Grandmaster Philip Holder
Copyright by Philip Holder, PhD. 2015


Our true power comes from deep within our mind and spirit. Our bodies are simply tools with which we carry out our intent and display our perseverance, courage, and tenacity. Training your mind to remain calm, act with intent and cope with stress, is equal to if not more important than any of the physical training you may do.
When a person is subjected to extreme stress his or her sensory perception is often distorted. Frequently people experience symptoms like time-distortion, spatial distortion, color blindness, tunnel vision and vertigo. For example, you may have heard a person who has been in a severe auto accident say something like, “everything was moving in slow motion” or “I just froze up”. These are common effects caused by stress. It is for this reason that stress management skills and positive attitude play a significant role in realistic street-wise martial arts, and defensive tactics training.

In the executive protection field it is said that when you wake up each day, you should tell yourself, “Today is the day that it will happen”. In reality the day may go smoothly, but the fact remains, that terrible things do happen and most of the time those who are victimized are grossly unprepared to deal with the situation.

On September 11, 2001 people just like you and I got up, said goodbye to their families, and went to work at the twin towers in New York. Others boarded airplanes expecting a normally uneventful trip. That day was the day that it happened for them. Many people were amazed to discover that the hijackers who commandeered the planes did so with simple box cutters. Many people wondered, how a few terrorists could take over an entire airplane with such primitive weapons. Surely all of those passengers could have disarmed a few thugs with box cutters.


Terrorist threats and attacks are a perfect example of how stress and fear inhibit performance. A terrorist’s (like a bully’s) primary objective is to instill extreme fear in those they assault. They have learned that extreme stress results in paralyzing effects both emotionally and physically, and they capitalize on that phenomenon. Stress is a mega-disabler. Martial Arts training, where there is no significant chance of getting punched or kicked (with power), or where all of your buddies are cooperating with you to make the application come out right, will never develop the essential emotional skills of stress management. Only with realistic simulations of combat conditions can a student truly develop the mental and spiritual skills needed to perform well when the chips are truly down and one’s life is at stake.


When discussing martial arts, topics generally revolve around physical techniques and their applications. The fact is; physical applications are far less significant than a person’s mental attitude, perception, composure, and commitment to succeed. This is not to say that technique and conditioning are not important… They certainly are. I simply mean that too often we focus so much on the physical aspects of training that the importance of proper attitude, tenacity, will, and mental conditioning, are neglected.

As an example, a friend of mine had a friend who was doing extremely well on the sport Karate tournament circuit, earning trophy after trophy for both forms and point sparring. Anyone watching him performing kata, or kicking the bag, would assume him to be an excellent fighter. He certainly had the physical skills, the speed, and the agility. One evening while walking down the street he was confronted by a couple of street hoods. A fight quickly ensued. The two untrained thugs promptly beat the tar out of this “martial arts tournament champion” and put him in the hospital. How could this happen you might ask? The reason is simple… He had all of the physical skills and none of the mental, spiritual, or emotional skills. His training has been confined to situations where no one was really trying to clean his clock. He had never trained in a way that would give him the coping mechanisms needed to deal with the stress of a real threat. The result… under the threat of real physical danger he froze-up.

If you had a friend (or student) who was likely to become involved in a “real” fight, what would you recommend to him or her? Would you attempt to teach some quick self-defense techniques? Any instructor who is truthful knows that you cannot teach anything that will be particularly useful in one easy lesson. In fact, emotionally, the vast majority of experienced sport martial arts enthusiasts are ill equipped to deal with a real-life, high-threat fight situations. This is no reflection on any individual martial arts system. It is more a reflection on the recreational approach to training often practiced today. Many students simply don’t want to get hit, so they avoid contact sparring and intense defensive tactics simulations. As well, they do not want to take the time to meditate, or in other ways train their minds, with the goal of gaining the essential stress management tools needed for combat. They just want to go to class once or twice a week for fun and exercise. That’s fine but it won’t prepare you for a real street situation. There is nothing wrong with recreational Martial Arts but let’s be honest and acknowledge what it is and what it isn’t.


If fighting is unavoidable, it is important that you be mentally and emotionally prepared. No matter how good you are, in battle, there is always the chance of injury or death. No matter how good you are there is always the chance that it will be your blood that is spilled. No matter how good you are, you could have a bad day, and the other guy (or guys) could have a good day. The best tools for mental preparation for combat are, medium and full contact sparring, high-intensity defensive tactics training, and meditation. These tools prepare the body for the physical demands of combat, and the mind for the emotional demands (stress and fear management). As well, these tools give greater insight into your ability to withstand and tolerate hardship. You will come to better know both your vast potential, as well as your limitations.


