The Meaning of Confidence
It is hard to critically analyze confidence. It is so subjective most of the time, and though most people can recognize it in others, it is very difficult to pinpoint exactly what makes an individual confident. The line dividing over-confidence is also hard to qualify, especially if you want to analyze whether or not you project confident or over-confidence. Self-introspection is probably one of the most difficult things to apply critical thinking to.
It is possible, though. It just takes the some application of thought. The first step is to realize that there are no guarantees in self-defense. Master Tong may have developed the super-fist punch a thousand years ago that could defeat any enemy at any distance, but he certainly didn't show anyone else, so we have to do without it. We cannot allow our ignorance of the super-fist punch to cause despair, though. While we may not have a perfect weapon like Master Tong, we can use our imperfect weapons to minimize the danger. (And remember the bit about "ancient knowledge". More than likely, no perfect techniques ever existed, and no one has ever been unbeatable. If you think about it, there could really only be one person on the planet that is unbeatable, assuming it is even possible at all.) Knowing this, we must be able to quantify our weapons against known threats. Intimate knowledge about our own abilities is useless unless we know, at least generally, the capabilities of any adversaries. For instance, in World War II, the Spitfire pilots of Britain were supremely confident (which can be used to describe most fighter pilots) that they could defeat any German Bf-109 fighters across the English Channel. This is because they knew the capabilities of their enemies. Let us imagine, however, that the British pilots didn't know anything about their enemy. They trained constantly, and they used their machines to the fullest of their abilities. Without knowing anything about their enemy, how confident could they be? What if their first sortie did not encounter Bf-109s, but modern MiG-31s? If the British had known about beyond visual range missiles with their semi-active radars, Mach 3 speed, and great maneuverability, would they have been as confident?
You should not only know what you can do, but what others can do. This may seem trivial, but, like knowing whether or not you can shoot down a supersonic MiG-31 in your Spitfire, it is critical in assessing your capabilities in a fight. If you are an adult, but smaller than most, you have an intrinsic disadvantage against larger opponents. The larger the disparity of size, the greater the disadvantage. This doesn't mean that you couldn't come out on top, but you have to use good strategy to do so. What are my capabilities? Does this person look fit? Can I outrun them? Do I have the skills to neutralize this person without injuring myself or others? As I have already stated, though, your goal is not to defeat your opponent, but to defend yourself and others. Thus, don't concentrate on the Roman Gladiator mindset. Still, even if your only goal is to defuse the situation, you should still know what you can do and estimate (for you cannot do otherwise without, ahem, realistic practice which is highly frowned upon) your opponent's capabilities.
You will build confidence by knowing your own capabilities and knowing what others can do, not assuming how "good" you are compared to a theoretical attacker. Even the most confident people could be stymied by asking themselves, "Can I handle this situation," but that's because we cannot know the full capabilities of our adversaries. However, the more knowledge we have, the better our estimate will be. When we know our abilities well enough to know what we should keep in the classroom (probably the spinning axe kick) and what we could use on the street (something like a front kick or a reverse punch).
The only real way to gain confidence in your abilities is to train as realistically as possible. A martial artist in a classroom has to practice in a way that preserves the safety of everyone involved, but it also means that not everything can be theoretical. A chef could study for twenty years on how to make the ideal souffle, but if she has never tried it, then how could she have confidence in her ability? To know for sure, she has to make it, or the actual outcome of the endeavor might not be pretty. A martial artist may not be able to do the whole thing (i.e. "take out" an opponent), but there are many ways to simulate the action close enough to be useful. If the chef practiced every aspect of the souffle in minute detail, as opposed to doing everything theoretically, without actually making it, the outcome would be much more assured. Just like a military soldier, you can practice realistically without actually going to war. This is just a minute hint of things that a martial artist can do to practice realistically:
- Throw powerful techniques - like you would if you really needed it. I see it all the time, and the lackluster punch the student just threw wouldn't knock down a balsa wood stick. You really need to practice power. It is one of those skills that takes a long time to develop. If your kick can send the heavy bag reeling, you have confidence that you can deliver that power when you need it.
- Validate your ability to generate power. My recommendation is to break stuff. Breaking stuff is fun, sure, but there are also some supplementary benefits. If you can break wood, a good rule of thumb is that you can hurt someone with that strike. The more difficult the break, the more confidence you can have that the technique will work. Going through something like concrete translates into confidence that you can smash bone. In addition, you also gain confidence that you can strike a surface accurately (assuming you didn't smash the board holder's fingers a few times), with power, and, very importantly, without injuring yourself. This is all good stuff to know! Just make sure whatever you do gives you confidence that the technique will work! However, you should never attempt a break without knowing what you are doing. Even a simple reverse punch can be dangerous, and you can end up breaking your hand and not the board. Because all breaks exploit special knowledge about the material being broken, make sure you have proper instruction before trying it.
- A fight is highly fluid. Never get into the mindset where you have a laundry list of techniques to use against specific attacks, especially when the list goes beyond one or two moves. Often martial arts classes will feature a series of self-defense techniques to use, often called one-steps. I perform an exercise with my students called "real time" self defense. It requires a good deal of control from both sides (i.e. it is for advanced only), but essentially involves a random attack that the student must defend against. When the technique isn't "scripted", it is amazing how easy it is to slip a common, easy-to-block roundhouse punch in. It is especially confusing to beginners when they are confronted with a series of attacks. The most common self-defense techniques defend against single attacks, so what do you do when the attacker throws a dozen punches? If you practice reacting in real time, you can give yourself confidence that you can handle a dynamic engagement. (Obviously, you can't use powerful techniques when training. That's what the last bullet point was for.)
