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Home > Columns > "The Mirror" > February, 2006 - Fighting Patterns

Fighting Patterns by "The Mirror"

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This column was written by Pauliina Lievonen.

How many times have you gotten a correction from sensei, tried to perform it, and ended up doing just what you had been doing all along? Why does this happen?

Very simply put: after we've learned a movement by repeating it often enough, it's stored in the brain as a pattern. Before you even realize that you're thinking about making the movement, your muscles have already started to activate in that pattern - especially if you had just performed the same movement the moment before. If you're not thinking about anything very clearly at the time, that's what your body will do again.

If we're talking about gross movement like where to put a foot or hand, this really isn't such a big problem. After conciously telling yourself what you want to do instead and trying a few times, it's usually possible to re-program the movement.

When it comes to more subtle details this is much more difficult. I recently saw (or more correctly, felt) a very good example of this. Our class was practising tenkan from a same-side grab, and sensei had asked us to try and not turn immediately, but to have the first movement be an entering movement.

After a while I started to notice that most of my partners had a pattern of "turning" in their bodies already at the point that they offered a wrist for me to grab. It felt as if my partners were trying to turn their arms away from me at the moment of the grab already. I made this remark to one of them, and asked her to let go of that tension. After she was able to do that, it was no problem for her to enter first and then turn.

Reading the above paragraph it all sounds pretty simple, but let's consider a few things: first of all, she needed to first be aware that she was doing something already before we'd even started the exercise. That required an outside source of feedback. Second, she needed to take a bit of time to feel from the inside what I was talking about, and then even a bit more time to be able to let go of that pattern.

What we have at play here are a couple things. First, the idea that my partner had of what the result of the movement would be (the position she wanted to end up in, having turned). Her idea of where she would want to end up was seducing her into forgetting what the first step of getting there was supposed to be (namely, not turning but entering). And her body, obediently doing what her mind was actually asking it to do, was activating the appropiate muscular tension required for turning, not entering straight.

Second, she wasn't able, at first, to feel what exactly she was doing, right at the moment of my grab. It took a moment of pausing, and feeling from the inside what was going on, and even then, a person with a less sensitive proprioceptive sense (the sense that lets us feel our own bodies) might not have felt it.

Once she did feel the pattern in her arm and body, she could let go of it. And once she had let go of the pattern of "turning", she could enter straight forward. Even then, though, not every attempt was succesful, because the "turning pattern" would keep creeping in unnoticed. If I hadn't kept telling her, "no, now you're going for the turn again" every time this happened... I'm willing to bet that after a few repetitions she would have been right back where we started - turning.

Let's recap: The way we learn movement is that it first is a conscious effort and processed in one part of the brain, and with enough repetition, it gets engraved so to say to another part of the brain that we normally don't have conscious access to. If you now want to change that action, you first have to get it out in the consciousness again.

If you just try to glue another different response on top of that first one, the first one is going to be stronger because it's already sitting there, deeply engraved in the unconscious part of the brain. So for instance "enter before turning" is all well and good, but the message your brain is sending out is likely to be "turn" and you need to STOP that message first.

Feeling what is going on is absolutely crucial here. If my partner hadn't been able to, eventually, feel what she was doing, she wouldn't have been able to let go of that pattern either. And she had to keep noticing what she was doing again and again and again, because every time she started the exercise again, she was more likely to do what she always had done in her three years or so of practice until then. The succesful order of events here was: 1. notice what's actually going on. 2. stop doing that 3. do the new thing 4. rinse 5. repeat...

It's the middle step of stopping your habitual response that is often missing in people's attempts at changing what they do. The result is a conflict between the old response and the new, and a much smaller chance of success. Taking the time to stop feels like too slow an approach, but in the end it's much more effective. This means that you have to take a little moment to wipe the canvas blank before you try the new thing sensei suggests, not rush into the technique, like we all like to do. And you need to do it over and over and over again. A couple repetitions isn't going to be enough to make the changes permanent.

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