Not Fine China

Let’s face it, life here in the burbs of NorCal is pretty sweet. We are lucky to be raising our children in a time and place where they are unbelievably safe, and it keeps getting safer, despite what the media would have you believe. While all the improvements we’re witnessing are good news, I fear that in an overzealous attempt to guarantee their safety, we are actually putting our youth in harm’s way. Is it possible to be too safe?

“Why then, can one desire too much of a good thing?”

-Shakespeare, As You Like It

Why yes, William, one can have too much of a good thing. Take water for example – it’s not only good for you, it’s vital; we require water to survive, and many should drink more than they currently do for optimal health. Yet too much water is more than a little problematic; water intoxication (hyponatremia) can be fatal. So can drowning.

In this same fashion, the “better safe than sorry” mantra has been taken to an extreme. Our parks have rubberized crash pads under age-appropriate play structures, with nary a treacherous teeter-totter nor merry-go-round in sight. Even with all of this benign safety equipment, there’s always a parent near-by, hovering about like a helicopter from the local news station, waiting to jump in at the first sign of danger. Children rarely walk, or ride their bikes, to school. When I do see them biking, they look geared up for battle – not only sporting a helmet, but also wrist braces, and elbow & knee pads. Once at school, they’re not allowed to play freeze tag or dodgeball for fear someone might get hurt. Just like the public swimming pool, it’s become the land of NO: no running, no diving, no chicken fighting, no pushing, no this, no that, no…..

The teachers and/or parents always hovering nearby are also the new arbiters of all that is right. Not only are we making sure nobody gets physically injured, it is now of vital import that nobody’s feelings get hurt either. Anytime there’s a bit of disagreement, there’s an adult ready to jump in and straighten it all out. Read your local school board policy and you’ll note an emphasis on students’ feelings of safety.

“What doesn’t kill me makes me stronger.” 

– Friedrich Nietzsche

In our pursuit to shield our children from any and all physical, emotional, and mental distress, we are also removing valuable opportunities for them to develop into strong individuals. Bumps, bruises, and hurt feelings (gasp!), are all very real, and vital components of children at play. These are opportunities for our children to develop better risk assessment, become more independent, learn to fall and get back up, and fine-tune their conflict-resolution skills. Perhaps most importantly, they will realize that their bodies, as well as their feelings, will not only heal, but be that much stronger because of it.

In his book Antifragile: Things That Gain From Disorder,  author Nassim Nicholas Taleb asks us to think beyond fragility and resilience, and recognize that some things are antifragile; they need to be stressed and challenged in order to adapt and grow. The fine china we received from my in-laws is fragile; it breaks easily, and can’t heal itself. The plastic cups our daughters used as toddlers are resilient; they take a beating and remain relatively unchanged. We need to think of our children as neither fragile nor merely resilient – they are antifragile. Just like our muscles, bones, and immune system, our children get stronger when faced with challenges.

“Thus, when Heaven is about to confer a great office on any man, it first exercises his mind with suffering, and his sinews and bones with toil. It exposes his body to hunger, and subjects him to extreme poverty. It confounds his undertakings. By all these methods it stimulates his mind, hardens his nature, and supplies his incompetencies.”

– Mencius,  4th Century BCE

This is the nature of training in jiu jitsu. We are continually putting ourselves under pressure – the pressure of combat, in order to become physically, mentally, and emotionally tougher. BJJ students are antifragile; we are not made of fine china.

See you on the mat.

Sticks and Stones

While teaching English in Daejeon, South Korea, I found myself out late one particular night with a number of students. We were sitting around a Pojangmacha (포장마차), enjoying whatever various Anju (안주) were being served, along with some cheap Soju (소주) and good conversation, when this rather intoxicated fellow sat down next to me, and started intensely telling me what it was he had to say. My Korean skills at that point consisted of asking directions, and ordering food, so his diatribe was all but lost on me. His tone and body language clued me into his intent, but it wasn’t until his friend had taken him away that the students would tell me what he’d been saying. He was trying to insult me, derisively commenting upon all the standard topics á la Junior High: my appearance, my heritage, my mom. His intent was to hurt my feelings and make me mad, but as ill-intentioned as he was, I remained unscathed.

