“Responding to Aggression — Part 2,” by Tom Collings

“At the first sign of a violent threat almost everyone – including martial artists, cops, and combat veterans – have an immediate radical transformation in brain and body chemistry.”

Not long ago I wrote an article about responding to violence and presented Morihei Ueshiba’a concept of “takemusu aiki” as a practical outline for response options. The unusual urgency I was feeling about the topic (almost a 24-hour obsession for several days) escaped me, since the danger level of my law enforcement job has not changed much in 25 years. But right after I completed the article, the murder of all those children took place at the school in Newtown, Connecticut, less than an hour from me. Did I feel that young man’s insane rage as it boiled toward explosion? I do not know, but the perception of danger often triggers a unique set of body-mind dynamics which intensify some of our capabilities to an amazing degree while crippling others.

Reactions to the school shooting incident have been predictably emotional, and irrational. There has been a surge in gun purchases and suggestions that we arm school staff. But the reason carrying a gun is a liability rather than an asset for most people is the same reason most martial arts training has such limited real world self defense value. In both cases, there is little recognition or preparation for the radical effects our mind and body undergo when confronting life threatening danger. This is not just a problem for untrained people, it is the critical flaw in most firearms and martial arts training.

While danger enhances some sensory/motor capabilities it seriously impairs others, this phenomena is referred to in military and police training as the Adrenaline Stress Response (ASR) or Survival Stress. At the first sign of a violent threat almost everyone – including martial artists, cops, and combat veterans – have an immediate radical transformation in brain and body chemistry. A massive mix of powerful hormones such as adrenaline, cortisol, and many more instantly enter the bloodstream, muscles, and brain. Higher brain functions such as judgment, decision making, and coordination are adversely affected and more primitive brain function such flight/flight reaction and hyper-vigilance become highly stimulated.

In less than a second the heart can race from a resting rate of about 80 to double or even triple its normal function reaching over 200 beats per minute. Respiration becomes faster and shallow further increasing heart rate. Most fine motor coordination (manipulating things with our fingers) and hand-eye coordination is significantly impaired. Complex motor coordination (tasks requiring a series of movements) become more difficult. Only gross motor skills – individual large body movement is enhanced under stress.

While some senses such as smell, hearing, and visual focus are intensified by this rush of “jet fuel” into the system, other critical senses such as peripheral vision are almost totally lost.
Here in New York, NYPD officers who routinely score 80%- 90% at the qualification range experience nearly a 300% drop in accuracy when firing on the street, and a meager 18% hit rate when someone is returning fire in a real gunfight. An 18% hit rate means a lot of bullets are flying around at people other than the bad guy, sometimes hitting innocent people. This is with far more training than any civilian is likely to receive. You can understand why I would be dead set against any staff in my daughter’s school being armed.

Carrying a weapon is an awesome responsibility that most people cannot handle – in 1989 a supervisor accidentally blew a hole in the wall next to my head with his revolver – 1995 a partner of mine accidentally fired a 9mm round through his apartment wall into the next apartment – 2005 a customer at my local gun shop accidentally blew a hole in the floor next to my ankle. The presence of guns often makes everyone less safe.

The same sloppiness and debilitating loss of capability due to ASR affects martial artists too. The rule of thumb in military and police training, established through exhaustive battlefield and police critical incident research is: “if it takes long to learn, it probably won’t work under stress.” Yet, as black belt martial artists we take great pride in the techniques that took us many years to master, and it would be unthinkable at the dojo to teach only what is easily learned. Who would that impress? The other rule is: “practice what you will need to perform.” That means our training must very closely match what we will confront.

Do those of us in the aiki arts really believe that assaults commonly occur by someone running up reaching for our wrist, or striking at us from above their head as if holding a sword? I guess we do because we devote most of our valuable training time to these scenarios. If it is obvious that modern day assaults are very different from these classical style attacks why do we not modify our curriculum more in line with what we will actually confront?

Is this blasphemy? Would this be corrupting the art? Would it show disrespect for our teachers?

