Mission: To significantly improve the safety and well being of the people we advise and train

T: 01543 268 694

15th August 2013 Act, adapt and react

The Cat in the Tree

Author Paul Brennan – Stand 2 Co-Director
There are a few people in my life who have been truly inspirational. One such person is Major Avi Nardia. Formerly a trainer for an Israeli counters terrorist unit and the Israeli police he has spent virtually his whole life studying and teaching martial arts. He is a modest, unassuming man with a sharp sense of humour and a refreshing disregard for mindless political correctness. Avi is the epitome of a professional martial artist.

For myself the martial arts is more of a passionate hobby. However, I have been training and teaching personal safety and survival skills for over 30 years in the military, the police and more latterly in the private and public sectors. Perhaps not surprisingly the stress response and the psychology of learning are areas which I am particularly interested in and to which I have dedicated long hours of academic study.

My interest was therefore piqued when Avi recently recounted an incident he had experienced at a highly prestigious seminar he was delivering at the Orde Wingate Institute in Israel. He was demonstrating a series of techniques when he was interrupted by another instructor who criticised Avi’s teaching, saying it was wrong to give students choices. In order to function under stress he asserted, students should only be given one simple response. In this way they would be able to act instantly without thinking. To illustrate his point he began to tell a parable about a cat. I will have to paraphrase the story but the gist of it goes something like this. One day a cat was walking with a buffalo when they came across a crocodile. The buffalo tried to gore the crocodile but was killed and eaten whilst the cat simply ran up a tree and escaped.  The next day the cat was walking with an elephant when they encountered a hunter. The elephant attempted to swat the hunter with his trunk but was shot and killed whilst the cat ran up a tree and escaped. The story went on and on with the cat befriending a diverse range of unlucky animals. Unfortunately his companions were all killed in tragic circumstances whilst the hero of the tale simply ran up a tree and escaped. Avi patiently listened whilst the other instructor finished his story and then having skilfully made his point the man looked smugly around the room.. Nodding his head sagely Avi paused for effect and asked if he could just ask one question…”what if there is no tree”!

The fact is that although I know where the other instructor was coming from he had demonstrated the old adage “a little bit of knowledge is dangerous”.  When I was a police officer teaching other police officers the finer points of personal safety one of my fellow officers asked me “how many techniques do you know”. I didn’t even stop to think and immediately answered “thousands…now ask me how many I use…five and each of those techniques is for a different problem”.  In other words for those ‘Oh Crickey’ (or words to that effect) moments I resort to the same skills every time. Stimulus – response. The advantage of this approach is that I have confidence in those skills, they are well practised and I don’t have to think when I apply them. Indeed I have often caught myself by surprise when I have instinctively reacted and applied those skills. I can therefore agree with the other instructor…but only up to a point!

That is because I was being economical with the truth when I told the officer I only use five techniques. I made that point because I only had a limited time to train him and it is what he needed to hear at that stage of his training. The fact is I do sometimes use  other techniques, but that is for three specific circumstances. The first is where I am in control and in my comfort zone. I am effectively playing with the other person and simply taking advantage of a training opportunity. The second scenario is the odd occasion where I have resorted to one of the ‘big five’ but for whatever reason it has started to fail and the third scenario is the odd occasions which the ‘big five’ are not designed to deal with. It is for those two latter situations, where the ‘stimulus – response’ approach is inadequate and where the training being demonstrated by Avi that day comes into its own.

There is an old military axiom that “no plan survives the battle” or as Mike Tyson put it more succinctly “Everyone has a plan until they get hit”. Whilst I don’t agree that no plan survives the battle, it does demonstrate a simple truth. Things can and do go wrong under pressure. It is at these times that I often surprise myself by how I always seem to pull something out of the bag when things don’t quite go according to plan. I often find I instinctively invent new techniques which I have never used before and I will probably never use again. I may not be able to recognise the technique, but I can usually recognise where it comes from.  This ability to adapt is thanks to the ‘thousands of techniques’ I have practised over the years which are locked into my experiential memory system (which is a subject for another article). This is the crucial part of the jigsaw the other instructor singularly failed to understand.

To sum up, when teaching students to survive under stress, in the early stages students should be provided with a small range of options which deal with the most likely situations using the principle of ‘stimulus – response’. This will help them to quickly acquire the requisite skills, build confidence, avoid ‘mind freeze’ and enable an unconscious response. This will prepare them to act and react. However, once those key responses are mastered, then (and only then) should students be taught the ‘what if’ and the more advanced techniques as this is this element of training which will ultimately allow your students to adapt under pressure.

©Paul Brennan 2013