Of course it was easy to dismiss what he was saying; I couldn’t understand a word. Even after I was told what he said, I still was simply amused by his antics. The things people say have zero impact on our well-being; it’s only what we hear that matters. How we receive the message and process it is really what dictates its effect on us.

“Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never hurt me.”

As adults most of us are pretty adept at filtering the things people say. We are confident enough to not worry that much in the first place, and smart enough to recognize that the source, the intent, and the setting all play a role in how we accept it. A close friend making a snarky comment about our hair is much different than an acquaintance at work saying the same thing. Still, we all know how hard it can be at times, to not take some people’s words personally.

It is even more challenging for younger people to navigate these waters. Even with the frequently heard, “just kidding,” or “it was only a joke,” often times children’s feelings get hurt. They simply haven’t had the time and experience to develop effective discernment, and thus struggle with the nuance of sarcasm, hypocrisy, humor, and teasing.

One of the greatest tools we can give our children to help them weather this learning period is self confidence.

Being confident in who we are is like being vaccinated against the terrible things that people say.

Training in Brazilian Jiujitsu is a sure-fire way to develop a strong sense of self. As students repeatedly drill their skills and continually put them to the test, the grind makes one physically, mentally, and emotionally tough. Successfully “tapping out,” or submitting training partners with an ever-refining, ever-increasing arsenal builds confidence. Simultaneously, getting tapped out teaches resilience; our ego can take a “loss,” and thrive. Additionally, people who train in this manner are in little need of validation from others, thus what they say carries less weight.

It’s important to note that the most serious forms of teasing are committed by those who wish to build themselves up by tearing others down. Whether they’re seeking attention, or trying to establish their superiority, the perpetrators are looking for a victim. Just like bullies and criminals, they look for easy marks – people who appear unable or unwilling to stand up for themselves. The body language of a jujiteiro/a says, “I am NOT a victim;” it is a subconscious deterrent to predation.

If you want to teach your child how to deal with people teasing them, get them into a jiu jitsu class. They can train BJJ and learn to handle the trash talking with aplomb.

See you on the mat.

photo credit: kT LindSAy

Back To School

“It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly; who errs, who comes short again and again, because there is no effort without error and shortcoming; but who does actually strive to do the deeds; who knows great enthusiasms, the great devotions; who spends himself in a worthy cause; who at the best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement, and who at the worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who neither know victory nor defeat.”

– President Theodore Roosevelt, April 23, 1910

 

Professor Cassio Werneck traveled all the way to Danbury, Connecticut this past weekend to compete in the Fight 2 Win 83. His dossier is packed full of accolades from over 20 years of competing. From Brazilian State Champion to Pan American Champion, and from World Champion To Masters’ World Champion, Professor Werneck has won them all. He could easily rest on his laurels, yet he continues to lay it on the line; rather than taking the easy path, he chooses to challenge himself again and again.

This is the indomitable attitude of a warrior. It is the willingness to push one’s self past the comfort of the known; it is the self-disipline to embrace the day-in, day-out grind of never-ending improvement. It is the internal fortitude to commit to excellence, even when surrounded by a society full of those who settle for mediocrity. A warrior chooses to strive for more; win, lose, or draw, they will know that they gave it their best.

As summer comes to a close many of us find ourselves shifting gears – children head back to school, and parents re-adjust their shuttle schedules. This can be a time of excitement, and of a bit of trepidation; children can be a bit intimidated by the prospects of new teachers, and moving up a grade. It is a great time to remind ourselves, as well as our children, of the power of accepting the challenge – just dive in.