With fine motor coordination gone and complex motor skills seriously compromised we can kiss most artistic graceful aikido and elegant aiki jujutsu techniques goodbye. We endlessly refine ever more subtle and advanced variations , even though subtle and advanced both run counter to what works best under stress. Your body’s instant survival response leaves you with enhanced gross motor skills– primitive body functions like pushing, pulling, striking, running – but you have far less coordination. Practice and repetition help but not enough to perform difficult or complex tasks effectively under stress, they are just not appropriate for the occasion..

It is not just 40 years of aiki practice and some street time that gives me the arrogance to
suggest we need curriculum change, someone far smarter and more accomplished than me said it several years ago. The brilliant jujutsu master Yukiyoshi Takamura challenged teachers to have the courage and creativity for what he called “innovative traditionalism”:

Any martial art is really a set of concepts and principles. Physical techniques are important but not the defining elements of a style… it’s how they perform the locks (techniques) that differentiate the styles… When I came to America I discovered that many traditional techniques were simply not applicable to the realities facing my new students. Jujutsu techniques in their original form were not intended to address modern situations. At first I was not sure that I had the answers…I was busy focusing on jujutsu techniques when it was jujutsu concepts that were the solution. …New techniques could be devised to address new realities while embracing time honored concepts that form the art’s core. This would not be abandoning the art. This would allow the art to maintain its effectiveness and relevance to a new generation and era…I am not concerned with what other teachers think… I am most concerned with the welfare of my students and living up to the responsibilities that have been entrusted to me. I am comfortable that my students may actually use the art they are learning. The same cannot be said about the students of most teachers that embrace a strictly classical approach.

Another combat stress dynamic to understand is your blood clotting factor. The effects of ASR assures that your blood clots much faster than normal when you are cut – which may very well happen when facing an edged weapon attack. Do I expect to get cut when defending against a sudden edged weapon attack? Yes. If I am cut can I stay in the fight? Absolutely. Do you not expect to be cut? The illusion that you will not be cut when defending against a knife is a dangerous fantasy that results in panic and freezing at the first sight of blood, because being cut is then a shock, it means you have lost. A senior student of the master quoted above was severely cut fighting with 2 attackers during a home invasion. He prevailed and is very much alive today. I know cops with similar stories.

Other effects of ASR include tremendous short term energy and little or no pain. But the bad guy does not feel much pain either – so you can also kiss most of those pressure points and pain compliance techniques goodbye. My experience is that pain is not an effective control against aggressive aroused bad guys, it just pisses them off.

After a serious car accident I was busy helping elderly folks get out of the other car involved. Only much later did not notice the huge gash in my leg. I frequently interview parolees who have been shot multiple times, when I ask what happened after they were shot I often hear – “I ran to the hospital, what did you expect I would do? ” Nobody told these guys they are supposed to fall down. Under ASR even if you feel pain you do not respond to it until much later.

But these facts seem to escape us in the dojo. After years of training I was nearly 100% successful at getting training partners to tap out in the dojo using a common aikido pin. But the first time, I did it in the street the guy screamed in pain – his body contorted with tremendous force – and I completely lost the control. When he got up he had twice the rage and twice the power, the fight was on again and it was not pretty. After that incident, I removed all arm twisting and bending from my pins, they now work. Aikido has helped me on many occasions, but my failures have been my greatest teachers.

Why is the reality of survival stress ignored in our training curricula? Why is firearms training still mixed up with the hobby and sport of target shooting which has very little relevance to defensive shooting? Realistic defensive firearms training is not relaxing – it is stressful, mentally/physically demanding and expensive, that is why it is rarely practiced by civilians who carry guns. They find comfort in their TV and movie fantasies, this makes them a danger to themselves and everyone around them.

Martial arts are plagued by the same syndrome. We continue to embrace and impose on trusting students curricula that ignore the realities of adrenaline stress in favor of impressive looking acrobatics or elegant performance art. I believe 90% of most martial art is “performance art.” – and 10% which is the original core of essential battle tested skills, but they look and feels too crude to appeal to us. Our (modern) embellished “traditional” version looks so much better in demonstrations. Like children we are impressed with acrobatics, like museum curators we are most impressed with beautiful art. While art and acrobatics are wonderful activities, they belong in sports arenas and dance halls, not dojos. We humans are romantic creatures who enjoy turning simulated violence and combat into a thing of beauty, into martial “art.” I wonder if this is not a dangerous self-deception. Is violence not inherently ugly? Perhaps it should stay that way.

