Yesterday, I posted the first installment in this four part series--which focused very briefly on the science behind the fight or flight response. In today's follow up post, I want to discuss why I think that this response is so detrimental when it comes to jiu jitsu. Indeed, I suspect it is the #1 reason white belts roll as spastically as they notoriously do (which makes rolling more dangerous for everyone involved). As I mentioned in the previous post, because the fight or flight response is largely automatic, once it takes hold, it is hard to reel back in (especially in situations where someone is trying to pin you in place or submit you).
So, perhaps the best way to begin this post on the deleterious role the fight or flight response plays in jiu jitsu is to point out the obvious fact that every grappler has experienced this response at some point in their development. We have all had those moments when we simply couldn’t move or when we were inextricably immobilized by someone who had more skill (or size and strength) than we did. The power and skill asymmetries can be psychologically jarring (especially when one is doubly disadvantaged in both ways). When the name of the game is control and submission (which is itself a powerful element of the psychology of the gentle art), one learns early on that the technique must be respected just as it must be learned.
Unconsciousness and trips to the hospital to have ligaments replaced are real (if uncommon) consequences of this “game” we voluntarily play. As gentle as the art of jiu jitsu may be in some respects, it can still be dangerous business. As such, it requires a tremendous amount of both trust and patience between training partners (and instructors)—which is something that takes time to develop (especially when one first starts jiu jitsu. In the beginning, your training partners may be complete strangers—strangers seeking to submit you (however friendly they may otherwise be). This is a perfect recipe for the fight or flight response for those who are new to jiu jitsu.
In light of this dynamic, one of the biggest earlier impediments to progress in jiu jitsu—and one of the major reasons upper belts don’t want to roll with lower belts—is that the less experienced people are, the more prone they are to have the fight or flight response to live training (which is turn makes those new to the art far more likely to "spaz out"). Rather than staying relaxed, thinking through their movements, and executing a plan, grapplers in the throes of the fight or flight response thrash around instead, often for no apparent rhyme or reason. Unsurprisingly, the more one fights and struggles inefficiently against someone with positional dominance (or the more one flails around in a fury even when given top control), the more fuel is thrown onto the kinetic fire that is the fight or flight response.
This burst of inefficient and often pointlessly wasted energy will soon be followed by a dreaded adrenaline dump that will burn one out in short order—leaving one exhausted and perhaps even panicked. Not only is this a well-worn script for completely gassing yourself out, but your spastic dervish of activity also makes it more likely your partner gets hurt along the way. You know not what you do and you’re overdoing it.
This misguided and misplaced whirlwind creates unnecessary risks for both you and your partner. In short, the fight or flight response is doubly bad for practitioners of jiu jitsu. On the one hand, it can be frustrating and demoralizing for the people who experience it—making it more likely they hurt themselves and their partners. On the other hand, it can be irritating for the training partners who have to endure and tolerate the spastic overdrive that is produced by the fight or flight response (without losing their own cool along the way).
Yet, as we saw earlier, there are good biological reasons for why humans have these types of experiences in the presence of danger and the threat of violence. So, while the fight or flight response may be impeding your jiu jitsu, it served our evolutionary ancestors quite well—which is why it is so deeply entrenched in our psyche (and so difficult for some people to overcome). Don’t get me wrong. The fight or flight response can be crucial when we’re faced with a genuine threat (e.g., an assailant is attacking our family or the house we’re in is about to explode).
But when we are simply training in the safe confines of a jiu jitsu gym, the otherwise useful fight or flight response is misplaced and impedes both one’s learning and one’s enjoyment of this complex game of human chess. Succumbing to the fight or flight response while rolling turns us into our own worst enemies in short order. We either end up freezing up or freaking out without proper control and adequate forethought concerning the consequences of each motion being made.
Either response is counter-productive. If you simply freeze up and accept someone’s having positional dominance, you will get submitted in the end. If you instead do the opposite and roll with reckless abandon, a better training partner will simply either wait until your energy wears down (which it will when the adrenaline dump is over) or they will respond by rolling harder with you than would otherwise have been the case (or both). It’s a lose-lose for you however things unfold—all because you, too, are subject to deeply entrenched biological impulses that protect us from predators while exposing our training partners to unnecessary risk.
So, what is the cure for this evolutionary madness that is sweeping through gyms everywhere? The first step, or so I will suggest, is to better understand what we’re up against. So, in the next post (Part 3), I will start with an auto-biographical sketch about my own battles with the fight or flight response. Having explained the various ways this response has negatively impacted my own jiu jitsu journey, I will then go on in Part 4 to sketch out the solution to the problem—namely, working towards experiencing states of flow instead. In this sense, developing the ability to genuinely “flow roll” is an integral part of one’s development in the gentle art—or, so I will argue soon. Stay tuned!
p.s. An astute commentator over at reddit/bjj pointed out that the terms "spaz" and "spastic" have a pejorative meaning. Having done a little searching around, I now regret having used them. As someone who runs a blog about the philosophy of disability, I should have known better. But rather than edit the post after the fact, I would prefer to leave my mistake and apologize for it here in the post-script. I will be more careful in the future with the terms I use. Just because it a term is commonly used in jiu jitsu circles doesn't make it appropriate to use the term. Lesson learned (8/4/2015).