  1. Based on past experiences, make a plan of action, and execute.
  2. Stay focused on the task at hand, the potential for victory, and the many benefits of success.
  3. Remember that stumbling, sometimes even failing in the attempt, is still an opportunity for learning and growth. Learn the lesson and move on.
  4. Surround yourself with a good team. Your family and friends should be like-minded and support your efforts

We should approach the rest of our lives just like we train in BJJ. Play all in; push past comfort zones – sometimes winning, sometimes losing, and always learning. In the end we will know we gave it all we had.

Let the nay-sayers worry about the risks from the side-lines.

See you on the mat.

Bad, And Getting Better

Do you feel the world is becoming more dangerous, that violence is on the rise, or that more and more people are dying from disease? You’re not alone. Every year since 1989 Gallop has asked Americans whether there’s more or less crime, and every year except 2001, the majority said it’s on the rise. Even though the statistics clearly prove otherwise, most feel the opposite. Americans aren’t alone; when polled in 2015 65% of British people (and 81% of the French) said they thought the world was getting worse.

If you find yourself in this majority, it’s time to change your focus, (check out last week’s post). By every metric of measure humanity has made, and continues to make, great headway in improving the lives of an ever-growing majority of the world population. Hans Rosling presents an enjoyable, easy-to-read argument in favor of a more realistic world-view in his book Factfullness: Ten Reasons We’re Wrong About The World – and Why Things Are Better Than You Think. He also has a number of great videos on Youtube; here’s one of my favorites.

Now this isn’t to say that everything is just fine. That would be as inaccurate as thinking everything is getting worse. We still need to remain vigilant; we face serious problems that require us to continue forging ahead as we work to find solutions. It’s simply acknowledging the reality – contrary to what the media and our politicians may tell us, things have improved drastically, and continue to do so. As Mr. Rosling points out in his book, we need to remember that

“…things can be both bad and better.”

This same mind-set can be helpful to the aspiring jiujitsu practitioner as well.

When we first start training BJJ everything is new, fresh, and invigorating. It’s easy to see our progress as we learn new techniques, and feel our bodies getting stronger. We see how much better we are than when we started. Over time, it can become more difficult to see our progress. Our perception shifts as we begin to realize how much more there is to learn. We can focus on our defeats, and lose sight of our victories. Our perspective can leave us feeling inadequate; compared to what’s possible, our BJJ is bad.

A key to the Jiujitsu Lifestyle is maintaining a healthy, optimistic perspective. If you catch yourself struggling with motivation, or feel like you’re just not making any progress, double check your perspective. Consider how much you now know compared to before you began. Remember that as long as you’re putting in your mat time, whether it’s two, three, or twelve classes a week, you are improving. Forge ahead having faith in the process. You can be both bad and getting better at the same time.

See you on the mat.

Priorities

As a full-time dad AND a full-time business owner, I am scrambling to take care of everything  which the two jobs demand, and still make the time to train as much as I should. When I was a younger man, I would just sleep a lot less, but I’m finding that isn’t an option any more. So I’ve got to re-examine my time management, and this means taking a look at my priorities. A tool I use comes from The Seven Habits of Highly Successful People by Stephen Covey.

There is more “self-help” literature out there than any mere mortal could ever hope to read, and just like all of the dietary and/or fitness advice also available in bulk, much of it simply rehashes what’s already been said. It’s essentially 100,000 different variations of the basics, repackaged in an attempt to cash in on a booming industry. That being said,  Stephen Covey is one that I highly recommend.  His is a basic treatise on the fundamentals of succeeding in whatever endeavor you choose to pursue. It’s been years since I’ve read it, but I make reference to it on a regular basis, when I’m teaching my children, when I’m coaching an athlete, or when I need to re-up my own game.

