THE MENTAL GAME FOR SCA FIGHTING
In most athletic endeavors, armored fighting included, high-level athletes agree that success is 10% physical and 90% mental. The irony is that the training time spent by most athletes is closer to 90% physical and 10% mental. Here are ideas to consider for training in the mental aspect of your game.
No single factor guarantees success in fighting.
Physical abilities can be countered by superb technique -- and vice versa. Training “really hard” is valuable only if you are training properly. Both physical abilities and superb technique can be countered by an opponent who can “read the flow”.
A fighter who has speed to burn can be ineffective because their lack of technique cancels out the speed. A fighter who has superb technique can lose to a fighter who can “read the flow” well. A fighter who can read the flow well can lose to an opponent who is faster and has a certain level of technique.
The fast blow is useless if the technique is so poor that the opponent has advance warning that it is coming. Great technique can be countered by an opponent who is never there when it strikes. Someone who can “read the flow” can miscalculate by assuming their opponent is slower than is the actual case.
Success in fighting is a balance. You have certain physical abilities. It is possible to improve some, but not so much in the case of others. You can almost always improve the mental aspects of your fighting.
Physical techniques are still important. You must master them so you don’t have to think about them in the heat of battle. Your mind should have an arsenal of mastered techniques that can be called up and used whenever necessary. However, your use of those techniques must be informed by your perception of your opponent’s activities.
If you can become aware of all aspects of the fight -- your opponent, yourself, and the interaction between you -- it becomes an unfolding pattern. You won’t just see attacks and opportunities developing; you will feel them and be able to react instantly. You can be in the right place at the right time to strike your opponent, while not providing the information they need to do the same to you.
The conscious mind is aware of the fight but does not participate in the full-speed operations. If the conscious mind starts to think about the operation of the fight, your reactions will slow down. The subconscious mind is aware of, and reacts to, the high-speed (and sometimes very subtle) movements. However, it does not work if the conscious mind is running the fight.
If your subconscious is controlling the fight, it will be aware of your opponent opening up a vulnerability to an attack, and your attack will be more precise, quicker, and effective than if you just wait to see what occurs.
I don’t have great hand speed, but over the decades, I’ve developed a reputation for being very fast. But, it’s not because of my physical speed. It is largely due to a highly developed skill of reading the flow of the fight. I don’t have to wait until I notice a target has opened up. My subconscious can see it starting to open, and will “lead” it so that my sword arrives just in time.
Because of my subconscious “reading” ability, what has happened before my opponent launches an attack predicts when it will occur. My subconscious starts my defense, usually before the attack is launched, so that my shield arrives just in time.
This is only possible if the subconscious is running the fight. The conscious mind can take over by actively thinking about anything: the possibility of losing, whether a certain attack should be initiated, or how you must focus your concentration. In this event, the subconscious stops running the fight, and the conscious mind takes over, at least long enough to slow down your reactions.
We’ve all heard the expression “You’re thinking too much.” This is often used when a person is failing at a physical activity, despite evident talent and considerable training. Unfortunately, it’s often a true statement.
If the conscious mind is thinking about anything, it’s in control. It’s also too slow.
If you are “feeling” the fight -- if the subconscious is reading the flow -- it’s running the fight, and making the decisions quickly.
The conscious mind can be useful at times during the fight, but only when you are well out of range.
Emotions are another possible problem.
If you allow yourself to be distracted by emotions, the fight will become secondary, because your conscious mind will be thinking about that emotion. The conscious mind cannot think about two things at once. This is why the practice of “trash talking” is so prevalent at some levels of sports. If your opponent can be distracted by what is being said, or if they become angry with their tormentor, their effectiveness will decrease.
The same applies to you, and it’s easy to distract yourself in that way, even without help from your opponent.
In some of the Eastern arts, “no mind” is what you call the state of being not distracted by anything -- being totally ready, but not ready for any specific thing. In many of the Western arts and sports, this would be called something like “being in the zone.” Essentially, the subconscious mind is in control.
If you can achieve this, it’s like putting your mind in neutral. You’re not going forward or back -- you’re just ready. The subconscious is on the job, ready to react without hesitation to whatever comes along.
Without the conscious mind in control, you won’t have to stop committing to one mental pattern before you can start to react to a situation. You will be ready to react; mentally and physically. By not watching for a particular motion or situation, you will notice every one that occurs. Everything that happens is part of a pattern, so it’s easy to notice changes or any flows in progress.
If you can balance your emotions, you won’t have to contend with one of them interfering with your calm, focused execution of the fight. It is even detrimental to focus too hard on being ready. You must get to a state of mind where you can be ready but not think about it too much.
Flow is one of the most important concepts in this art. It is the evolving pattern of the dance in which you and your opponent are engaged. Expertise at using your subconscious to read the flow of that dance is what differentiates a great fighter from an amazing one.
