact they tend to be more efficient in the way they do it. One could refer to the quote, often attributed to Vince Lombardi, “Practice does not make perfect. Perfect practice makes perfect.”

Okay, so now that I have rambled enough, let’s make this more tangible with regard to skill development in martial arts and self-defence. Let’s take the example of BJJ schools. It is very clear if you have been around long enough that some schools produce better results, more consistently, than others. There are two reasons for this.

  1. A school run by a champion may simply be attracting those who are highly capable.
  2. The coach at that schools is an effective coach in developing the skillsets of ALL students, making them the best they can be in the most efficient way.

The latter will usually produce excellent results, more consistently, for more people than the former. That is because it is based on logic, reason, and science rather than relying on a student’s natural talent. The world-famous BJJ coach John Danaher talks about this in the various podcasts he appeared on to discusses the need for quality repetitions that increase skill rather than repetitions simply for their own sake. (ALL of his podcast discussions are worth listening to, but in particular episode 182 on Lex Friedman)

Okay, so what does all that have to do with reflexes and your nervous system? Simple, the more skill you have in self-defence, combative, or, well, in anything, the faster and more efficiently you can apply those skills, especially under stressful conditions. Remember, if you are a Black belt in the gym you may actually only be a Brown or Purple belt on the street (in the context of BJJ rankings). This is where understanding how the 4 stages of competence relate to skill development comes in:

The 4 stages of competence are:

  1. Unconscious Incompetence
  2. Conscious Incompetence
  3. Conscious Competence
  4. Unconscious Competence

Let’s break these down so you better understand:

  1. Unconscious Incompetence – This is the point where you have been introduced to a skill. For example, you just learned how to deal with a knife attacker doing an icepick attack. This means you probably learned the Krav Maga 360 defence. While you know the technique, as you were just shown it, your body and brain do not actually understand how to use it effectively yet. You may even forget many of the details of the technique the moment you walk out of the class. The new lesson is put somewhere in the back of your brain and your competence in using this technique (skill) outside of the context in which you learned it is not well establish (yet). This is why going to a 2-hour self-defence seminar learning multiple skills and then saying you know how to defend yourself now is delusional, because you are still very much in the “Unconscious Incompetence” stage and are unlikely to be able to use these skills in any practical sense, especially if your nervous system is jacked due to the fight/flight mechanism and the various stages of the color code. Now, in a less dramatic sense, this stage is fairly short and is the period when you are just learning it, as the instructor is trying to explain the technique to you and you either “Got it” and can now practice it or you “didn’t get it” and practice is still not on the table yet. If you were not even paying attention for all 2 hours of said seminar you are definitely stuck here, as you didn’t actually learn shit. So pay attention.
  2. Conscious Incompetence – At this stage, you should understand the basic mechanics of the 360, as in “your arm goes here and your foot goes here,” etc. You are consciously aware of what you are supposed to do, however you are aware that you still don’t really understand it very much beyond the fundamentals of the technique. The individual may still be able to drill the technique independently, without constant correction, but understand that they probably are making mistakes. Depending on the individual’s natural skill they may be able to use the technique in self-defence, albeit very sloppily and with possible injury or errors.
  3. Conscious Competence – At this stage, the individual understands both the mechanics and the strategy of the 360; when to use it and when it won’t work. They will be able to use it in self-defence but there is a conscious effort that must be maintained. The individual MUST be aware that a threat was there, the situation warrants a 360 block, and they are consciously preparing for it. They will be thinking about what they are doing and how to do it while performing the technique in training or in self-defence
  4. Unconscious Competence – The individual has at least become an expert in the use of 360, perhaps even mastered it. They can probably even teach it well to others. Under duress, they can use the technique without even thinking about it much. They may even be surprised they used it and did it well under stress. This is because the nervous system, body, and reflexes all recognized the patterns and executed the technique without thinking too much about it, as the movement was reflexive and unconscious.

Clearly the more you can move towards Unconscious Competence the faster your reflexes will be. This is because you have developed the skill so well you don’t even really need to think about it. Thinking takes time, which slows down your reaction giving you less time to reflexively react and more chance of getting hit or worse. This is encapsulated in Bruce Lee’s saying, “Learn it all, then forget it all.” (or “Learn it ’til you forget it.”)

This means that self-defence is a skill that needs to be developed. Even if you are naturally gifted with fast twitch muscles, to give you faster general reaction times, you still need to develop the skill beyond the actual technique. This includes developing how to connect the technique to an overall strategy appropriate to the situation. Ensuring your nervous system is operating appropriately and not overriding rational reasonable reactions with things like fear or “running hot.” True mastery means developing to the point where it is reflexive, but you still have control over your actions and are linking it to everything else. Developing a skill to unconscious competence is only the first step in a journey to allowing your reflexes to be as fast as they can, all while making the right decision and the appropriate response.

Clearly it’s not just about training, but training consistently and with enough iterations to achieve at a minimum Unconscious Competence. You must remember however, it’s not just what you are learning, skill-wise, but how you are learning it. There are two things that you are constantly fighting against with regards to faster reflexes and reactions; time and age. For even if you achieve fast reaction times along with mastery in the chosen skill set, eventually your body will not be able to do what it once did. But as long as you achieved these goals, you will still stand a good chance with your high skill, knowledge, and developed skill set against the average would-be attacker.

So train your mind, body, and skillset in the most efficient manner so that you can achieve Unconscious Competence faster than the rest of the pack. There are many ways to do this, but one way is to develop skills based on your own natural body reactions. This is something Krav Maga has developed well, the two primary responses are to run and create space (flight), or move toward the threat and eliminate space (fight).

These two however, will be covered in the next posts.

In the meantime consider what was written above and ask yourself. Is the way you are currently training just about quantity? Or is it also about quality? And, of course, are you putting in the time and energy to develop your skills to a level that you desire?

Written by Jonathan Fader.

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