His time-management system of four quadrants is a great way to break down activities, and best organize one’s time. Being a parent of three children, there’s quite a bit of time spent in Quadrant 1 that is unavoidable, and this list of “needs to be done right now” can be tiring because of it’s urgency. With foresight and planning, however, we can lessen the severity of this. That means effectively spending more time in Quadrant 2. As the girls mature, and can better plan their activities, homework, chores, etc. we find ourselves eliminating many of the crises in Quadrant 1.

matrix-for-job-aidsI am constantly guilty of the simple pleasures that come from participating in Quadrant 4. This is when our whimsical wants of the moment take up our precious time, and keep us from accomplishing what is truly important. My weakness is reading. I continually allow myself to get sucked into yet another topic that I realize I don’t know enough about. I buy a few books on the subject, and dive in.

It’s easy to justify all of the reading I do in the name of self improvement. The real issue, however, is the timelines of that reading. If it’s interfering with other things that I’ve made a priority, then I need to do it another time. I have to re-examine my priorities, or as Covey so succinctly states in his third habit, “Put first things, first.”  Then I need to make sure I’m minimizing the types of activities found in Quadrant 4.

How is your time management helping you achieve your dreams?

See you on the mat!

Are You Comfortable?

I recently came across a blog written by another student of Brazilian Jiujitsu. Grips & Growls chronicles his journey. Anybody already living the BJJ lifestyle will be able to relate. For those considering trying Brazilian Jiujitsu for the first time, his is a fresh perspective from one who has just recently begun. One particular post entitled “Sweaty Floor Karate,” hit upon a key concept of our art.

When you’re comfortable being uncomfortable for a hobby, everything else gets easier.

Let’s face it. We all enjoy the good things in life. We glory in the opportunity to sleep in, look forward to the chance to just sit on the couch and “veg,” and spend our weekdays anticipating a weekend at the lake, or a night out on the town. Daily, we are tempted to just hang out at the local coffee shop. While we’re at it, we can snack on a Snickers® bar, have a soda with lunch, and a little cheesecake for dessert.

While there’s nothing wrong with enjoying any of these from time to time, too much of a good thing is, simply stated, too much.

Consider as well all of the technology we’re surrounded by, and for the most part, take for granted. It was all designed with the intent to make life easier. There are planes, trains, and automobiles that get us where we’re going. Flip a switch and we have lights. Push a button and we have air conditioning. Push another and we change the channel. Turn a dial and we’re mixing, juicing, and cooking our food. We can open and close the garage door without ever leaving our car. Indeed, with a few thumb clicks and swipes on our smartphone, we can do just about anything, without ever leaving our home!

Remember the people aboard the spaceship Axiom in the movie WALL-E?

Our modern, suburban lifestyle provides us with ready access to every luxury imaginable, and an environment nearly free from discomfort. However, all of this easy living has a downside: it makes us weak. Just like the poor folks abroad the fictional ship Axiom, such a lifestyle can leave us ill-prepared to deal with adversity.

There are moments in our lives that can be less than pleasant. Taking an exam in school, applying for a job, and speaking in front of a large audience are some common examples. Avoiding them isn’t always an option, and oftentimes it isn’t in our best interest to do so. A successful test score, job interview, or presentation could lead to a vast improvement in our lives in the form of college placement, employment, or a promotion. These are times when being able to remain confident, calm, and clear-headed can enable us to effectively deal with the circumstances. (Let’s call these the three C’s of being comfortable.)

Learning to be comfortable being uncomfortable is fundamental to the transformational power of Brazilian Jiujitsu.

There’s nothing quite like having a larger, stronger training partner who has gained a superior position to help us understand the importance of the three C’s. In this circumstance, it is guaranteed you are going to be uncomfortable. As the pressure they apply smashes you into the mat, it gradually becomes harder to breath, with each consecutive breath a bit more shallow than the last.

The beauty of Brazilian Jiujitsu is that there’s a way out. If you can stay calm and clear-headed enough to remember your technique, and then execute confidently, you can escape. Not only that, but it can become a total reversal of fortune. It is an exhilarating experience to escape, improve your position, and then submit the person who was smashing you moments before.