Mental preparation is another area that both firearms training and dojo ignore at their students’ peril. When are you willing to use force? When are you willing to injure someone? When are you willing to use lethal force? To keep you’re the $40 in your wallet? To save a life? These critical questions concern your values, morality, spiritual principles. They define who you are. They must be resolved and clear in your mind now – not in the heat of battle or you will fail, crippled by indecision at a critical moment. Remember, thinking and analysis are higher brain functions severely impaired during survival stress. Clarify what you are willing to kill and die for Now. This will empower you with the most potent weapon any warrior can carry – decisiveness.

The choke or freeze reaction is common when suddenly confronted with danger, and it is not uncommon for trained officers to have their guns taken away during confrontations – why is this? It is because pulling a trigger or delivering a lethal series of strikes is taking a life. It is a monumental decision. In the abstract, we could all shoot a bad guy – but in real life most of us have a very deep emotional resistance to killing. Unlike the movies, events in the real world happen suddenly and are often not clear in the first few seconds – so hesitation is understandable. Some officers and most civilians hesitate to shoot until the adversary has inched close enough to grab their gun. For many street wise bad guys if you pull a gun on them without shooting they interpret this as weakness and fear – and actually become more aggressive.

A final element in dealing with the survival stress reaction is the inherent advantage of the bad guy. He is impaired less by adrenaline stress than you for two reasons: first, he is likely to have had many more violent encounters than us and is used to the chemical changes in his system, and second, bad guys have the element of surprise, they need not overcome the freeze/panic response that the startled defender does. It is a totally different world from the dojo or shooting range.

There are a variety of creative ways to modify and expand our training curriculum to better prepare for and cope with the intense effects of adrenaline stress on our survival skills. In a future article I would like to discuss these in depth. Most important is to be aware that radical changes will occur in our body and mind when confronting real danger, and to critically evaluate our techniques training methods with this reality in mind.

Click here to read Part 1 of this series


  1. Thanks Tom for a great article putting things into clear perspective. As Tom points out here, the paradox is that you won’t be “doing techniques” in a real event. But training can and may help increase your chances provided it is good training and sufficient. Usually in less that 2 seconds you will have to make a call and then wing it because, “Each situation/moment is new and unique” – M.U. Evaluation must be faster than ordinary thinking processing. And then, if your mind is lucid, you will be focusing on task outcome (if professional), or survivability if you are randomly selected to be a victim by a perpetrator; and not contest or “winning.”
    It’s not the carrying of weapons that achieves, but holding the right deep seated attitudes developed in training that enable the natural biological responses to make themselves useful instead of counterproductive. To achieve this you must train daily, train honestly and seriously with a focus on reality, and be clear about the purpose of budo. No self-deception.

  2. Charles Humphrey says:

    Great Article. Touched on some of the reasons I’ve always felt it better to try my best to cobble together my own training system rather than go through the motions of some “established” school that says things must be done in such and such a way and slowly feeds illusions with coloured belts.

    I feel that martial arts training of any kind should include a healthy complement of regular training such as boxing where, while not generating anywhere near the fear response of a serious life-or-death situation at least give a kind of “training wheels” equivalent by putting the student in a situation where they will face aggressive attack from someone strong and determined who preferably is able cause them pain and disorientation. At the very least, it helps kill the universal illusion that each of us harbours that they just can’t lose. Muhammad Ali said it best “Nobody thinks they can be beat, until they start getting hit.”

    Besides these benefits, I think for all sorts of arts, even something like Aikido, drilling in the habit of concise, non-telegraphed striking under austere conditions is a good foundation for self defence. That seems to be the whole point of “atemi”. The result in my few real-life situations has been that I have a pretty good “hit them in the jaw, throat or sternum (depending on height) and then worry about the rest later” response which I think is the best instinct one can hope for in the blur of combat. If executed correctly, it will stun them a moment to help you catch up, and chances are if your training is good the body will intuit a suitable gross-motor endgame based on the dynamics of you and your attacker’s bodies post-strike without need for conscious input. Whatever the outcome, I think developing a simple “hit him!” instinct sends the right message to any criminal mind – a sudden strike without hesitation sends a clear message that no matter what the situation may be “you’re in for a fight buddy” which may have the potential to slow them down by triggering their own need for judgment and review of the situation, particularly if you’re not a law enforcement officer taking down a hardened criminal but someone who is the target of an opportunistic attack of some kind.