Full-contact sparring, and high intensity defensive tactics training, both have inherent advantages. If you have actually experienced defending full contact kicks and punches hundreds or thousands of times, you will be more familiar with the nature of a real attack. When you’ve seen hundreds, or thousands of punches and kicks directed at you with the intent of actually hitting you, it will not be something new to you when someone really tries to hit you. You will have seen it a thousand times before. In effect, it becomes “Old Hat”. As well, you will find that your body will become more durable than you originally thought possible. You will begin to understand the difference between something hurting you and that of being injured. This will lead to greater confidence. Also, because of greater awareness of your body’s tolerances, you will be less inclined to stop and lick your wounds in the midst of combat (Often people are defeated while they are checking to see if they have been injured). Contact sparring and high intensity defensive tactics training, can give you the ability to ignore distractions and maintain your focus. With a greater knowledge of what is likely to occur in a real fight, stress is significantly reduced. Since stress distorts perception, when stress is effectively managed, you gain greater insight into what is actually going on during each moment.


Critics of contact sparring and of high intensity defensive tactics training say that “technique goes out the window” when people fight full contact. I don’t agree with that statement, but even if one accepts the potential that this could happen consider this… Each training method has a specific purpose. In Wing Chun for example, forms teach position and movement. Chi Sao teaches the ability to interpret intent through touch, the wooden dummy teaches textbook root applications, and so on. It is not the purpose of contact sparring or high intensity defensive tactics to teach form. Contact sparring and high intensity defensive tactics teach penetration, depth perception, and coordinated effort. Even more significantly, they train a student’s ability to maintain composure under stress. That is where the true value is found.

Note: When including contact sparring or other high intensity defensive tactics into your training it is important to have the proper gear and take all reasonable measures to assure that those participating are not injured. There is a difference between feeling the discomfort of a glove landing against your headgear (hurt), and having someone’s teeth knocked out with a bare-knuckle punch, or breaking the person’s leg with a kick to the knee (injuries). Injuries will cause a loss of training time while you rehab the injury. Training with no attention to safety is counterproductive to the development of street skills too.


Meditation is a great tool to help you calm your mind and remain centered. Meditation can help you tune into the vast reservoir of internal energy that we all possess within us. When we are peaceful, centered, and calm, our chi flows more powerfully. Meditation provides the tools to achieve personal detachment while maintaining emotional content. It provides a powerful tool for stress management. Often, and more significantly, it gives devoted practitioners the ability to avoid useless fights that lack merit by virtue of gaining a greater self-knowledge, self-acceptance, enlightenment, and maturity. Anger is not a root emotion. It is a symptom of fear. With self-knowledge, confidence, and a peaceful mind not only will your skills improve but also it is likely you will chose your battles more wisely.


Recreational martial art training is great and can be a wonderful and enjoyable pastime. It’s similarity to practical combat, or realistic street training, however, is about as close as a the local mall’s arcade shooting game is to a special operations soldier actually going into battle, with a real enemy trying to kill him. They are worlds apart.


1. In sport there are rules. On the street there are none.

2. Be proactive rather than reactive. If you are certain that your life is in jeopardy, move first. If you wait until the person hits, slashes, stabs, or shoots, before you take action likely you will end up dead.

3. Use your mind… be wise and cunning. If you have to pretend to be submissive, compliant, or fearful, in order to gain a window of opportunity for defense, do so.

4. In a kill or be killed scenario, overkill is better than under-kill. You will have no idea of the level of conditioning or tolerance for abuse your attacker possesses. It is far better to take out an attacker quickly than it is to hit him and just make him mad.


The best way to protect yourself is to avoid unnecessary confrontations. In the field of executive protection it is generally accepted that if you have to put your hands on someone, you have probably screwed up somewhere else (e.g. your planning and preparation etc.). In a real fight usually no one wins. One person just loses a little more than the other (unless you are referring to a sick-o who considers hurting someone else to be “winning”, or something to be proud of). The adolescent attitude that being able to kick someone’s butt makes you superior, or more of a man, is a farce. It is the path of a coward who strikes out like a “fear-biting dog”. It is easy to hurt people. It is much more challenging to help people. True courage is demonstrated in one’s ability to face the more difficult tasks in life. Goals like maximizing your potential and doing something constructive are of lasting value. This might include being a better friend, teacher, or parent. In essence, personal growth comes from helping others. The next time you hear someone talking about how tough they are, ask yourself, “Is this person doing anything of positive value. What is he or she contributing to make the world a better place”? That is the true measure of the person’s character. Let wisdom, not anger, or ego be your guide. The practice of “Kung Fu of the Mind” can be accomplished by asking the following questions when you are confronted with a threat.

1. If I take on this fight, will it be for honorable reasons or simply to protect my ego (Ego is too often confused with honor).

2. Is there anything of lasting value to gain through this fight?

3. Is this a hill that I would be proud to die on?

The answers to these questions should give you a clearer picture about whether the fight you are contemplating has any redeeming qualities. When you are free of fear and can manage stress effectively you are able to make better decisions. When you are centered the answers to the above questions become clear.

In the final analysis, it is your strength of character, confidence, determination, will, and your ability to remain centered and calm that will best protect you. Having a great jab is an asset too, no doubt, but without the “heart”, and the “emotional content”, you will still be at a loss when trouble comes your way. There is great truth in the old saying, “It’s not the dog in the fight, it’s the fight in the dog”.

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