Brazilian Jiujitsu is physically and mentally taxing. It pushes us to our limits. This is what makes it so powerful. The confidence gained radiates into every aspect of our being. After training with our teammates, everything else appears less intimidating. Any anxiety regarding an upcoming exam, job interview, or public speaking engagement is more manageable. We can look life’s challenges in the eye and say, “is that all you’ve got?” Our training enables us be confident, calm, and clear-headed when facing adversity.

We can be comfortable being uncomfortable.

See you on the mats.

Focus

What a wonderful, crazy world in which we live. We go to work and we play. We go shopping, come home, and fix dinner. We rest. All the while, our families, friends, and neighbors are there, taking the time to make us part of their lives as well. Technology beckons, as the television, radio, computer, and smart phone also vie for our attention. There are books, blogs, and articles to be read, videos to watch, and games to play. The phone rings, pings, or vibrates to alert us to yet another call, text, or email to be answered. We become engulfed in the ebb and flow of traffic as we commute to work, and transport our children to school.

We are continually surrounded on all sides by a seemingly endless barrage. It often seems as though everything is demanding your immediate attention. In this ongoing sea of activity, it can be easy to lose sight of where you are, or where you’re headed. Our ability to focus is a powerful tool that can help us effectively traverse such a multifaceted  landscape.

Focus your eyes, focus your mind, focus your body.

One of mantras I teach younger martial artists is, “Focus your eyes, focus your mind, focus your body.” It’s a reminder of the importance of paying attention to the task at hand. When we spar at the studio, or compete at a tournament, we must have a singular focus. We need to keep our eyes focused on our training partner/opponent, our mind focused on our game plan, and our body properly prepared for the ensuing match. A break in any one of the three greatly decreases our chances of success.

While the intensity of competition demands it, this level of concentration is helpful in more common aspects of daily living as well. We really should strive to focus in such a manner on all endeavors throughout the day. Being continually distracted by extraneous factors, makes us less efficient at getting the job done. When writing this post, for example, I have to turn on the “do not disturb” on my iPhone. Otherwise, I’ll be tempted to respond to the five texts, 20+ emails, and three phone calls I’ll surely have waiting when I’m done.

“Wherever you are, be there!” – Jim Rohn

Efficiency is one reason to be focused on the here and now. Safety is another. Being aware of one’s surroundings is the primary step in self-defense. For example, given the fact that automobile accidents are the #1 cause of accidental death in the U.S. with over 35,000 deaths annually, wouldn’t you think that it might be wise to pay attention while crossing a street, or while driving, for that matter? Yet, given the inherent risk, I am amazed at the number of people I see crossing the street with their gaze locked onto their smart-phone. (that makes “smart-phone” an oxymoron, doesn’t it?)

“Remember, today is the tomorrow you worried about yesterday.” – Dale Carnegie

Quality of life is yet another reason to practice focusing on the here and now. Often times we bemoan past events, or worry about the future. While it is good to learn from our past mistakes, dwelling on them does nothing other than to relive the negative feelings caused. It is also good to plan for the future, and thus be prepared for tomorrow. Worrying about it, however, is just adding more needless stress to our already stressful lives. Learn from past mistakes and move on. Plan for the future, and trust your plan. Learn to live today for today, and enjoy every moment.

“There are only two days in the year that nothing can be done. One is called Yesterday and the other is called Tomorrow. Today is the right day to Love, Believe, Do and mostly Live.” – Dalai Lama XIV

See you on the mat.

Finding the Sublime in the Simple

Recently, I decided to re-read All I Really Needed to Know I Learned in Kindergarten, by Robert Fulghum. It’s a fun, touching book of life lessons which I read way back in college, when I first started teaching children’s martial arts classes. (not quite so far back as the paleolithic period I mentioned last week, but pretty close.) His “credo” is a list of the basic rules we are taught as children. The beauty is, these work just as well for us as adults as they did when we were young.

