Matrix Download Syndrome, Part I – Marc MacYoung


“Don’t think that your book learning is the same as my experience.”
Terry Trahan

Someone recently asked me how to keep calm when someone is in his face (threatening him). My response was:  Start with the fact that your ability to do it is developed BEFORE you need to do it. Without previous work, there is NO way to succeed on the spot. You asking “How do I do it in the heat of the moment” is too late. You’re screwed.

Hold that thought, we’ll come back to it.

This is going to be a series of articles about what you can do to keep yourself from getting killed out in the streets. But I’m not going to talk about techniques, combat mindset or even legal details. That’s because being able to easily access that kind of information is part of the problem. Instead, I’m going to help keep you alive by addressing assumptions, modern thought, how you’ve been conditioned to learn/think, how changes in technology, how “internet intelligence” and easy access to excessive information is negatively impacting our ability to safely navigate dangerous circumstances.

Here’s the booger about that. You won’t even know this problem exists until you’re either laying on the ground bleeding or sitting in the back of a cop car in handcuffs. Even then while you recognize something went horribly wrong, you won’t know what.

Let me start out by pointing out that you cannot learn self-defense in the classroom, training hall, dojo or even at firing range. This is biggest misconception there is and it often shades into an outright lie. A lie we are told and worse yet, a lie we tell to ourselves to bolster our confidence. But it won’t be until a situation turns into bloodbath that this lie will reveal itself.

Simply stated we can’t see these inherent flaws with our approach to self-defense because it’s how we’ve been educated. I’m talking public schools here. University education is years down the line. Here’s a news flash: Learning how to effectively defend yourself is not the same as learning geography. Here are some bullet points about that.

  • Self-defense is not a fixed subject; it’s a reaction. On both mental and physical levels, it’s on-the-spot and high speed problem solving. That requires assessment and judgment abilities be in place before the situation requiring them.
  • Self-defense doesn’t have a fixed way it happens, there are many levels of danger and even more ways things develop. Unfortunately many people train for only one level of response and believe that will cover ever possible scenario. Mostly these training scenarios are imaginary. They train for their fear about how they believe violence happens, rather than how it occurs (or how to recognize its development).
  • Nor is self-defense a set of techniques, a formula, a ‘mindset’ or a just-do-this ‘strategy’ you can learn on the internet; it reaction to changing circumstances and conditions  you find yourself in. Circumstances that are going to be impossible to predict before. Conditions that are completely situational  and impossible to develop universal tactics to handle. Circumstances and conditions that will change depending on what you (and others) do.
  • Nor is it just physical skills (whether punching, kicking, stabbing or shooting), it’s assessment. It’s knowing when to use those physical skills, when not to, when to start and most importantly when to stop. Self-defense is way more than physical. It’s also knowing what is danger and how to asses its development and degree (including that danger exists outside of perception). It’s having an understanding of human behavior and how your actions are going to positively — or negatively — influence the other person. It’s understanding how adrenaline and emotions can distort both our perceptions and thinking — and overcoming that to still make appropriate calls.
  • Most of all, it’s self-control. That is not something one develops in a class room or from reading the internet. You need to understand what self-defense isn’t, because come that dark and lonely night, it’s not what style you know. It’s not the caliber of gun or ammo. It’s not who your teacher was. It’s not whether he was a bad ass, a cop or a soldier. It’s not about your past, your self-esteem or empowerment. It’s not about your fears, emotions or ‘what ifs’. It’s about your ability to function and make good decisions under pressure.

    If you can’t do that, you’re screwed.

Does this mean classroom training is useless for self-defense? No. Not at all. One of the foundations for making good assessments, is having a working knowledge of multiple topics and –stable –data about those subjects. There are many issues related to self-defense that can only be learned from quality classroom time (e.g., what are the legal parameters, limits and consequences of self-defense?) You can’t gain a full understanding from just reading. You need class time where you can ask qualified instructors questions about the subject.

Does this mean reading on your own isn’t important? Au contrarie mon frere. The reading you do on the widest spectrum possible of topics is critical. But do NOT get all your reading materials from one source. For example, martial arts sources are not the last word on self-defense. They certainly suck as a source of legal expertise — starting with what is self-defense.

Read up on boundary setting, psychology, law, anthropology, conflict resolution, negotiation, leadership, social graces and anything else on human behavior you can lay your hands on. The wider the range of your knowledge, the more options you will have and the better you’ll become at managing conflict before it escalates to physical self-defense. Nobody has a monopoly on this subject, reading show you this truth. The wider the scope of your reading, the more you’ll realize how limited certain perspectives are about this subject.  Better than that though, such knowledge helps you in relationships, career and just getting through life.

Does this mean physical skills aren’t important? Oh this is a can of worms question. It’s especially problematic when someone has Matrix Download Syndrome. Hey Neo learned kung fu and karate by downloading, why can’t I? Ummm. How about, because this is real life and real life is more complicated than movie tropes and sound bites?

So why, even without MDS are physical skills when it comes to self-defense a can of worms? Short answer is: They’re critical, just not in the way you think.

Physical skills are a complex chicken or the egg issue. You do need to have physical skills that work. Yet even that is a multifaceted issue. Starting with dividing two fundamental concerns  so we can see how they interrelate. One is: What does it take to ingrain physical skills so you can do them under pressure? Two is: Is what you are being taught actually effective?

