Black Belt Brain

Musings on movement and the mind.

Tae Kwon Do Versus Shark—A Punch In The Jaws*

Taking action in the face of fear.

(*With thanks to the Sun, London UK, for the subtitle …)

What would you do if you were literally face to face with a 12 foot Tiger shark? If punch it on the nose is your answer, you have a lot in common with Mariko Haugen of Folsom CA. Mariko and her husband Don were snorkelling on a reef in Maui when the unthinkable happened—a huge shark decided to check out the reef at the same time.

This Tiger shark (Galeocerdo cuvier ) took a little too much interest in a few of those snorkelling on the reef. Two women from Canada who were in the water, saw the shark and made an exit onto a nearby outcropping. Apparently they tried to warn Mariko and Don but they were unable to signal in time and the couple had an encounter with the shark.

At this point, you might be wondering about why I am writing about a shark experience in my blog. It’s because of that punch on the nose of the Tiger shark I mentioned above. When the shark took too much interest in Mariko, she gave it a couple of punches. She got cut on her fist and a laceration on her thigh for her efforts, but the shark swam off.

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The link to “Black Belt Brain” blog is that Mariko is a student of Tae Kwon Do—the Korean martial art of kicking and punching. Clearly this would have been a very dangerous and scary experience. Yet all the people involved had the presence of mind—the grace under pressure—to keep themselves safe. The idea is to get away from danger—from the shark—safely.

I am not trying to advocate for fighting with sharks—or for fighting any animals including humans. I am also not advocating punching sharks. BTW if you try to search this out, the advice on whether or not to punch a shark is mixed. It depends. Likely hitting the shark startled it and it swam away because it wasn’t worth the hassle.

I have outlined this story as an example of a mindset we could all stand to use as much as possible. It’s one emphasized in martial arts training. In Japanese martial arts it is called “gan” (gah-n), meaning an overall and encompassing awareness of danger. Presence of mind and awareness are the key points.

In almost every martial art this concept forms a key part of training. Or it should, because is underpins preparation for action. To keep yourself safe from danger when under attack (or when an attack may be imminent whether by fish or foe) it is critical to maintain this kind of awareness. This doesn’t refer to a specific expectation of a specific attack. Instead an acknowledgement that attack could come at any time and that you must be ready to act.

Those punches given underwater would clearly have very little mechanical effect on the shark. But they could buy a minute or two in which to seize the opportunity to make a safe exit.

Whether that act is to flee the vicinity immediately or to strike pre-emptively and then flee the vicinity depends on the person and the actual situation. Overall the mindset is one that is meant to keep you safe from any eventuality. And this example serves as a great illustration of the mindset of readiness in action.

In closing, I’ll paraphrase Elbert Hubbard (1856-1915), and say this is also an example of “if life hands you lemons, make lemonade”. That was one of my mom’s favorite expressions. Or maybe even riff on the motto of Boy Scouts and Girl Guides the world over who strive to always “be prepared”.

 

© E. Paul Zehr, 2012

E. Paul Zehr, Ph.D., is professor of neuroscience and kinesiology at the University of Victoria and author of "Becoming Batman" and "Inventing Iron Man."

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