“These are the things I learned (in Kindergarten):

  • Share everything.
  • Play fair.
  • Don’t hit people.
  • Put thngs back where you found them.
  • CLEAN UP YOUR OWN MESS.
  • Don’t take things that aren’t yours.
  • Say you’re SORRY when you HURT somebody.
  • Wash your hands before you eat.
  • Flush.
  • Warm cookies and cold milk are good for you.
  • Live a balanced life – learn some and drink some and draw some and paint some and sing and dance and play and work everyday some.
  • Take a nap every afternoon.
  • When you go out into the world, watch out for traffic, hold hands, and stick together.
  • Be aware of wonder. Remember the little seed in the Stryrofoam cup: The roots go down and the plant goes up and nobody really knows how or why, but we are all like that.
  • Goldfish and hamsters and white mice and even the little seed in the Styrofoam cup – they all die. So do we.
  • And then remember the Dick-and-Jane books and the first word you learned – the biggest word of all – LOOK.”

Each chapter is a little anecdote that simply and eloquently demonstrates an ideal. Through engaging, often humorous, stories of  puddles, vacuums, mermaids, raccoons, and hide & seek, he shows us the powerful relevance of lessons learned in every-day experiences; the sublime within the simple.

One such story is about spiders. Actually, it’s about a specific, traumatic, “life-changing” encounter between the author’s neighbor and a spider; from both his neighbor’s perspective, and that of the spider. (after it’s all said and done, both experiences are really quite the same.) Here’s a much less eloquent synopsis. The two are busily going about their daily routine. All hell breaks loose as their world’s collide.  They re-collect themselves, and go back to getting on with their day. (Mr. Fulghum’s version is much better – you really should read the book)

Remember the itsy, bitsy spider and that rainspout? No matter how many times one sings that nursery rhyme, no matter how many times the rain washes that spider out, the sun always comes out, dries the spider off, and the spider gives it another shot. It’s a cute little rhyme that we use as parents and teachers to pass on one of the most valuable lessons in life: Never give up.

Even the darkest night will end and the sun will rise.     

-Victor Hugo

For martial artists, and anybody else interested in achieving great things, Perseverance is a vital key to success. Big accomplishments take a long time, require much effort, and the path along the way is marked by many obstacles. There will be times when we’re too tired. There will be shiny, new distractions that divert our attention. There will be set-backs. None-the-less, just as the spider dries off, and heads back up that rainspout, we too must dust ourselves off, re-adjust our sites, and get busy working toward our goals.

This week we’re talking to our Lil’ Samurai and Jr. Jujiteiros about “Four Steps to success.” It is a simple recipe, but it’s not easy. It takes a lot of effort to stay on task and put in the work.

  1. Show up.
  2. Work hard.
  3. Rest.
  4. Repeat.

Each morning we are born again. What we do today is what matters most.

-Buddha

We humans are survivors. Just like spiders, we’ve been around for a long time. (well, they’ve been around for a few hundred million more years than we have, but who’s counting?) We’ve survived disasters and disease, experienced devastating wars and debilitating famine, and yet we persist. When we find our spirits low, or feel we are unable to continue on our chosen path, it’s important to remember – just like those who came before us, we can push on. Get up, dust yourself off, and get to it. Put the setbacks of yesterday behind, and make the most of today.

See you on the mat.

F.E.A.R.

One of the ways we humans distinguish ourselves from the rest of the species on the planet, is our cognitive ability. Our capacity to reason, to use logical and abstract thought, is what has enabled us to go from being nomadic hunter-gatherers of the Paleolithic “stone age” to  the modern era, from flint knives and tools made of bone to walking on the moon!  We reflect on the past, recognize patterns, correlate cause and effect, and calculate the odds of future events. We have dreams, imagine abstract concepts, and experience emotions like love, fear, and anger.