    I don’t know what the experts experience is on this, but I think that no matter how tough someone is, if you can respond quickly and hit them hard in a vital spot, they may recover in a second but that second counts and the surprise has a good chance of at least slowing them down by making them more wary and having to gun up their gumption by communicating very clearly that you are clear about the situation and ready to fight back. In any case, I think “hit him!” is a good defensive reflex, at least better than “hmmmm, now let’s see if I can catch this fellow’s wrist and get a good wrist lock on him.”

    Anyway, great article. You’re right that there’s no way to be completely prepared but I think people who adhere to a strictly “classical” approach could do well from taking a few ideas from boxing or some of the Russian methods for trying to prepare the psyche. Not to knock classical arts at all, the core of my training is classical, but it is by no means sufficient on its own nor do I think were classical approaches meant to be complete on their own but provide a kind of basic operating system from which relevant variables can be figured out by the body-mind and then refined in a more direct and appropriate way – like a kind of memetic DNA for an organism that then must tailor its behaviour to the vagaries of its present environment.

  3. Wonderful, thoughtful article. The understanding that fine motor skills deteriorate is important. I teach that whatever you are doing should be aimed to work on the street. So I guess I’m almost always teaching oyowaza. Therefore the soft style Aikidoka view me as a bully. With Nishio Sensei’s teaching, as the techniques got faster and faster, you went to more open hand major movements. This compliments your observations. I think it is rare to get the level of speed and intensity here in the states that I found in Japan. Americans usually don’t want to work that hard.

    It has been very hard for me to keep students to get them up to and accustomed to that level of training. I believe that if you can get people to really intensive fast training, you can train the mind to observe at a higher rate somewhat similar to the rate the mind can observe at in the middle of a traffic accident, or perhaps what happens in combat. I’ve been in some fights but never in real military level combat, so that thought is theoretical for me. Actual combat was extremely rare while I was in service and it was always somewhere else.

    I think that in a real situation atemi will be imperative. You will need to “warm him up”, stun him before you can get a technique to actually work. And I believe you are right about pain will not slow the attacker. You must break his balance and get yourself to position where he can’t effectively hit back. This should all be the foundation of all techniques. This was what Nishio Sensei was continually testing and stressing and it is also in the Iwama movements.

    This faster level of observation and response I call “break through”. I hit it a number of times in Karate. It’s kind of similar to a plane breaking the sound barrier. You have to get up to a very intense pace before you can observe any changes. I’ve also aged, which puts a damper on striving to get back to that level and demonstrating it to someone younger.

    This “break through” is as if your eyes bug out and your peripheral vision expands. You are going too fast to think about breathing and something else takes over and your breath slows and gets deeper. In this state, you can fly through kata and not get winded. It’s as if you are just breathing normally.

  4. This is how Aikido should be practiced….all of this is on the money and make it the way you train. Fight like you train and Train like you Fight (US ARMY MOTTO).

  5. I’ve been waiting for an article of this caliber to emerge for quite a while. This is the best information to come from a true Aikidoka for quite some time and remarkably its free of charge. This is the knowledge and street wisdom of one who has been there and survived. Thank you ever so much Tom. I sincerely hope people are reading and taking note.

    Morihei Ueshiba would intercept an attack the moment an aggressor decided it. Even if that was a week before the physical attack. We should be aspiring to nothing less. But alas.. I had better not comment any further. I can hear the multiple chatter out there already..

  6. Excellent. Could I summarize by saying that your physiology will change in the stress of a situation? Training embraces and channels the change in ways that are effective in addressing the problem. That said, modern observation supports ancient wisdom that surviving your first fight improves your odds in subsequent encounters.

