Physiological Arousal and Mushin

mushin

mushin

Often in UFC fights the commentators mention the class of fighters post fight. When the match is over they tend show each other respect. For a sport that is so brutal at times, this is always good to see, in terms of sportsmanship. This post-fight show of respect also highlights another concept, namely control of physiological arousal, as often a fighter can switch from a highly aroused state to a much calmer state, just like that. From a Sport Psychology perspective physiological arousal can, hypothetically, be thought of as on a continuum ranging from comatose to raging, or something along those lines anyway. Meditation or chess would be firmly placed toward the comatose end, while sprinting would be toward the raging end. It’s interesting to speculate what the optimal arousal for fighting or MMA would be.

In Japanese arts they talk about mushin, that state of no mindedness in combat when the mind is unconcerned with thoughts or emotions and so open to everything. In Wikipedia mushin is described thus

“There is an absence of discursive thought and judgment, so the person is totally free to act and react towards an opponent without hesitation. At this point, a person relies not on what they think should be the next move, but what is felt intuitively. It is not a state of relaxed, near-sleepfulness, however. The mind could be said to be working at a very high speed, but with no intentions, plans or direction.”

Clearly, this would be desirable to a fighter, mind absent of thoughts of failure, fear etc and free to tactically respond to the opponent while being sufficiently aroused to strike effectively. Often in Japanese arts they also strive for mushin during kata performance, again from Wiki

“Many martial artists, particularly those practising Japanese martial arts such as aikido or aikijutsu, train to achieve this state of mind during Kata so that a flawless execution of moves is accomplished — that they may be achieved during combat or at any other time”

All very good in theory, but there is potential for trouble when the mushin is achieved in kata but not applied to fighting. The mindset required for kata performance is fundamentally different to that required in a fight or MMA match. During kata performance an open mind while the striving for perfection allows the practitioner to concentrate on the execution of technique, or, preferably, the underlying principles (see Kinaesthesis and Proprioception 2). During a fight or MMA match a person’s physiological arousal has to be further toward the raging end than if he were practising kata. That’s pretty obvious, but the point is that the state of mushin derived from kata practice is not synonymous with a state of mind required for fighting. It may very well be better than a fearful, anxiety ridden state but it is not optimal. Although, while a highly aroused state is desirable, it is possible to be overly aroused. The following clip shows examples of highly aroused MMA fighters, many of whom show none of the class I refer to at the start of this post but definitely plenty of arousal.

A couple of things spring to mind, firstly a kata mushin would be of limited value if faced with any of the fighters in the clip, most of whom seem to be close to the raging extreme of the arousal continuum. Secondly, these fighters seem over-aroused, they are so close to raging that they are unable to stop once the fight is clearly over. This may very well seem like an appropriate mindset for fighting or MMA, although successful in the examples in the clip, there is a danger of a fighter gassing if the opponent survives the storm. Alternatively, the raging fighter might end up losing quickly as in the following clip.

To me it’s obvious that Thompson was overly aroused, while Fedor’s brother Alex had a more appropriate mindset. The Emelianenko brothers and Cro Cop amongst others have a calm exterior which belies vicious explosive action when required. These highlights of Fedor and Cro Cop clearly illustrate this. Sure they are highly aroused, you can’t strike like those fighters without being so, but, importantly, they are not overly aroused. This state of highly aroused yet calm seems to me to be very close to that described in the first Wiki quote, which while being toward the raging end of the continuum its not too close.

To reiterate, the ideal state would be highly aroused but not too close to raging, free from thought and emotion allowing intuitive action; feeling not thinking. Mushin, if you like, but fight mushin NOT kata mushin! I’m not suggesting that a mushin man would always beat a raging bull in a China shop (to quote the commentator in the last clip), that would be absurd. Rather, I’m suggesting that raging is not optimal, a calmer yet highly aroused state, possibly synonymous with mushin, would be more appropriate both during the fight, so strikes can be delivered with optimal power, but also afterwards, so an opponent can be shown respect, unlike some of the fighters in the first clip.

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