Our brain does more than just store data and contemplate the meaning of the universe. It contains our body’s autonomic nervous system, which controls all of our unconscious, “automatic” activities, such as heart rate, digestion, and respiratory. It is also the driver behind our so-called fight or flight response. This instinctual response is powerful and fast, and for good reasons. When suddenly faced with a life or death level threat, the immediacy and intensity of the response is paramount.

This whole system works pretty well, as witnessed by how far humanity has come over the millennia. We have our minds to thank for all of the advancements we are surrounded by in our daily lives. However, there are some kinks in the program, and these can result in a full spectrum of negative consequences.

In the presence of imminent danger, fear is the result of a healthy, natural, and powerful response. It is an autonomic response in which the amygdala, a primitive part of the brain, quickly responds and prepares us for survival. The ensuing dump of hormones increases your heart rate, shortens your breathing, and  prepares your muscles to explode into action. Your mind and vision become more focused on the task at hand. In this state, you are primed to fight, or to take flight.

“The only thing we have to fear, is fear itself.”

-President Franklin D. Roosevelt

Fear is also an emotion elicited in response to things we perceive to be threatening. We might be afraid of heights, speaking in front of an audience, or flying in a plane. To feel a bit anxious in any of these situations would be considered normal. If the fear is debilitating to the point of negatively effecting one’s life, however, then taking the time to assess the actual risk could be helpful. This is where things get a bit tricky, because we are terrible at assessing risk.

Our modern world is much more complex than that of our ancient ancestors. We now live predominately in densely populated, urban settings surrounded by fast moving technology. Our access to information via television, radio, and the internet is exploding exponentially. All of this information provides the opportunity for us to become more well-informed, and thereby to be better at risk analysis. However, there are some barriers that hinder that ability.

Our mind constantly handles so much information, that we’ve developed various psychological mechanisms to help sort through it all and speed up the process of decision making. These heuristics provide shortcuts to help streamline our thought process. We often refer to them as “a rule of thumb,” “stereotyping,” or “intuition.” Heuristics often lead to a variety of cognitive biases, and while heuristics and biases help us come to quicker conclusions, they can also lead to grave errors in judgement. This is especially true when it comes to assessing risk.

It’s also important to note that all of that information we have access to is filtered in a number of ways, such that we are generally working with just a portion of the “facts.” If your source for information is the news, it’s important to remember this: that which is newsworthy is the outlier, the anomalous. Reporting the norm, sadly, is rather boring. “Today, just like yesterday, and the day before that, 150,000,000 Americans went to work.” “50.7 million children attended over 98,000 public schools today, and will be all week long.” That’s not what the headlines look like though, is it? Instead, it’s, “Earthquake Destroys Village, Death Toll 300 and Rising,” “Train Wreck in Countryside Leaves 120 Dead, 300 Injured!”

False Expectations Appearing Real

The availability heuristic is the tendency to judge the frequency, the probability, of something based on how easily you can bring it to mind. This worked great for our great-great-great-great (you get the idea) ancestors. When they saw their buddy get mauled by a saber-tooth tiger, that threat became paramount: “saber-tooth tiger – BAD.” In our modern society, we don’t have to worry too much about being mauled by a tiger. In fact, when one looks at the actual statistics, we find that for the past 25 years our lives have continually gotten safer. Violent crime in the U.S. has been on an overall decline since their peak in the early ’90’s (and that includes the slight uptick for the past two years).

vcrimechart

Traffic safety has also been steadily improving. This is good news, as automobiles are one of the top causes of accidental death in the U.S. (37,757 in 2015, or 11.7 per 100,000)

traffic deaths graph
Insurance Institute for Highway Safety

So why is it that a majority of Americans feel less safe than ever, when the reality is the opposite? In large part, we can thank our availability heuristic. Every time we see a heinous crime on television, or on the internet, that visceral image becomes dominant in our mind. A singular event portrayed over and over again becomes larger than life. We give it undue influence on our assessment of it’s frequency, and how likely it is to happen again. In this manner, our fear grows beyond reason, as a False Expectation Appearing Real.

