Tuesday, 24 March 2009

Don't just relax your body, relax your face too!

I believe it was right after Fedor Emelianenko’s victory in his MMA fight against Andrei Arlovski, when I read in some martial arts forum a number of comments on how and why this dominant Russian fighter manages to keep his face totally expressionless before, during, and after his fights. Well, in my opinion this is pretty typical of most Russian fighters – for one thing, Fedor’s brother, Alexander Emelianenko is pretty famous too for his facial expression (or rather, lack of) when he fights, and during my competition days and later, my refereeing days in san shou (Chinese kickboxing), I had the opportunity to meet from up close with a number of formidable Russian fighters who, when on the ring, looked as if they were spending just another boring day at the office!

Most of the explanations given on this matter by the members of the forum I was reading had to do with Fedor not wanting to give any information about his emotional state to his opponent. This view is actually quite correct - without a doubt, the human face is an enormously rich source of information about emotion. Still, there is another explanation to Fedor’s emotionless facial expression - not a strategic but a neurophysiologic one - which is based on the claim posed by a number of scientists that the information on our face is not just a signal of what is going on inside our mind, but in a certain sense, it is what is going on inside our mind.

A great deal of our understanding of facial expressions comes from the work of psychologist Paul Ekman. During the sixties, Ekman was interested in studying faces, so he travelled to Japan, Brazil, and Argentina and also visited some remote tribes in the Far East, carrying photographs of people making a variety of facial expressions. To his amazement, everywhere he went, people agreed on what those expressions meant. After that discovery, Ekman and his collaborator Wallace Friesen decided to create a taxonomy of facial expressions. What they did was sit in a lab and try to move each one of their facial muscles, first separately and then in combination with other facial muscles. This way, they documented (through video) over ten thousand facial configurations. Most of those were nonsensical, but about three thousand of them were indicative of specific emotions. Now, here comes the interesting part: when Ekman and Friesen were working on expressions of anger and despair, they discovered that after a session of “putting on” these faces, they were feeling terrible, so they started to keep track of this effect! “What we discovered”, said Ekman, “is that expression alone is sufficient to create marked changes in the autonomic nervous system. When this first occurred we were stunned. We weren’t expecting this at all. And it happened to both of us. We felt terrible. What we were generating were sadness, anguish. And when I lower my brows, and raise the upper eyelid, and narrow the eyelids and press the lips together, I’m generating anger. My heartbeat will go up ten to twelve beats. My hands will get hot. As I do it, I can’t disconnect from the system” [1]. Ekman and Friesen conducted further research on this subject, and so did a German team of psychologists a few years later. The results were, in my opinion most interesting: while we think of the face as the place where emotions end up, the process also works in the opposite direction – emotions might also start on the face. In a few words, just forcing a smile can make you happy!

So, how does this relate to hand-to-hand combat and our training? Well, without getting very scientific here, the tension in your face can result to tension in your body and disintegration of your skills. So, during training, when performing a task that you find challenging, instead of contorting your face in a mask of agony or superhuman effort, just relax and keep your expression neutral. When you find yourself frowning (yes, you have to try and be aware of that), just stop the drill you’re performing for a moment, and rub your forehead, cheeks and ears with your palms and then give yourself a few light slaps on the face, before you resume - you will find that it helps a lot to get rid of the tension in the rest of your body and enhances your general performance.

Try this out and let me know how it works for you!

as quoted in the book Blink (Little, Brown & Co 2005), by author-journalist Malcolm Gladwell