Guest Post ii – People Watching by Craig Baxter

Last night I had the opportunity to watch elite kick boxers in action at The New Era in Accrington. Not only was I there to give support to fighters from Southport New Dawn Kick Boxing Club, but to observe the behaviour of the competitors, crowd and the staff at the event.

We arrived at the venue at 5pm and were duly greeted by a burly security guard on the door. With myself being quite a big bloke (6’2” – 18 stone) I tower over most people, however I always seem to intimidate the bouncers (security staff), and tonight was no exception. Before I had even walked into the venue, I had clocked his leg behaviour. The security guard was in a standing leg cross position, which is a stance reserved for when high comfort and no threat is felt. Standing on one leg massively reduces your balance, thus leaving you exposed and vulnerable to an attack, however your brain prepares itself by uncrossing your legs, making the flight or fight response possible. You can’t defend yourself adequately with your legs crossed. Consequently, he didn’t feel threatened by my friends walking past but as soon as I walked past he uncrossed his legs, widened his stance, and pushed his chest out. This subtle change in behaviour was done so he could show me silently that he was the bigger & more intimidating man. Security staff are there for our protection and safety, it’s their job to look powerful and superior! I shook his hand, flashed him contempt (good job he didn’t spot that) and he gave me the old bone crusher handshake! If I wanted any more emphasis of his dominance over me, there it was.

After quickly nipping for a bone graft, I found my seat and began to scan the room. It wasn’t long before a pattern of behaviour emerged. Before the first fight, you could see some of the competitors pacing round the venue. The silent behaviour on show gave an indication to their current inner states. The fighters who were filled with confidence were making thumb displays, by placing their hands into their pockets, leaving their thumbs visible as they walked and talked. This little gesture is a classic indicator of current emotional states. Another fascinating observation is the gait (walk) of the fighters. The ones who made the thumb display walked with a much slower gait than the ones who didn’t. One possible reason behind this is that they want to ‘appear’ superior to the rest, and the slower they walk, the greater chance their opponent has of viewing this intimidating display. Police Officers walk with a distinct gait when patrolling on the beat. It commands respect. It’s often been said that Mike Tyson had his opponents beat long before they stepped into the ring because of this type of pre fight behaviour.

With this in mind, one fighter especially caught my attention. He was displaying his thumbs, had a very upright, confident posture (almost with a touch of arrogance), had again had very distinct swagger about his walk; however he was doing something that didn’t correspond to his confidence. It was the way he shook the hands of his of his fans. He mysteriously gave each one a very deliberate soft/limp handshake, which seemed quite odd when he was oozing confidence. When we’re feeling good, we want to let people know, and a handshake can do just that. We give a vigorous, hearty handshake when we feel confident, often shaking for a few seconds longer than normal to emphasis our pleasure. Only he knows why he reserved his silent welcome, but two possible reasons could explain this. One is where he wanted to protect his hands/knuckles before his fight (which is common behaviour with musicians who play instruments), or that he considers handshaking too formal for such an occasion. Either way, it gave the impression that he was ‘above’ his fans, one message I’m sure that he wasn’t intending to send out. From observing the clusters of his behaviour, you could see how he felt before his fight. He was oozing confidence, so I expected him to back up this bravado in the ring.

This was my first experience of watching a live kick boxing event, and I was amazed at how physical it was. In fight number 9, there was a great example of how our limbic system operates under extreme stress. One of the fighters was getting an absolute pounding; she was being outclassed by her visibly larger opponent. During the onslaught, her nose started to bleed moments before the end of round 1. During the brief respite between rounds, I turned to my friend and told him about the freeze, flight, fight response we all have locked away in our limbic system. When we are faced with an adversity such as a fight, we can’t always consciously trigger our fight response. This lady who was getting beaten wasn’t in the fight response yet, as she was trying to defend herself from the onslaught of kicks and punches. The bell for round two rang and bingo… her fight response must have been activated by the sight of her own blood as she came out with all guns blazing. She floored her opponent twice, showed the heart of a lion and went on to win the fight, much to the delight of crowd. Her autonomic response to the situation called for a change in her inner state. Defending herself wasn’t combating the threat to her wellbeing, so her limbic brain altered her behaviour into attack mode. I was quite pleased that I predicted the outcome of the fight based on physiological science!

After being seated for four hours on a chair that wouldn’t have been out of place in an interrogation, I nipped to the refreshment stand to stretch my legs. Consequently, I sadly missed the fight with the confident, non-handshake chap who I’ve previously mentioned. According to my friend, he was outclassed by his opponent, and lost the big title fight on points. I was disappointed to have missed this bout, but if I stayed in that chair any longer, I’d have developed roots. However after a 20 minute intermission, this chap walked past the ring, and exited the building. Upon his exit, his confidence had literally been knocked out of him. He was now keeping his head down, avoiding eye contact with the crowd, hands pressed into his pockets, (thumbs kept hidden), his upright posture was now a dejected slump, and his gait lacked the oomph which has previously caught my eye. It was sad to see, but a classic example of how an event can change our complete behaviour. When things are good, our bodies elevate, when they are bad, the drop. The contrast between his confidence and despair was quite notable.

What I found most humbling was the amount of genuine respect the fighters had for each other and their respective trainers. After every fight, no matter who won or lost, each competitor walked over to their opponent’s entourage and duly shook hands. This level of admiration for the values and customs of this martial art was quite refreshing. I must admit, my initial though of going to watch a kick boxing event was plagued with thoughts of street brawling, eye gouging and van-damm roundhouses. However I was presently surprised at the respect and honour all fighters had to their clubs.

The behaviour on show at this event was just another example of how fascinating people-watching is. The more you know about gestures and expressions, the more you can decode people’s current internal states. You know people are thinking, feeling and intending to do. The next time you’re out and about, keep an eye out for these subtle, yet revealing behaviours!