In the first two posts in this four-part series (see here and here), I discussed the fight or flight response (both what it is and why we have and how it can negatively influence jiu jitsu--especially for beginners). So, I thought I would share some of my own struggles as a way of highlighting the various ways this automatic response to (mis)perceived danger can affect even someone who spent his childhood on the wrestling mats.
As someone who started jiu jitsu with a "wrestler's mindset" (having spent much of my childhood on the mats), I was always trying to be a bull-headed passer with my neck and arms exposed. As such, I frequently managed to get myself into unnecessary trouble a lot during the early days of my now nearly ten year long jiu jitsu journey. Wrestlers push a different pace, tend to be more "aggressive," and really, really, really prefer top position. Unsurprisingly, they also tend to give up their neck and their back with reckless abandon whenever they end up in bottom position. So, when I started I would go head-first trying to pass more with force and instinct than proper technique. It worked against other newbies and some slightly more experienced blue belts..
But it rarely worked with any purple belts and it never worked with brown and black belts. Rather than relaxing and treating the roll like the game it ultimately is—which I will suggest is key to understanding the true flow of the roll in Part 4 of this series—I treated each roll as a contest I had to win. So, I would go all out and gas out against upper belts—stuck in the “fight” frame of mind. Then, once I had exhausted myself to no avail, I would get put into a positional disadvantage (usually on the bottom).
Unable to move, owing to my opponents' smothering pressure and my own inadequate technique (and misplaced wrestling instincts), I would then go into full on “flight” and panic mode—thrashing around with what little energy I had left without giving adequate thought to the consequences of my often ill-conceived moves in the game of physical chess being played. The only goal was to get out, relieve the pressure, regain my breath, and regain top position. And when that too failed, as it does against people with superior skill, I would simply freeze up—stupidly stuck in place, statically awaiting (and openly inviting) my own undoing. As badly as I wanted to be the hammer, I often wound up being the nail instead (especially against those with more experience in jiu jitsu).
So, while some may be able to reign in the associated emotions with relative ease (and perhaps even redirect them and appropriate them to better ends), for others it can be a major barrier to one’s progress in the jiu jitsu journey. Indeed, I suspect it partly explains why so many people quit jiu jitsu at white and blue belt and so few quit at purple, brown, and black belt. Unless and until one learns how to tame the fight or flight mindset that comes quite naturally to us when someone is trying to choke us unconscious or bend our arms in unnatural directions, it is hard to truly enjoy jiu jitsu.
While the adrenaline rush may keep some people interested (for instance, as a stubborn wrestler, I stuck with it despite the frustration), lots of people will lose interest in something that chronically makes them panic-stricken, anxious, and even helpless and hopeless—all as the result of something known as both the gentle art and human chess. The more prone to the fight or flight response to dangerous situations one happens to be, the less fun one will have training jiu jitsu.
When someone is in the grips of the fight or flight response, they roll too intensely, too tensely, too tight, and too thoughtlessly. One ends up being too reactionary, always placing oneself on the defensive (and hence, often one or more steps behind). When one has succumbed to the fight or flight response, two incompatible options dominate one’s thought—kill (metaphorically, of course) or escape. The roll suddenly turns into a fight to the death instead of a mutually beneficial exchange of proprioceptive knowledge between partners and friends. Under these circumstances, hotter heads are more likely to be set ablaze and cooler heads are less likely to prevail. The “pure joy” has been drained out of the roll. It has become a competition no one really wanted to have. It has somehow become a drag.
So, how does one exorcise the fight or flight blues? In Part 4 of this article (coming soon), I will suggest that as one (a) gets more familiar with the basic bodily movements and positions, (b) starts to develop a repertoire of techniques from a wide variety of positions, and (c) develops self-awareness when it comes to one’s own aptitudes and limitations, one can slowly transition from fighting and fleeing to flowing. This state of flow is not only good for the individual, but it is crucial in order for someone to have the right attitude when it comes to training jiu jitsu.
For my part, despite training for nearly 10 years (while bouncing around the country), it is only recently that I have been able to truly relax while rolling. As such, it is only recently that I have been able to leave my wrestler's mindset behind and genuinely flow roll. But it didn't have to be this way for me. And it doesn't have to be this way for you. If you're new jiu jitsu, there are things you can focus on from the start--from the standpoint of physiology and psychology--to minimize the negative effects of the fight or flight response (e.g., focusing more on your breathing (see here, here, and here)--which is something I still struggle with even to this day).
Fortunately, there is a substantial literature in psychology on the state of flow (especially in the context of athletic endeavors and achievements). In Part 4, I will suggest that the capacity for jiu jitsu to put its practitioners in a state of flow is one of its primary benefits. Like the self-defense element of jiu jitsu (which is important and useful in its own right), I think flow (as exemplified by genuine “flow rolling”) has real world applications and consequences as well. Or at least that is what the data from psychology suggest. But more on that later…
For now, I just want to end on an optimistic note—imploring those who are new to jiu jitsu to stick with it. Things may seem frantic, confusing, and even demoralizing in the beginning. These experiences can leave one stuck in a near constant state of fight or flight—which doesn’t do anyone any favors. But don’t be dejected. Seek solace in the fact that everyone goes through the same learning curve (even if the curve is steeper for some than others—partly owing to nature and partly owing to nurture). So, don't give up on yourself and don't give in to your baser biological impulses. It turns out we can exercise some control over whether we give in to the dreaded fight or flight response or go with the flow instead. So, stay tuned! There is hope yet!