“Every good athlete can find the flow but it’s what you do with it that makes you great. If you consistently use that state to do the impossible, you get confident in your ability to do the impossible.”
This website is basically devoted to exploring the mental aspects of Wing Chun. This is really what we can accomplish on a website. Most of Wing Chun teaching requires in-person contact. The instructor shows you. They watch you try it. They correct over time. Then there is the feel of drills like Chi Sau. But Wing Chun, perhaps more than most fighting technologies, requires a firm grasp of the mental game to achieve competence, let alone excellence. While it is crucial to put in the hours doing the forms and drills, it is just as important to consistently use such mental tools as visualization and to organize and plan your training. All of these tactics taken together can bring us closer and closer to our goal, which to have a combat skill hardwired into our body. At its best, this skill expresses itself as doing the right thing at the right time in combat.
Over the years I’ve been training the significance of the mental game in sports has been gaining in appreciation. Sports psychology has gained respect and so have various other methods to study physical excellence. And it shows, on the fields and courts of our sports, and in the Olympics. Records are broken regularly.
Doing the right thing at the right time effortlessly and with the sort of lightening genius that the body can sometimes manifest (when we get out of the way with our slow, day to day mind) is described as flow, a term coined by Hungarian psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi. Flow, according to him, is when you are so “involved in an activity that nothing else seems to matter. The ego falls away. Time flies. Every action, movement and thought follows inevitably from the previous one, like playing jazz. Your whole being is involved, and you’re using your skills to the utmost.”
If you’re lucky, you’ve experienced this state in your Wing Chun training. I have here and there, if only all-too briefly. Your skills are suddenly heightened and everything seems easy. Your body seems to do everything “of itself.” Your timing is perfect and effortless. Your body feels relaxed and you have endless reservoirs of energy. But the next time you train, it’s gone!
How do we learn to enter this state and stay there, at will? This is the subject of The Rise of Superman: Decoding the Science of Ultimate Human Performance by Steven Kotler
“When the opponent expands, I contract. When he contracts, I expand. And, when there is an opportunity, I do not hit – it hits all by itself.”
Bruce Lee, Enter the Dragon
Steven Kotler tries to answer the question by examining the experiences of various “extreme” athletes (surfers, free climbers, skateboarders, extreme sky diving (such as in so-called Squirrel Suits) and their various experiences of flow perfection, while also summarizing the scientific research on the subject. For me, this book was 50% new information (the experiences of the athletes) and 50% old ground (most of the science). I’d encountered the research before in other books and other contexts. But reading this book further cemented by my ever-growing realization of the important of mindset in attaining high level athletic performance.
“…by tinkering with mindset – using everything from physical to psychological interventions – one could significantly enhance performance.”
For instance, Kristen Ulmer – former professional extreme skier – has created the first-ever mindset-only skiing camp, which she calls “Ski to Live” . “We all know skiing is 90% mental,” she says, “so why limit yourself to technical lessons? This mindset-only camp will get you unstuck from unwanted patterns around your mind, fear, self-doubt, boredom, athleticism, you name it. It goes far beyond the skiing too, and will powerfully affect the way you experience just about everything.” I predict the emergence of the same thing in Wing Chun. Mindset is vitally important in street fighting. I think it’s so important, I’m writing a book about it (please download the free chapters I’ve made available on the top right of the this website, if you haven’t already – please note, work in progress)!
This is something I would like to work into my teaching of Wing Chun, when I open a school someday. It could help in both the attainment of skill (learning how to get into flow) and on the street, where Ulmer’s “unwanted patterns” of fear and self-doubt can cause fatal hesitation.
So what are the lessons Kotler learned in his interviews and research?
First, the athlete must put in their time to master the basics. This is the 10,000 hours of training popularized in Malcolm Gladwell’s book The Tipping Point. The idea of 10,000 hours comes from the work of K. Anders Ericsson, a Swedish psychologist who did a number of studies of artists including a famous study of world-class violinists. How much training (and of what sort?) did they put in to reach this world-class level? “10,000 hours of deliberately structured practice … This type of practice is focused, programmatic, carried out over extended periods of time, guided by conscious performance monitoring, evaluated by analyses of level of expertise reached, identification of errors, and procedures, directed at eliminating those errors”
So this is the baseline. In Wing Chun, this means learning all the forms and drills until you have them down flat. Personally I’m still a little wobbly on Biu Gee and am having a hard time remembering the knives (Baat Jaam Do). This is goal number one. Learn it all so you don’t have to consult your notes to do it. Then you do what you’ve learned A LOT. Over and over and over. Thousands of times.