What can we, as martial artists, do to remain calm in the face of the proverbial storm? How can we keep our head, and make sound decisions for our future, without allowing our emotions, our fear, to cloud our judgement? The first step is in acknowledging that such biases as our availability heuristic have an impact on our perspective. Second, when it comes to risk assessment, people really should study actual statistics, which can help clear up misconceptions. Here are a few resources:

Third, in my opinion, is to stop watching the news. These organizations do a poor job of presenting material in a manner that isn’t intentionally inflammatory, over-sensationalized, and down-right misleading. They want you ticked off, and/or scared. It sells.

Turn off the television, get on the mat and train.

image credit: Alexander Sidorov

Be Calm and Breathe

I must not fear.
Fear is the mind-killer.
Fear is the little-death that brings total obliteration.
I will face my fear.
I will permit it to pass over me and through me.
And when it has gone past I will turn the inner eye to see its path.
Where the fear has gone there will be nothing. Only I will remain.

-Frank Herbert, Dune 

(It’s a work of fiction, I know, but this mantra has stuck with me since I read it in my youth, so here it is.)

Last week we started our discussion of the “ABC’s of Self Defense” in which we talked about Awareness. Awareness, of course, is the tool we use to avoid danger, minimize the risk of encountering it, or enable ourselves to see it coming when unavoidable. This week we’re going to begin looking at strategies for dealing with the complexities of confrontation.

Fear is a natural reaction to any given set of stimuli perceived as dangerous or potentially so. We’ve all experienced it to one degree or another; standing on the edge of a high precipice, being in an automobile accident, preparing to ride a roller-coaster, or the seemingly universal fear of speaking in front of a large number of our peers. Don’t feel bad. The increased heart rate, sweaty palms, shaky hands, and pit in your stomach are all results of your autonomic nervous system doing it’s job.

Fear is a healthy tool for survival. It reminds us to avoid danger, or to proceed with caution when in doubt. It can stimulate us to action in order to protect ourselves; whether to fight or to flee. The adrenaline leads to an increased heart-rate, and heavier breathing, making us stronger and faster. It focuses our vision and hearing, blocking out extraneous distractions. Fear can also render us incapable of rational thought, intelligible communication, or fine-motor skills. It can distort our vision and our erase our memory.  It can incapacitate us, leaving us frozen in our tracks, unable to decide what to do or which way to go. Therefore it is vital we learn to control our fear, and make it work for us, as it should. The key to this control lies in something as simple as our breathing.

Tactical breathing, or combat breathing, refers to a technique used in the military and law-enforcement to reign in our fear, so to speak. It is not unique to these agencies, however, as it is also taught in martial arts, yoga, and even the Lamaze technique. It is a way we can moderate our autonomic nervous system’s response, keeping it in a range that benefits us the most for the circumstances at hand. By controlling our respiratory response, we can stay “in the zone” of optimal performance.

As with all self-defense skills, this is one we should practice at every opportunity, in order to assure we have access to it under the most dire of circumstances. When you feel yourself getting “stressed out” before an exam – breathe. When you sense your anger rising during a discussion/argument – breathe. When you’re warming up before a competition – breathe. When you’re fixing your belt between rounds in a jiu-jitsu class – breathe

While breathing itself isn’t rocket science, here’s a basic method for reigning in your autonomic nervous system, and thereby your fear. As you practice and develop this skill, you’ll find a count that works best for you. In the meantime, just remember “4 X 4:

  1. Inhale for a count of four.
  2. Hold it for a count of four.
  3. Exhale for a count of four.
  4. Hold it for a count of four.

Repeat four times.

See you on the mat!

(**For a more thorough understanding of stress in combat, check out Lt. Col. Dave Grossman’s On Combat. Every serious martial artist should put this book on top of their must-read list.)