- Situations where you may have to defend yourself are varied and unpredictable. You can't just train against a street fighter, or a bar drunkard, or a knife-wielding thief. Violence can happen anywhere, and being aware of the threat is the first step toward being able to deal with it. If you "situational-ize" too much, you run the risk of being caught unaware. It isn't as much knowing that you can deal with a situation, but being aware that anything could develop into a situation.
- Muscles are useful. You really can't deny that an engagement between the typical elderly history professor and Arnold Schwarzenegger in his prime would not end well for one of the two. If you ever wondered why martial arts always stress strength conditioning, this is one of the prime reasons. If you train properly, you will develop muscle. You don't have to bulge like a body-builder, but if you do enough conditioning, you will have enough strength to deal with most people. The best way to gain confidence is to try it out (sparring, practice locks, wrestling, etc...). There is always the potential for your opponent to be stronger than you, but there are numerous ways to defeat that strength or make it work against your opponent. This is something you just have to practice, but it's well worth the effort (and the inevitable bruise or two.)
Whatever you do, you must always mentally prepare yourself for the possibility of really having to use it. A wrist lock is practically useless if you don't have the mindset to apply it properly. Yes, it will cause a lot of pain to your opponent. If he screams in pain, you can't just let go instinctively. You should be able to practice these techniques in class fairly realistically, as there is some play between restraint and agony, but you do need to have that switch in your mind ready that goes between safety in the classroom and protecting your life. Also important is that most students don't understand that the situation has not ended after a single technique, even if it is a good one. Say for instance that you perform a spectacular wrist throw. What happens afterward? Is the opponent really "finished?" Your job as defender is only done when you have neutralized the threat, and if for instance you let go of the attacker's wrist after the throw, he might get back up and continue fighting. A better option might be, if you know there are no other opponents, to keep a hold of the wrist and apply a painful joint lock after the opponent has hit the ground.
Now, even with a fair bit of knowledge about himself or herself and potential opponents, how does a martial artist stray into the nefarious realm of overconfidence? Besides being highly annoying to the other students, an overconfident martial artist is in serious danger. What makes them dangers isn't what they know, but what they don't know. Essentially, this is my definition of overconfidence:
A person who does not know what he or she does not know.
Besides being a bit recursive, this means the state of being blissfully ignorant of facts, and not realizing it. This is a very dangerous state to be in. The first step of knowledge is to realize you don't know something. It's fine to be unknowledgeable, and in a vast amount of subjects, most everyone must accept that. The problem develops when someone "knows" something, and then considers that knowledge to be the "Truth". The "Truth" is the end of a path, where the state of knowledge about the subject is assumed to be complete. While it is conceivable that this "Truth" is indeed correct, once it becomes the end of the path, it is considered inerrant. This is very dangerous, because knowledge is a complex and transient beast. In a simple case, a martial artist might be told that a punch to the jaw will knock someone unconscious. It's possible that maybe the martial artist did knock someone out by hitting him in the jaw. Now, if applied universally and inerrantly, the martial artist may come to the conclusion that he can knock anyone out by hitting him in the jaw. Herein begets the seeds of overconfidence. The critical knowledge that he doesn't know is why does hitting someone in the jaw knock them out? What conditions are required? Does he know how to affect the Reticular Activating System at the base of the brain stem (and that there is evidence that this is the cause of knockouts?) Does he know that some people are less susceptible to a blow on the jaw than others? Does he realize that striking a hard object like the jaw may cause more damage to him than the opponent? Does he realize that hitting the jaw is only one way to cause a knockout?
For a more concrete example, take driving a car. It isn't easy to do, and even a knowledgeable, intelligent person can't just get into a car and drive (that's what that silly license stuff is all about). Still, millions and millions of people do it every day with a reasonable (not perfect, unfortunately) track record. The essential thing about driving that most young people do not seem to grasp is that driving the car is the easiest part of the whole thing. The sensory and motor skills required to drive the car are actually quicker and more sensitive in a teenager than an adult. It really doesn't take long to get comfortable with the basic driving skills, but there's a lot more to it than that. How many times, though, have you seen a teenage get behind the wheel of a car and think he or she is the next Mario Andretti? The unfortunate thing they do not realize is that there's a lot of little things they haven't considered or are inexperienced with. Most accidents are the result of judgment errors, not driving errors. The speed at which you are traveling at any given time depends on the legal limit and the conditions of the road. If it is wet out, your judgment should tell you to slow down, even if the speed limit is higher. If the light is changing yellow, your judgment should tell you to stop. Because of inexperience, these drivers are not aware of the dangers. The flip side is a teenager that realizes, i.e. consciously knows, that he or she is not familiar with all aspects of driving. This simple admission is the best way to avoid overconfidence.
Now back to the martial artist. Overconfidence is dangerously easy. There are ways to get rid of it, though. The hard way is to either get "demolished" by a more experienced martial artist or beat up (or worse) on the street when something real happens. The former is by far the best, but the latter is unfortunately very possible. The easy way is to know that the danger exists for overconfidence, and what signs to look for. When you think you know something, keep investigating. You can be very confident about something and not be overconfident, but only because you have put the effort into it to know everything possible and where you stand. If you want to know if an Aikido throws really works, research it. Why does it work? Do you want to know if your kicks are powerful? Break stuff. When you can kick through a baseball bat with your shin, you've reached the point where you know your kick will hurt someone, no overconfidence necessary.
- Wikipedia, Reticular Activating System: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Reticular_activating_system: July 25, 2006
- Ringside Training Principles, Knockouts: http://www.secondsout.com/ringside/sopranos.cfm?ccs=354&cs=9809: July 25, 2006