The Psychology of Getting Hit in the Face and Liking it

By Dan Barow

A normal human being is not prone to being struck and sticking around for more, so why as martial artists are we? The longer someone studies martial arts, whatever it may be, they come to grips with being injured. What may drive someone to actually appreciate being hit, or kicked, in the face? The natural response to injury is to avoid that action in the future. This is one of the basest psychological reactions which is what makes conditioning possible. So are martial artists merely conditioned to accept pain in the context of our art or is there something different, like the theory of relativity, IE the longer we spar or fight the more we get hit the more we anticipate situations and the less drastic the outcomes.

Operant Conditioning is a behavioral modification technique that can change the behavior of someone, even yourself, you need to have a reaction to a behavior, either Punishment or Reinforcement. Punishment is intended to decrease a behavior through either Positive Conditioning which adds a reaction to the undesired behavior, like spanking a child, or Negative conditioning which removes something in reaction to the undesired behavior, like grounding a child from their Xbox. Punishment could relate to sparring in regards to either aspect: by keeping your guard too low you might get kicked in the face (Positive Punishment) or by not sparring well you may be injured and therefore are forced to sit out of other activities or future sparring (Negative Punishment).

Reinforcement Conditioning is intended to increase a favorable behavior. With it, there is only a Positive Reinforcement which adds an appealing condition following a correct behavior. In relation to sparring Positive Reinforcement would be if you keep your guard up and block the eminent attack you are healthy to retaliate or do other activities you would not had you been struck.

Now let’s look at a white-belt in a combative situation. In this country we’ve been taught that you should never hit someone, that the bully on the playground who smacked or hit the other kids is bad and therein those actions are by nature bad. Therefore we come into the situation of controlled violence, martial arts, with the preconceived notion, perhaps even on the subconscious level, that the actions we are undertaking are bad. This initial preconceived notion of morality attached to these actions set the student up with an initial fear of what is happening. Attach that with discomfort of a strange social atmosphere (I don’t know any of these people) and a lack of experience (I can’t do these moves as well as the guy teaching). Combined these several stimuli sets increase a newcomer’s anxiety level. When someone enters a situation with an already elevated anxiety level, responses like Fight or Flight are more likely to initiate sooner.

The Acute Stress Response, more commonly know as fight or flight, is more of a physiological reaction to an emotional state of perceived danger, harm or threat to survival. A reaction begins in the Endocrine System which initiates the secretion of the hormones ACTH and cortisol. Almost immediately the adrenal gland releases the neurotransmitter Epinephrine (adrenaline )which boosts energy by binding to liver cells and the subsequent production of glucose. Additionally, the circulation of cortisol functions to turn fatty acids into available energy, which prepares muscles throughout the body for response. These changes in hormonal and neuro-chemical balances facilitate immediate physical reactions associated with a preparation for violent muscular action. Wikipedia lists these as: “These include the following:

  • Acceleration of heart and lung action
  • Paling or flushing, or alternating between both
  • Inhibition of stomach and upper-intestinal action to the point where digestion slows down or stops
  • General effect on the sphincters of the body
  • Constriction of blood vessels in many parts of the body
  • Liberation of metabolic energy sources (particularly fat and glycogen) for muscular action
  • Dilation of blood vessels for muscles
  • Inhibition of the lacrimal gland (responsible for tear production) and salivation
  • Dilation of pupil (mydriasis)
  • Relaxation of bladder
  • Inhibition of erection
  • Auditory exclusion (loss of hearing)
  • Tunnel vision (loss of peripheral vision)
  • Disinhibition of spinal reflexes
  • Shaking”

You can see with these changes in physiology how the Acute Stress Response would be helpful if you were attacked by a tiger or needed to run from a burning building, however, as any experienced martial artist will tell you it is more important to stay calm while fighting. This is something that only really comes with experience. A white belt will feel immanent danger when sparring while a black belt with much more experience will understand that there really is no danger to survival (yes, you may get kicked in the face but you are not likely to die from this) and therein will have less or no Acute Stress Response.

Now let’s look at a black-belt in a sparing situation. Just like how time seems to pass extremely slowly under unpleasant circumstances versus extremely quickly under pleasant stimuli, someone who has experienced something a hundred times is less likely to allow such things like the fight or flight response to take over. Several studies have suggested that the perception of time speeding or slowing depending on external stimuli, like the previous example, is due to the release of neurotransmitters and hormones. If your body is preparing you to react very quickly then you need to think quickly, more blood flows through the brain seeming to speeding up or slow down the perception of time. A black belt going into a sparing situation with someone they have never spared before is less likely to allow anxiety to mass or to have the “sped up time” situation unlike someone who has never spared at all sparing someone who looks like they will do harm to them.

Now the lack of a fight or flight response may be understandable, but some martial artists seem to be grateful of getting hit. This seems to be counter intuitive on every level, biological to behavioral. The answer is simple, it’s an illusion. Maybe even to that fighter. No one likes being kicked in the face, however some people may view it as a learning experience and a chance to improve technique.