At any point in the fight, what has happened already will strongly influence what will happen next. Reading the flow allows you to effectively anticipate possible attacks or the need for defense -- without thinking about it.
Other sports, e.g. volleyball and tennis, have developed drills for teaching the subconscious to read the action.
In the cases of a spike in volleyball and a serve in tennis, if the defender waits until the ball is struck, it is too late, physically, to move to the correct position to respond. What has been done is to have the defenders train wearing goggles that have the top third of the lenses made opaque. This makes it necessary to “read” the body language to make the prediction as to where the ball will go. This type of training has been successful.
I’m not sure if they start the drills out slowly, but I do with my drill that I use to train fighters: Slow Work. This is structured (there are rules): rhythmic Slow Work.
This is the silver bullet for learning to read the flow in a fight. Slow Work is covered in detail in my book. In the meantime, here are some thoughts that might give you a better understanding of the flow and reading the flow.
Act as if the fight is a dance, where your partner’s actions influence yours and vice versa. Waltzing is a good analogy. In this dance, pressure from your partner’s hands indicates directions of movement. One movement leads to a set of other movements, so a degree of anticipation is quite possible. The purposeful training of individual steps gives you an arsenal of movements to participate with, react to, or lead your dance partner.
Fighting is like waltzing four feet apart. The movements of the bodies, swords, and shield act like the hands of two dancers to push or pull you. As your subconscious learns to perceive the flow of the fight, you will begin to anticipate your opponent’s movements and notice the string of actions that will lead to openings before they occur.
With a highly developed “reading” ability, you may get to the point where you can feel a swing push you out of the way or pull your shield into it, or where the motions of your opponent’s body draw your sword to critical openings that you can use to your advantage.
This can’t be learned in full-speed fighting. The conscious mind can’t learn this way. It must learn slowly so it can teach the subconscious through repetition. Then once the subconscious learns, it can operate effectively at full speed.
The Conscious Mind and the Subconscious Mind are two of the three aspects of the mental game that must be considered. The third is Self-Image. Winners think that they will win. Their Self-Image is that of a person who wins. This does not mean that they will win, but unless they feel this way, they won’t. Henry Ford said: “Whether you think you can or think you can’t, you’re right.”
Going forward, the Self-Image cannot tell the difference between what actually happened, and what is vividly imagined. If your positive Self-Image is firmly established, actual losing doesn’t have much of an effect on it.
In addition, the Self-Image controls the amount of subconscious skill you will use to complete a task. This is based on whether your Self-Image feels that completing the tasks is something it views as being true about you. If it is outside of your Self-Image to do a task, you may have trouble finding the skills to perform it.
This is what causes the difficulty in learning skills when you have just started fighting. Once you have gained some facility, your Self-Image changes from: “A beginner who can’t do this well” to “I’m getting pretty good at this now”. Then the learning gets easier.
One trick of the trade is to always give yourself positive commands. The Self-Image will move you to do whatever the Conscious Mind is picturing. So, if you are thinking: “Don’t get hit on the first shot”, then you likely will. After that command, it’s like trying not to think of a blue elephant.
You do not have to win to be a winner. Winning or losing does not define you as a person. You must balance your goal setting. Here are two common methods of goal setting that don’t work.
- If you set realistic goals, you won’t be aiming high enough. Especially in high-level competition, winning is not realistic. So if you set a lower, more realistic goal, you are including “I’m not going to win” in your Self-Image. So, you won’t.
- If you shoot for the moon, you are very likely not to achieve them. This doesn’t do much for the Self-Image, either.
You should set goals that only you control. One of the most important things that you can do is to discipline your efforts in training. For instance:
- Discipline yourself in what you think about and what you do.
- Determine which tourneys that you will enter, and how you will train for them.
- Determine which teachers you will listen to, and which training systems you are going to use.
Useful goals should be things like completing your training regimen as planned, or being prepared to fight your best in the next tourney. They are NOT things like "I won’t be nervous when I fight” or “I’m not going to fall for Sir X’s offside feint.” We’ve talked about this.
“Playing well” is a better goal then “Winning”. In this way, your success is determined by how well you control what you can control, not by worrying about the outcome. Following your plan is under your control. Except for preparing to the best of your ability, winning is not. If your plan is to be as ready to fight as you are capable of, then you lose the pressure of having to win to be successful.
You should choose goals that excite you, not somebody else. Be very specific in defining your goals. The better you can identify what you want, the better are your chances of obtaining it. If it’s the correct goal, you will change your life to accomplish it, because it’s worth it to you.
Make a complete, written plan to achieve your goals. Intermediate goals are useful. Be specific. Write them down. Schedule the plan. Start now.
For a more thorough discussion of this topic, I recommend my book.
“The Bellatrix System – Techniques and Tactics for SCA Armored Combat” TheBellatrixBook.com
I also heartily recommend the book: “With Winning in Mind” by Lanny Bassham, Olympic and World target rifle champion