Let’s take one drill – the Wooden Dummy. You should learn it well, including all the little details and nuances, then you train it a number of times in each training cycle (try to go over everything you know regularly, whether it is daily or when you are in your school, or maybe weekly. How long it takes you to go through your repertoire depends a lot on how much you’ve learned so far! As time goes by, you start to find little fluid moments. You start to settle and concentrate on first this then that aspect of the drill. You remember to sink, to not lean, even slightly. You have time to feel how you are doing it and make many minute adjustments. These slight improvements slowly magnify your overall skill.
Do this with each form, each drill. Fixing your stance for the dummy will fix it in your drills also. Chi sao lends itself to this experience. Made up of many individual skills which are difficult if not impossible to command intellectually, the whole process of training Wing Chun skills presupposes the development of this flow state in which your conscious mind lets go and your unconscious and your reflexes react instantaneously to “input” (attacks) – responding appropriately to the angle, speed, and other qualities of trajectory of the attack to not only deflect it but to use the same action to launch an attack through the gaps which appear or are made, but which are not seen but felt, which are not chosen but are fallen into. When Chi Sao skills are on pint, they have this quality of just happening as opposed to being willed or chosen. You don’t see a punch and think, I’m going to Bong Sao this one. Bong Sao happens.
What can we do when in the flow state? The sky is the limit. There is something they call the “Roger Bannister effect.” Roger Bannister was the guy who broke the 4 minute mile. Before he did it, people used to think it was some sort of biological limit to the human body. Like, if you tried to go fast than that, you would seriously injure yourself. But once Bannister did it, a whole slew of people did it too, shortly after. His doing it had freed their minds.
I’ve spoken in this blog before of the story of how elephants were trained for the circus. As babies, they were chained to stout pegs driven into the earth. A heavy shackle and chain that were impossible to break. The little elephants would tug and pull at these restraints until they were bloody, then eventually, they would concede and quit trying. As adults, the circus animal wranglers would tie these gigantic full-grown elephants with a rope, which the elephant could easily break. What the elephant couldn’t break were the shackles on their minds.
Humans have these shackles both collectively and individually. Getting into flow can free you of these shackles and allow you to step up a level.
What is flow? The scientific evidence points to a literal removal of shackles. Psychologists have observed athletes getting into flow states while their brains are being scanned by MRI. They’ve found that the flow state is correlated not with an increase of activity in some area, but rather a decrease, specifically in the prefrontal cortex, an area usually associated with consciousness, the part of “you” that you think of as “me.” The scientists call this “hypofrontality,” as in, a temporary decrease of activity in the frontal cortex. Flow is less a turning on than a turning off or letting go. This hypofrontality simplifies the decision-making process, allowing a more automatic reflexive response, not hampered by the deliberation of conscious, which is SLOW.
“Intuition is a permanent feature of standard brain function…yet we rarely hear it.”
So again, how to get this to happen more often? First, we learn the skills. “The more times a particular (mental) pattern fires, the stronger the connection between neurons becomes, and the faster information flows along this route.” We lay the pathways through practice. Then we start working on getting out of our own way. As Kostler say, “the goal is to cut out consciousness.” You want to train with “clear goals” using drills and activities which will provide “immediate feedback.” You want a favorable “challenge/skill ratio,” that is, it should be hard but not too hard. You want to focus on staying in the present moment (this is why Zen Buddhism was so favored by Japanese swordsmen – it teaches us to stay in the now). You want to approach your training with a “growth mindset” versus a “fixed mindset,” that is to say, you expect that if you put in the time and effort, you will progress and get better and better.
Also very important is the role of visualization. You have to be able to see yourself doing the action or drill or whatever excellently. This seems like “positive thinking” BS but its actually very important. You have to see your Sifu or fellow students who are “better” than you and then see yourself (in your mind’s eye) doing the drill or Chi Sau or whatever with that same level of skill. Visualize it as best you can with as many of your senses as possible. Guang Yue, a Cleaveland-based physiologist, showed experimentally that this stuff really works. In his experiments, he had a control group do no preparation and then do a set weight lifting exercise. His test group visualized lifting the weight. “Imagining oneself lifting an object triggered corresponding electrical activity in the muscles involved in the lift.” His experiments showed a 35 percent increase in strength from visualization alone.
Here is a checklist:
• Clear goals
• Break the goals down into small units
• Try to get immediate feedback loops established
• Visualize the actions as often as you perform them in the school
• Try to relax and not to control everything with your consciousness
• Train so that your drills put you in a place that is just slightly more difficult than previous training – don’t jump into the deep end
• Plan your training and follow your plan
• Consciously drill your skills slowly until they are well rehearsed, then arrange with a fellow student to do many repetitions, so you can allow your body to settle into the action and find its natural flow – we are talking fifty rep sets of each action. A hundred is even better.
Watch how my Sifu Greg moves in this video. How he seems to be ahead of Tyler, anticipating his every move. This effortlessness comes from practice. Years of practice. His unconscious is triggering his responses, not his conscious mind.