    The statement that arming yourself is more a liability than an asset, though, is poorly supported in the data. I would maintain that arming your mind is more important than carrying a weapon, that simply carrying a weapon with an unarmed mind IS a liability. But your chances of living uninjured through an armed incident are greatly improved if YOU have a (or the) gun. If you want supporting citations for these assertions, please contact me separately, but in general you can start with John Lott and Alan Korwin.

    To me the calculation is whether I am more likely to be jailed for carrying the pistol than I am to need it for self defense. California only allows concealed carry to a limited number of specially privileged people. Diane Feinstein doesn’t have the only carry permit in San Francisco, but sets the flavor. As for San Francisco, the DA has asserted she will prosecute ALL firearms offenses to the maximum extent of the law. Presumably that includes armed self defense (think if Zimmerman’s last name had been Zapata, though…).

    Fairly obviously, a criminal conviction will not enhance my CV like it would for someone already leading a life of crime. Oh. “Carrying a pistol”; that should be no different than carrying a cell phone, or keys. It takes a while for carrying a weapon to become natural; that is part of the armed mind. It isn’t different in principle from making a bokken or jo a natural extension of your body. Musashi compared being a samurai carrying two swords to being like a tiger with its teeth and claws.

    There is, of course, the fundamental argument from Hagakure, that being a samurai means to choose death rather than life should a situation arise. The meditations in that book are worthy of attention. Death is not defeat. It is only the loss of life. Everybody does that sooner or later. Would you rather be leaking away on life support in the ICU with a painful terminal disease? Dying by the sword isn’t so bad in that context, is it?

    Self defense, then, is an unfortunate translation of “budo”. St Augustine opined that armed self-defense is also unfortunate, but better than allowing the wicked to have their way. Wonder what the nuances of self-defense might have been in the original Latin?

  7. Andrew Bedfrod says:

    And what if you’re not practicing for the reason of self defense or to beat 20 guy into submission with breath and your little pinky!

    Well, Ive been practicing for nearly twenty years and have never been randomly attacked and the Aikido I have learned has saved me in a few dodgy situations.
    I no longer need or want to practice Aikido to beat the next hoodie who I think might have a knife who wants to slit my guts. Oh no, it’s much more than that.

    I now practice it because it’s simply a cool thing to do and I really love it.

    Drop the philosophy guys of what works and what doesn’t, this is a more spiritual way to do it, This way is stronger, etc.
    Can’t we just enjoy it because it’s a great thing to do, and not to have in mind always ripping someones throat out in the process. It almost seems child like.

    No offense meant, but that is where I’m at now, I just love it :-)

    Andy B

    • Bless you Andy! I was the skinny little kid who was a bully-magnet so I have a fundamental belief in aggression. But that’s just me. And when I look around various dojos I perceive different things. In some they are in avoidance/denial to some extent or other. Their qualifying verbiage about aikido as a martial art is truly reflected in their beautifully choreographed practice. Another thread is those who see aikido as a way to win fights. This is also reflected, of course, in the training. I resonate with that but to me the concept of “fight” somehow implies contest and consent. Another thread I sense is attachment to technique. I suppose that’s where I am. That was the emphasis in schools where I trained. I stuck with it, so I guess I self-selected. I’m also loving it.

      It’s easy to see mistakes. The mistake of technique-orientation is to become stylized, often rigid. The beauty of technique is the endless process of refinement, taking out the corners, minimizing the effort needed. I suppose that eventually technique is so trained-in that it becomes no-technique. I suspect that even then, from the inside, not the outside, there is more work to do.

      From the outside, aikido has worked for me pretty well when I needed it. The after-action mental reconstruction is interesting. The everyday conscious mind finds it has been a poorly informed and overwhelmed spectator. The warrior mind finds it difficult to explain.

    • Thanks for saying what many aikidokas feel. I understand those who practice aikido for the purpose mentioned. And I’d like them to do the same with the people who practice another aikido. And of course, without telling us what is and what is not TRUE AIKIDO.
      Train and let train (true) aikido.

  8. Tony Fontaine says:

    I look forward to your follow-up article on modifying and expanding the Aikido curriculum.

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