On the occasions you delivered the perfect strike; blocked without the need to think or performed a near flawless kata, did it feel difficult? Or did you get the sense it happened by itself? The 'zone' is a place where athletes describe this sort of experience. Studies suggest its a state of 'effortless merging of action and awareness'. So what stops us from getting there? Factors such as stress or attempts to try harder can interfere. Often our efforts to train harder result in unnecessary muscular responses that prevent us reaching the effortless state of the zone.
How you perform a technique and how much effort you use depends on how you have done it before. The process of repeating a technique many times lays down the pattern at a subconscious level until it can be executed with minimal thought. But can you be sure that what you have learnt is the most efficient? Try these two experiments.
1. Fold your arms and look to see which hand is tucked.
2. Now reverse the pattern, fold them the opposite way.
3. Notice the difference and your reaction to it.
The pattern in step 1 is your habitual 'folding the arms' programme that is activated without conscious thought and will feel familiar and comfortable. The pattern in step 2 requires some thought to achieve and will probably feel wrong, as this is different from your usual preference. This shows how strong the force of habit can be. Not only does it select the pattern of the movement in step 1 but also determines what feels right and wrong in relation to position and movement. There is nothing wrong with the pattern in step 2, but is it a move you would choose to do automatically? Probably not, because you will only perform movements that feel right. However, when you do what feels right you engage habitual movement patterns; those performed often enough to establish the habit.
1. Sit on a chair and get ready to stand up.
2. Before you move, observe what preparations you want to make. Do you hold your breath? Do you push forward with the lower back and raise the chest? Do the muscles in your neck stiffen and pull back the head? Do you feel the need to push with your hands on your legs? Spend a little time to study this before attempting the next step.
3. Now try to stand up from the chair without doing what you have just noted (it may be necessary to ask someone to observe your actions to give you feedback). How far can you execute the move before one, or all of these patterns appear?
To successfully execute the last step can be difficult because the usual preparations you make are a part of your habitual 'getting out of a chair' program and are ready to go before you even begin to move. You would not attempt to start the move until the familiar conditions such as the sensation of muscle tension associated with the act are present. From a mechanical point of view the common actions mentioned in the second step actually reduce the efficiency of the movement. If your preparation and subsequent actions for this exercise are unnecessary, why do you do them?
Do the techniques of your martial art contain inefficient movements? Do they feel right because they are good or purely because they are a comfortable habit?
It is my belief that our natural state is to be in the zone. Diligent practice of the martial arts can help us to experience this shift of consciousness. The zone is an altered state where things can happen with little or no perceived effort. In these moments our response appears to precede conscious thought and is executed near to perfection; right timing, right effort and entirely appropriate to the situation.
I am sure we have all experienced moments like this. For example, in one competition I scored ippon with a jodan mawashi geri to the side of my opponents exposed face. Afterwards my opponent congratulated me on my technique commenting he didn't see it coming, to which I could honestly reply, "Neither did I". I was only aware of the execution of the technique once my leg has started its recoil. Where had it come from? At some level my senses had registered the target, selected the most appropriate technique, fired it off, made the lightest of contact and started the recovery before I had become aware of it! This was probably my 'finest hour'. But how can we be capable of such remarkable feats one moment and be totally incompetent the next - I lost the next round and was appallingly slow.
Whilst the patterns (techniques) residing at a subconscious level can be called upon with incredible speed and effectiveness, I believe this can only happen if we are in a balanced state. Another word for this is poise, this is not to be confused with posture. Poise is a state of totally appropriate activity, both at a muscular and 'mental' level. When we are in this state there is 'optimum integration of the postural reflexes, consciousness and appropriate use of learnt patterns'. That is, we can get out of the way and let the processes just happen. Nerves, tension and stress will interfere with this process if we allow ourselves to react negatively to these situations such as stiffening the neck, an action that will impede the balance reflexes. Likewise, over-confidence has a similar affect of preventing the unity of self and action as, in my view, it will reduce our level of alertness and state of readiness. The ego really should be left at the door of the dojo!
So perhaps to heighten our chances of getting into the zone we need to focus on 'being in the moment'. Only by being consciously aware of the moment or 'the here and now' can we ensure inappropriate muscular activity is not present in our actions. This takes time and involves going back to some very basic movements (pre-martial art techniques) such as everyday simple activities and zazen to experience a stillness and awareness that will help in more demanding activities.
Roy Palmer is a Teacher of The Alexander Technique and author of The Performance Paradox: Train Smarter to enhance performance and reduce injury. More information can be found at http://www.artofperformance.co.uk
He works with sports people of all abilities to recognise and overcome performance-limiting habits.