When training with Krav Maga experts such as Jean-Paul Jauffret, Megan Berkman, or Pierre Marques you often wonder, “How did they see that attack coming?” There are so many movements, so many possibilities yet they process these variables so quickly and respond with precise and effective counter-attacks. Also, when they are teaching, they see the most subtle mistakes.
“He/she sees everything!” students often say.
Why do these experts see what they see? Some point to innate abilities and reflexes. Others would point to their decades of experience. The answer, however, likely lies in the fascinating phenomena known as “chunking.”
What is chunking?
Let’s look at some examples cited in an excellent book by Matthew Syed, Bounce: The Myth of Talent and the Power of Practice.
One of the first examples he cites is the chess master. It is assumed by many that chess masters possess superior memories. Studies show, however, that their memories are not exceptional. They can, however, read a chessboard quickly and accurately.
How do they do this? As Syed explains, “…when chess masters look at the position of the pieces on a board, they see the equivalent of a word. Their long experience of playing chess enables them to chunk the pattern in the same way that our familiarity with language enables us to chunk the letters of a familiar word.” For example, if you present someone with a series of twelve letters e.g. “tysklpsomqzc” and ask them to recite it back they will likely remember 4 or maybe 7 letters. If you arrange twelve letters in a familiar pattern “imperfection” you can easily “chunk” the words.
An example more directly related to self-defense is returning a tennis serve. Matthew Syed is also a former two-time Commonwealth table tennis champion. Table tennis players are deemed to have exceptional natural reflexes. Their reaction times need to be faster than tennis players. However, when he tried to return the serve of a professional tennis player, he didn’t even come close! For answers, he turned to Mark Williams a professor of motor behavior and a world-renowned expert on perceptual expertise in sport. Williams explains that Syed was looking at the player’s arm and racket whereas,
“Top tennis players look at the trunks and hips of their opponents on return in order to pick up the visual clues governing where they are going to serve. (29) He adds that “It is not as simple as just knowing where to look, it is also about grasping the meaning of what you are looking at is about looking at the subtle patterns of movement and ………extract information. Top tennis players make a small number of visual fixations and “chunk” the key information. (29)
Like chess, tennis and table tennis are unique activities that required thousands of hours of practice to master. The same applies to Krav Maga.
I played a reflex game with Pierre Marques, a Krav Maga expert in France. With my hands up I had to prevent him from touching my shoulder. I couldn’t stop him. When we reversed roles, he prevented me virtually every time. Very humbling! Why did he outperform me? Someone might say he has faster reflexes. He might. But if you put a hockey stick in both of our hands and ask us to stickhandle a puck, make or receive a pass I would perform these activities much more readily than him. The reality is that my 14 years of Krav Maga training does not match his almost 30. He has put in thousands of more hours of training and can see attacking movements more readily and accurately than I can. This chunking goes beyond the visual. Grab Pierre or another expert (I advise against this) and they will instantly assess and react – likely resulting in a very uncomfortable experience for you.
The implications for Krav Maga training are clear.
Repetitive practice, especially under stress, allows you to develop and improve your ability to chunk information – visual, auditory, tactical – and act more effectively.
Considering the speed and variation of real-life assaults, “chunking” is essential.
Matthew Syed, Bounce: The Myth of Talent and the Power of Practice. London: Harper Collins, 2010