Think like a ninja

Think Like a Ninja

You’re in a place you’ve never been in before. In front of you is a person you don’t know. And you know you need to defeat them in unarmed combat. In a bout that will last only two minutes you need to establish that person’s level of skill, ferret out potential weaknesses, formulate a probing strategy and back up plan and be prepared to reformulate everything on the fly. There is a ref and four corner judges to make sure all the rules are followed. If all that pressure is not enough, you’re also being watched by friends and relatives. Your every move a matter of public record as cameras and smartphones point your way.

For a trained martial artist none of this is an insurmountable obstacle. The environment is reduced to the mental representation of a sparring square. Its defining characteristics are reduced down to its geometry. The opponent becomes a list of potential moves. Each probing attack redefines that potential that is further reduced by the ticking clock as 120 seconds flit by.

That is, in essence, a competitive martial arts round. If we could draw it, it would be framed by a square whose dimensions are dictated by the martial arts style in question and two stick figures whose lines of movement are determined by the positioning of each in relation to the other.

The real battle however is mental. Inside the head of each fighter is a war of emotion and logic. A struggle to manage doubts, overcome fears, ignore uncertainty, be in the moment, so present and mindful that each movement becomes effortless. Each technique stems naturally from the dictates of the circumstances and the variables they present.

Neuroscientists who study martial artists reveal that each competitive match is a set of behavioral responses triggered by event-related brain potentials (ERPs). In other words what is really happening is that the body, seemingly engaged in a complex dance, is really a tool that executes a decision that’s been taken as a response to a stimulus. Expertise and training are defining factors here as is the ability to concentrate for prolonged periods of time, under pressure. Neural efficiency is what separates experts from novices. Winners from losers.

Fighting is in the brain

It feels strange to openly talk about the cerebral side of combat. While there is a body of literature like the Art of War, that specifically says battles are lost or won before the first shot has even been fired, competitive martial arts and boxing have not always been associated with a strong mental component.

That is about to change. Combat training is about self-regulation. Physical prowess is reflected by corresponding changes to the brain’s structure that allow the body to move in ways that minimize effort and maximize power. A thing recently demonstrated by world class boxer Vasyl Lomanchenko who punched a nail into a wall with his bare hand and who incorporates a strong mental training component into his boxer training regime.

Any unarmed combat situation is subject to a fluidity of choices that make it hard to process by a non-expert. There is too much noise in the brain as it struggles to control its own emotional state and process a fast-changing situation. Experts however are good at focusing on what is important. Their brains appear to be quieter and their decision-making is faster because everything associated with it is optimized.

The optimization touches everything, from the way attention is directed and information processed to how energy is allocated and events are prioritized within the brain’s cataloguing system. Even more telling is the fact that none of this mental activity can take place without structural changes made to the brain itself.

Remake Your Thinking Apparatus

Here are the take-aways from all this:

  • Complex motor skills that require directional attention force the brain to adapt at a cellular level.
  • Mental skills drive physical prowess through the development of specific internal models (schemas).
  • Everything is guided by the need to achieve the highest possible efficiency in the energy management required to complete a particular physical task.

We all live in two worlds. One on each side of our skin. Our survival requires our presence in both.

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