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Muscle Memory

This article was compiled by Simon McMahon from an article by Geoff Thompson, author of “The 3 Second Fighter” and many other books.

Sensei Kidby often mentions the term “Muscle Memory” in relation to our training and sparring, telling us that to be effective we have to make it real. Pulling punches in the Dojo, like in sports karate, leads to pulling punches in the street, he comments. Although we believe our instructor implicitly, I think some of us may doubt the reality of such an expression as “muscle memory”, believing that if and when the crunch comes, they will be able to defend themselves and use all their skills to the full. To this end and to stress the point further, I recently came across the following article on the subject of muscle memory and I would advise all exponents of karate to read, digest and then decide for themselves. It may well make you rethink your training style. The author of the article, Geoff Thompson, has a long history of martial arts from traditional karate, through semi and full contact karate to writing books and creating videos on self defence. He continues to train and runs seminars on self defence. You can see more of what Geoff is about at Geoff Thompson says in his article: "Did you hear the one about the circus knife thrower that tried to kill his wife but every time he threw a knife at her he missed? He had trained so hard and for so long to just miss her that when he actually wanted to hit her he couldn’t. His muscle memory was tuned into missing the target. I was at a traditional karate championship in the Midlands some years ago watching fine displays of competition fighting by some of the top point scorers in the country. One of the fighters, a member of the Midlands squad and an excellent 3rd Dan competition fighter with 20 years karate experience approached me and asked for some advice. For the benefit of the article, we’ll refer to him as T. It turned out that T had recently been involved in a fracas outside a local night club. He had had a good night out with his brother and a friend and they had left the club late to make their way home. Crossing the road he caught the eye of two aggressive looking young lads on the opposite side of the street, both about 20. “What are you looking at?” the lad shouted at him. Because the question was completely unexpected he didn’t really know what to say so he hesitated. Before he knew it, the young lad had crossed the road with his mate and was reiterating the challenge, “Do you want some then, do ya, do ya!” His brother and his friend tried to pull T away, telling him not to get involved. The lad got very aggressive, with his mate behind him for backup and started pushing. Instinctively, T threw a punch at the guy and landed what would have been the perfect knock out blow on his aggressor’s jaw – had he not pulled the punch on impact with perfect competition winning control. His brother pulled him away, telling him to leave it and they turned and walked away. As they walked T felt a heavy blow to the back of his head followed by a few more, his brother and friend suffering the same fate. Soon all three were on the ground and received a severe kicking. In confiding in me, T asked why he hadn’t performed, why had he pulled his punch? He had spent his whole adult life training in the fighting arts and on his first real encounter it had let him down. The bumps and bruises didn’t bother him – it was the fact that he felt so ineffectual in the encounter. His attackers were nobodies, probably never having trained a day in their lives. T was so distraught that he considered giving up karate. First, I told T not to abandon his art. The traditional style he practiced has a good style, a hard style. What he needed to do was change the way he trained. You get what you train for. If you train for total control and practice thousands of pulled punches, day in day out then when you are attacked pulled punches is what you will deliver. It’s called muscle memory. When you repetitively train a technique it will become a reaction, what we call automatism. The thing to remember is that the untrained person in the street does not suffer from muscle memory as they have never been trained to pull their punches, so they will attack with haymaker punches and kicks with their full power behind them. I remember many years ago at a big international semi-contact meeting in France when things got out of hand and tempers started to fray, the whole contest arena exploded and everyone started fighting for real. There were some of the best fighters in Europe at this competition, but amazingly not a single injury was incurred. This was not because the fighters were incapable – they were brilliant – but it was because muscle memory pumped out what they had diligently trained for, to pull blows. In actual fact it was not the karate that was ineffectual, but that these guys, like the circus knife thrower, were trained to miss, not hit.

Muscle memory is a good thing if you train it correctly, if you want to feed out contact blows in a real scenario, then contact blows is what you must train for. Muscle memory also affects your reactions to capitulation. If you stop in the dojo when you get a bloody lip, when you’re tired or feeling sick or scared, then that’s exactly what you should expect in a real situation. So in the controlled environment you must treat it as thought it were for real – if you stop in a real fight because of something minor, then you’ll be waking up with a crowd around you."

The views of Geoff Thompson are of course his own, as he is a professional full-contact fighter and master of self-defence situations, so much so that he has written many books on the subject. The use of this article for our purposes is not to advocate the use of unnecessary force and power during training sessions but to make the student aware of muscle memory from real situations. Sensei Kidby instructs us to view all our training as “the real thing”, including basics and kata, imagining an opponent in front of us to give us focus. To this end we train to land the punch, kick or lock but not to put the pain on. This forms our muscle memory and we feel what it is like to land techniques instead of pulling short of target. We also get to feel what it is like to be on the end of a technique, whether it be a punch, kick or lock, before the pain is put on. If you’ve never been hit in a real situation, when it comes you might be so shocked you’ll pause before the adrenaline kicks in and open yourself up to more attacks. Knowing that when we train and we have to connect with the target allows us, and our muscle memory, to know that in a real situation we can put the pain on and end a difficult situation quickly.

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As you may or may not be aware, Sensei Andy Gillies, one among us who has truly found karate-do, spends much time researching our chosen martial art and has given us all many insights into its meaning


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