top of page

Mistakes of the Vastly Experienced

Updated: Oct 20, 2023

by Mark Hatmaker

“But in all my experience, I have never been in any accident of any sort worth speaking about. I have seen but one vessel in distress in all my years at sea. I never saw a wreck and never had been wrecked nor was I ever in any predicament that threatened to end in disaster of any sort.”

Those words come from Capt. E.J. Smith. He spoke them in 1907. Five years later, he was awarded the command of the RMS Titanic, and we all know what happened there. Walter Lord’s masterly volume A Night to Remember, written in 1955, breaks down minute by minute the catalog of small errors that led to large-scale catastrophe. Smith was no amateur, no weekend sailor, no bumbler. He was an experienced seaman, well-trained and well-equipped to handle a transatlantic voyage.

Fate can and does rear its head to render diligent preparation minuscule, but in the case of the Titanic — and many other incidents large and small — it is less an encounter with something large (like an iceberg) than it is a failure to remain prepared for small deviations that have an adverse effect because people have been resting on their laurels.

Complacency can set in after long trends of “no worries.” This is often referred to as the turkey problem. The fable goes like this: A turkey is living a pampered life on a farm. The farmer solicitously sees to its needs each and every day, with ample food and comfortable shelter. There are 364 days of bliss. To the turkey, all is coming up roses with a trend line leading to serene complacency. What the turkey doesn’t know is that the 365th day is Thanksgiving.

As martial artists, we can be lulled to Capt. Smith/Thanksgiving turkey levels of complacency not just by, “Well, it hasn’t happened in all my experience, so I must be doing something right, and likely we’re good to go.” We also can be trained and diligent within our self-defense domain but perhaps become a bit state- and gear-dependent and wind up being woefully unprepared for

hazards similar to what we trained for in the first place.

Newton Rhodes, writing in a 1961 issue of Underwater magazine, explains how the perils of being immersed daily in a hazardous environment don’t prepare one for subtle shifts in what might be required. He does this by relating a tale of a scuba dive gone wrong. He and his son returned to the surface, only to find that their dive boat’s anchor had become unmoored. The boat was drifting out to sea‚ and they were far from it. The decision was made by the father: He would dump his tanks and swim for the ever-receding boat.

“Without slowing his pace, he could read the dial on his waterproof watch. Muscles in his

arms and shoulders, used rarely in diving, ached with fatigue.”

— Swim for Life

The rest of Rhodes’ account is just as harrowing. He honestly relates how he contemplated letting go and sinking to the bottom with fatigue. He describes how using dive fins in his daily underwater excursions led to less endurance when it came time for the long swimming haul on the surface. So here we have an experienced diver who swam daily, but a mere alteration in circumstances of the swim altered his efficiency and effectiveness. Add to it the notion that swim fins are an aid to good diving, and it becomes clear how much danger can accompany complacency. All martial artists should take note. The antidote to complacency is often assumed to be the drill. Recreations of possible scenarios … well, let’s leave it to Gen. George S. Patton to point out the shortfalls:

“There are no bullets in maneuvers, and things sometimes get a little dull. But play the game; don’t lie in the shade. Try, above all things, to use your imagination. Think this is

war. What would I do if that man were really shooting at me? That is the only chance, men, that you’re going to have to practice. The next time, maybe, there will be no umpires, and the bullets will be very real, both yours and the enemy’s.”

— Address to the Officers and Men of the Second Armored Division, May 17, 1941

Drilling must be endured. But drilling does not ensure.What is required for real self-defense,

and is still not enough‚ is emotional content, a constant querying of the realities within the drill itself and a vigilant varying of parameters. Anything less is an assumption that the turkey farmer is your lifelong friend or that “I swim great with fins — no need for

anything else.”

Now that you get my drift, here are a few survival and self-defense items to contemplate:

• Do you text while driving? Do you remain attentive? Do you allow your “Well, I’ve never had an accident” streak of turkey luck to color your technique and vigilance?

• In sparring, do you vary round duration and rest duration?

• Do you vary glove weight? Bag weight? Mat surfaces? Weight classes?

• Do you handicap your sparring? Impair physical and sensory attributes? Challenge balance? Impose cognitive load?

• Are your smoke alarms up to snuff? Fire extinguishers charged and up to date?

• How’s the air pressure in that spare tire?

• All north and west exits from your city are blocked by civil unrest. What’s the alternative?

• A solar flare knocks out satellites in your part of the world. What emergency numbers do you know by heart? Do you need a GPS to get where you’re going?

• If you’re a striker, how often do you incorporate grappling into your training?

• If you’re a grappler, how often do you strike?

• Does your physical training regimen program for variance?

Obviously, we could continue this battery, but these questions should be more than enough to rouse martial artists from Capt. Smith/Thanksgiving turkey/skilled diver complacency and inspire them to adopt a more prepared stance.

Mark Hatmaker’s website is

This article originally appeared in the November 2022 issue of Black Belt Magazine.

bottom of page