Someone can be extremely well trained in a bad system. This is the basis for my detailed -car -without-an-engine analogy. If important parts are missing, no matter how shiny and polished it is, that car isn’t going anywhere. Another way of looking at it, is just because an instructor can make it work, doesn’t mean you can. This especially because how often an instructor can have internalized an element so well he doesn’t think to mention it. It is therefore missing from his instruction. That’s the happy version. The not-so-happy version is the only reason it works for him is because of his strength and speed. Without those, you have a snowball’s chance in hell of pulling it off.

So ask yourself. Are you being trained so you can do something or are you being trained in what the instructor can do? Does the instructor identify the components of movement that must be present in order for the move to work and then drill them until they are ingrained? (Literally, you can’t do the move without these because it feels wrong.) Or does he show you a move, have you do it a few times and then move onto more sexy stuff?  If that’s how you’re being trained, you won’t be able to make those moves work in a situation.

You also need to have physical skills so ingrained that you don’t have to think about doing them. By that I mean not wasting bandwidth to figure out what’s the best move or where you have to step to do it. When either circumstances are right, you recognize something bad is happening or you’ve given yourself the go order, the process is automatic. That’s the result of understanding the move so well that you know when (and how) to do it without conscious thought. This, no matter how stressed or emotional you are.

The third can of worms element of physical skills is what I call faith. This concept is best exemplified with a simple question: Are you willing to bet your life on that move working? Do you have faith in your physical skills to get the job done?

If the answer is no, not only will you freeze, but when you can move, you’ll do it half-heartedly and without commitment. You will not commit to something you do not trust to work. Which increases the odds of it failing.

The final element of good physical skills has nothing to do with the physical. More than that, it flies in the face of the old maxim about “If all you have is a hammer, everything looks like a nail.”  Good physical skills give you the confidence to try other options. Will those other options work? Well you can’t really say until you try them, but having the physical ability to handle it if they don’t gives you the confidence to try. That’s a confidence you won’t have if you don’t have the physical elements ingrained.

Going back to the “Does this mean…” line of questioning.

Does this mean that scenario/adrenal stress training is the cat’s ass? No. It’s critical, for you to be able to apply your information, but like any other single topic approach to the subject it’s a failure waiting to happen.

Many people from traditional martial arts go into scenario-based training and fall apart — the first time. Much wailing and gnashing of teeth comes from this experience. In fact, many people use this as the basis of their claim that traditional martial arts are useless (and why this new, scientific and reality based training is superior). What these nimrods are overlooking is what happens when someone who has many years of training takes scenario training and finally learns how to function under adrenal stress.

There’s an entire mythology that has sprung up around scenario training. A mythology that often overlooks a simple truth. That’s in order for scenario training to work, you have to have ingrained skills beforehand. Skills that you’ve developed and ingrained over long practice.

Mix physical skills with class room knowledge and understanding and you end up with a process that can be understood akin to swimming. You learn how to swim in the current-less and shallowness of a pool. That’s where you master the component parts and refine your techniques. After that, you add another level of complexity to it by trying to swim in the ocean or river. The currents do not change what you already know, you learn to apply them under different and variable conditions. Scenario training can be best understood as “Okay, you know how to swim in a pool. Now it’s time to learn to swim in the ocean.” That’s a next level of issues affecting your swimming. And yet, when you’re playing in the surf, you’re still under the watchful eye of a lifeguard. This oversight is critical because, there’s a plethora of next level mistakes that a person can make.

Scenario training (or at least well run scenarios) can help you debug your reactions so you don’t make these common mistakes at the same time you develop faith in what you know working. But having said that, it’s still training. It’s not self-defense.

The final ‘does this mean…’ I’m going to leave you with is: Does this mean all training is bullshit?

No, but what it does mean that any training (no matter how good) is a simulation of reality. Training is not the same thing as doing. More importantly, training doesn’t mean you can do it. If we stick to the swimming analogy all that training, reading, classroom and scenario training isn’t the same as being swept overboard (an actual self-defense situation). But they will all contribute to you being able to swim to the life preserver (or to the shores of safety).

I liken training to building a bridge across a canyon. Many people believe if they find the ‘right’ system/approach/teacher, then it’s going to be like driving across the bridge. No problem at all, they just cruise right on over to the other side. When they end up falling off the end of an incomplete bridge they wonder what happened? Why didn’t it work? They’ve done everything right! It should have worked!

This is why I tell you you can’t learn self-defense in the classroom. The best training in the world will only partially complete the bridge, you have to make that final jump yourself. You have to reach inside yourself and pull that out of you to make the jump. Without this final component — and it can only be found in the situation — your training will not work.

At the same time, this is why the quality of the training is important. If the bridge is three quarters done, it’s a lot easier for you to complete the last quarter when you find yourself in a situation. But, if through bad training, the bridge is only one quarter done, then odds are strongly against you being able to make that leap. Some can, most fail.

The thing is, it’s entirely too easy for someone to decide that an instructor is offering them everything they need. This is a big part of why people buy into bad training. They have no frame of reference about how violence happens (and this includes someone who had one bad experience and decides to train). Instead they pick a training program based on their Hollywood based or imagination fueled beliefs about what violence is — and train for that.

In the rest of this series we’ll talk about other cognitive biases and misunderstandings that hinder your ability to act in self-defense. And how the belief that your training will do the work for you is a disaster waiting to happen.

Part II

Part III

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