This is something that more experienced students of martial arts will already understand. The idea of your subconscious helping you isn’t anything new; subconscious decisions are something we make each and every day. As a quick example, think about fight or flight. Recall the last time you felt the urge to argue or to turn away, to defend yourself or to run. Fight or flight is one of the most basic defence mechanisms we have, and the decision we make in a situation that calls for that mechanism is entirely subconscious.
It’s very similar in the world of martial arts. As a beginner, your instructor will spend time teaching you movements within your range of expertise. He or she will make sure that you understand each movement and how to use it effectively to restrict or stop an opponent during training, or to use it in a defense situation. The underlying focus is always on your safety, so your subconscious only applies techniques it knows you feel confident using. Unless you consciously and deliberately apply a new technique your subconscious mind won’t allow you to put yourself at risk. It has stored the tools you can use effectively and applies them when you need them.
Basic movements are drilled into beginners. You are given a move to learn, and you repeat it. Eventually, the movement becomes a part of your muscle’s memory, and you are able to perform it almost flawlessly (flawlessness comes with more practice, after all!).
What is muscle memory?
When we repeat an action we’ve learned, specific cells in our brains – called neurons – join other neurons which help your body control that action. This creates a neural pathway, and the more you repeat that action, the more neurons join together; helping your subconscious mind and your muscles remember the action. It’s your brain that does all the work, though! Sending signals to the right muscles, telling them exactly what they need to do.
Fight versus flight
When you need to defend yourself, your conscious mind focuses on the present threat. Although your conscious mind is focusing on what’s right in front of you, your subconscious mind is doing most of the work; filling in the blanks in information that your conscious mind is not focusing on.
Your subconscious mind will be looking for a solution to the situation. Can you run? Talk yourself out of it? Is there a weapon nearby? What have you been trained to do in this situation? When you can’t get away from the danger, you will choose fight over flight. This is where muscle memory kicks in; all of those defensive actions you’ve been drilled in, every movement your instructor taught you to remember and execute, all of those come to the surface.
At that point, it’s pure instinct. It takes practice, and you might still be scared – whether you’re in a situation on the street or training with your instructors – but with martial arts training, you’re more likely to be able to handle a threat and neutralise it.
Of course, it’s not just about the movements your body can make, but also training your mind to read an opponent’s actions and the type of threat they are. This is why your subconscious is important; and why it can help you.