Arousal In The Martial Arts


Whenever I mention the world ‘arousal’ in our training we inevitably get lots of smirks and sniggers because it’s a term that most ‘normal’ people only associate with sexual activity, but understanding arousal is very important to the Martial Arts practitioner.  The terms that Instructors tend to use are too blunt, they talk about ‘adrenaline dump’, ‘anger’ ‘aggression’ and ‘freezing’ when it’s far more complex than that.

Arousal can be trained at many different levels and can make a considerable difference to performance under stress and the learning environment.  Wikipedia explains arousal as:

“Arousal is a physiological and psychological state of being awake or reactive to stimuli. It involves the activation of the reticular activating system in the brain stem, the autonomic nervous system and the endocrine system, leading to increased heart rate and blood pressure and a condition of sensory alertness, mobility and readiness to respond.

There are many different neural systems involved in what is collectively known as the arousal system. Four major systems originating in the brainstem, with connections extending throughout the cortex, are based on the brain’s neurotransmitters, acetylcholine, norepinephrine, dopamine, and serotonin. When these systems are in action, the receiving neural areas become sensitive and responsive to incoming signals.”

Our ability to control our mental and emotional awareness, focus, and sensitivity, will control our reaction to stimuli and therefore our autonomic nervous system, endocrine system, heart rate and blood pressure.  Our mind and emotions are controlled through our awareness, focus and sensitivity which in turn is affected by our breathing, posture and internal softening and connection.  Our neigong and qigong practice are essential to enable this.

A good teacher will control the level of arousal in the students, there are times that they need to be calm and focussed to listen, pay attention and think for themselves times that they need to more sharply aware of danger and ready to act intuitively and times to react instantaneously and intuitively with trained responses to high level danger – all these responses need to be trained and encouraged from an in depth knowledge and understanding of the arousal system in the body  and how it can be controlled.

Many athletes and trainers talk about ‘being in the zone’ and my last few articles and blogs from the ‘Continuous Neigong’ through to ‘Expanding Time’ explain that training and learning process.  How do we know if we or the students we teach are in that ‘zone’ at the right level of arousal?  Recognised indicators can be:

  • Becoming totally involved in the learning and training process by centering in on the task in hand as non-learning stressors have been eliminated.
  • Losing self-consciousness of the fear we might fail and gain a desire to succeed as our emotions are now tied to the learning and training environment. Failing becomes a challenge because we become more adaptive as situations change.
  • We have clear visions of what the task to be learned or performed can provide as we know how it will help us in our future endeavours.
  • We have a sense of being in control of our learning and training environment and are not just going through the motions.
  • We become more self motivated  because we want to learn or deal with the task at hand rather than focusing on reward or punishment.

This is why I use the term ‘Hunter’s Mindset’ rather than the more commonly used ‘Emergency Mindset’ as I feel that it is more controlled, aware, and focused on the task in hand rather than going into ‘panic’ mode.  Being ‘in the zone’ is different for different tasks.

Working with Police and Security Personnel it is essential that they don’t panic and can recognise and control these levels of arousal, when I see some ‘Reality Self Defence’ training that only encourages this ‘Emergency’ mindset and throws students into panic mode training them to go berserk at people dressed in padded suits like spacemen and where training is only at a high uncontrolled level of arousal I feel that this can only lead to emotional instability and  mistakes.  It also drains the endocrine system in an unnatural way.  Police and Security Personnel deal with violence everyday without having to resort to panic mode.

In a dangerous situation you can be highly aroused and remain reactive to any situation as it unfolds; with levels of perception that are high and intuitive, not relying on just one sense and with structured thought-out and well trained reactions to events as they occur. You can also alter that level to suit receiving in depth explanations from an instructor or studying from a book so that you don’t become lazy, sleepy or full of apathy. The training chain that we use in Shi Kon to enable this is:

  • Underlying philosophy to behaviour.
  • Good posture and physical and mental attitude.
  • Deep breathing.
  • Mental awareness, focus and sensitivity.

This leads to our learning process:

  • Attitude, to influence –
  • Thought that will plan the-
  • Action to be performed that to improve will need –
  • Reflection to see where it can be improved that will create-
  • Correction to make the improvement.

Creating the acronym ATARC.

A good Martial Art, good teacher or instructor will understand the ethos and methods of training arousal inside the Art.  If you ever feel that everything is happening too fast, or you are too anxious, emotional, losing control or too lazy and apathetic – your level of arousal is wrong and requires attention!

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s