Is Your Martial Art A Placebo?

A few years ago, I was invited to speak at the American College of Sports Medicine by a combat sports interest group. At the time I was in the leadership team at the Australian Institute of Sports’ Combat Centre, which focuses on the development of elite martial art athletes. As I finished telling a story in which I related a hand-to-hand combat experience to an ongoing combat sports study we were doing at the AIS, I was asked, “Which martial art do you think is the best for dealing with a real combat encounter?”

The question made me pause for a moment before I answered. I knew that I probably would have answered differently if I’d been asked that a year earlier. But before I reveal what I said, I want to share with you the information the helped inform my reply. I’ve learned a lot over the decades of being involved in the martial arts and have come to understand even more since going to war.

One thing that I know as an absolute is that in combat there are no absolutes. Every 10 years or so we are introduced to the ‘real truth’ in the martial arts, the answer to all our self-defence doubts… until the next ‘real truth’ comes along, that is. Are we just being sucked in by the latest placebo?

Let’s see what two of my friends and former AIS colleagues have to say on the matter. Dr Shona Halson and Dr David Martin wrote a paper called ‘Lying to Win – Placebos and Sports Science’, which was published in the International Journal of Sports Physiology and Performance. Here are some key passages from it:

The early history of placebos reveals how lies have been used by credentialed professionals to achieve desired outcomes, introduced by an intriguing Thomas Jefferson quote from 1807 addressing ‘pious fraud’: ‘One of the most successful physicians I have ever known has assured me that he used more bread pills, drops of coloured water, and powders of hickory ashes, than of all other medicines put together.’

When it comes to winning at the highest levels of sport, it may be the case that many ‘sport scientists’ have either stretched the truth or simply blatantly lied to an elite athlete in hopes of improving sporting performance.

If research is correct and belief effects are indeed powerful, should lying to an athlete in the hope of improving performance be considered an acceptable practice? What should we think of sport science ‘gurus’ who confidently administer dubious ergogenic aids they barely understand, if the outcome is a victorious athlete? As suggested by Thomas Jefferson, history reveals that physicians have been prescribing placebos for more than 200 years in an attempt to make patients feel better.

For the uninitiated, it is easy to overlook how powerful a belief effect can be and thus the importance of this topic. But consider for a moment the insightful paper published in 1954 by Professor Walter B. Cannon from the Harvard Medical School, titled ‘Voodoo Death’. Professor Cannon writes, ‘When subjected to spells or sorcery or the use of ‘black magic’, men may be brought to death.’ A series of examples from Africa, Australia, New Zealand and South America were reviewed by Cannon, supporting the hypothesis that when belief is strong, a voodoo curse can lead to lethal consequences, even in healthy individuals… For scientists who investigate the performance-enhancing effects of different interventions (training, recovery, altitude, heat, supplements), there is a strong likelihood that researching participants’ beliefs and expectations noticeably shape their performance.

As discussed in the early 1940s, if belief effects can make sick patients feel better and in some cases actually cause death, it makes sense that belief can also be a powerful modulator of exercise performance.

So, it’s clear that a belief in something can have incredible results, as we see in the martial arts all the time — but for these placebos to work, we must believe in them. If we know something (e.g. our martial art skill) is false or a placebo, not only will it not work but your performance may actually be negatively effected. The paper speaks more on this:

Placebos have traditionally been considered a means of determining whether the effect of a medical intervention is due to a patient’s imagination rather than its medicinal virtues.

For this reason, placebos are often thought of as inactive and thus an essential component for comparison in any randomised, controlled trial. However, the role of the placebo is much more complicated than originally suspected. Evidence now supports the concept that improved outcomes in patients and enhanced performance in athletes have neurobiological basis.

So, to my answer: Why do martial art students fall over without even being touched? Because they believe their master’s ki or chi (internal power or ‘thought force’, for want of better terms) will have an effect on them. Brazilian jiu-jitsu (BJJ) had people thinking for years that you should never kick high in an MMA fight, until a confident, well-rounded fighter believed they could. If voodoo magic has shown us anything, it is that just believing in an expert can be a powerful influence. It may not, however, give you the result you envisioned (enjoy these famous examples from the martial arts, if you have a few minutes).


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