Combat Psychology and Sports Performance

Everybody has a plan until they get punched in the face.” — Mike Tyson

Picture a large plastic zip tie, about an inch wide. The smaller versions are sometimes used to tie garbage bags; soldiers and police officers use the large ones to restrain people. Anyone could figure out how to thread a zip tie: You put the little end through the hole and pull on it.

In 2001, psychologists from Yale and the U.S. Army imposed this task as part of a scenario conducted in a study with a group of Army Special Forces soldiers. During the scenario, the soldiers who had not pre-threaded their flex cuffs in advance found themselves almost incapable of using them.

What went wrong? Surely this wasn’t an inept group of men. They’re some of the toughest, most highly trained in the world; the reason for their failure couldn’t possibly be inability.

Something beyond physical skills comes into play.

Come Out Fighting

If you’re a mixed martial artist, you’ll know how to do an armbar and a triangle choke. If you’re a football player, you know that you can catch a football or tackle an opponent who dares to do such a thing in your area of the field. If you’re a climber, you know how to pull gear off your harness with one hand, place it, and clip your rope into it.

You’ve done these things thousands of times, and know how to do them well.

Yet numerous people have found themselves suddenly incapable of doing something as simple as dialing 911. They forget the tiniest details, like the need to dial 9 for an outside line, or they inexplicably call 411 over and over.

In my first MMA fight in San Diego, I found myself repeatedly locking my opponent into a guillotine choke, yet I was unable to finish the choke and submit him. I lost the fight by a single point after going into overtime.

Only afterwards did I realize that I’d been keeping my opponent’s arm inside the choke and leaving one side of his neck open. It was a mistake that I’d probably made countless times in training, but had always had the presence of mind to correct.

I could lock this choke out smoothly in a training environment, so why couldn’t I think well enough to do the same thing during the fight, in front of thousands of people? Why couldn’t the Special Forces guys figure out how to thread their flex cuffs? How could a person possibly forget how to dial 911?

Performance Degradation

The scenario being conducted by the Special Forces soldiers was a close-quarters combat (CQC) simulation. It involved urban warfare with their real weapons loaded with paint bullets, hand-to-hand combat with role players wearing impact-reduction suits, an overwhelming noise stimulus, and poor, macabre lighting.

At random intervals throughout the scenario, the SF operators would, without warning, receive a significant pain stimulus to the upper body via an electric shock in order to simulate a gunshot wound.

Under this level of stress, the warriors were incapable of performing unrehearsed complex motor skills, such as threading their zip cuffs to subdue their adversaries.

The same performance degradation occurs with the person trying to dial 911, the climber who bumbles repeatedly while hanging from his fingertips at the crux of a dangerous route, and a fighter who suddenly realizes that what he knows in the gym is not what he knows in the ring.

The skills you possess in a calm, controlled environment will probably not be the skills you possess when it really matters. The impact of stress may mean the difference between victory and defeat, a clean climb and a jarring fall, or even life and death.

The good news is that the effects of stress can, to some extent, be controlled.

Your Body Under Stress

Fear makes men forget, and skill that cannot fight is useless.” — Brasidas of Sparta

The sympathetic nervous system mobilizes the body’s energy reserves during times of stress. It neutralizes processes controlled by the parasympathetic nervous system, such as digestion, while ramping up secretion of adrenaline and noradrenaline, dilating bronchial tubes in the lungs, tensing muscles, and dilating heart vessels.

It also causes your heart rate to increases.

There’s a direct relation between stress-induced heart rate and both mental and physical performance. Too low, such as when you’re just waking up, and you can’t think or react very quickly. Too high, and one’s ability to think and perform motor skills degrades.

Dave Grossman, a psychology professor at the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, former Army Ranger, and author of the book On Killing, uses a color-coded graph to categorize the effects of heart rate on performance.

Heart Rate (BPM)        Condition         Effects

60-80               White/Yellow

                                                          Normal resting heart rate

>115                                                   Fine motor skill deteriorates

115-145           Red      

                                                         Optimal performance level for complex motor skills and visual and cognitive reaction time

>145                                                 Complex motor skills deteriorate

145-175           Gray                            Black-level performance degradation may begin

>175                Black

                                                         Cognitive processing deteriorates

                                                         Blood vessels constrict

                                                         Loss of peripheral vision

                                                         Loss of depth perception

                                                         Loss of near vision

                                                         Auditory exclusion

Grossman calls the earliest stages of this spectrum Condition White. The boundary between here and the next stage, Condition Yellow, is more psychological than physiological.

We first see major physiological changes around 115 beats per minute. Between here and roughly 145 bpm is Condition Red, which is the range in which the body’s complex motor skills and reaction times are at their peak.

Next is Condition Gray, which is where major performance degradations begin to show.

Above 175 bpm is Condition Black, which is marked by extreme loss of cognitive and complex motor performance, freezing, fight or flight behavior, and even loss of bowel and bladder control. Here, gross motor skills such as running and charging are at their highest.

Remember, these effects are the product of psychologically induced stress, not physical stress. An increased heart rate doesn’t necessarily mean that you’re under psychological stress — you can run a few sets of wind sprints and get your heart rate around 200 beats per minute without forgetting how to use your cell phone.

These lines, however, aren’t drawn with permanent marker. It’s possible to push the envelope of complex motor-skill performance under stress right up to the edge of Condition Black. It’s also possible to reach Condition Black for its gross motor-skill performance benefits, such as sprinting or deadlifting, and then quickly recede to a calmer state to allow nervous system recovery.

This generally occurs with specific, well-rehearsed skills. For example, studies done on top Formula One drivers found that their heart rates averaged 175 bpm for hours on end. These drivers perform a limited set of finely tuned skills with extraordinary speed, under a good deal of stress.

Likewise, the top performers in the Special Forces study had maximum heart rates of 175, while those who were slightly less proficient typically had max heart rates of 180 bpm. In both cases, 175 is the maximal rate before high-level performance drops off.

At a certain point, an increased heart rate becomes counterproductive because the heart can no longer take in a full load of blood, resulting in less oxygen delivered to the brain. That, in theory, could be the cause of the performance decrease seen above 175 bpm.

Stress Inoculation

No man fears to do that which he knows he does well.” — Duke of Wellington

As defined by Dave Grossman in another of his books, On Combat, stress inoculation is a process by which prior success under stressful conditions acclimatizes you to similar situations and promotes future success.

In a classic stress inoculation study, rats were divided into three groups. The first group was taken directly from their cages, dropped into a tub of water, and observed with a timer. It took 60 hours for all of them to drown.

The second group was taken out of their cages and held upside down to create stress. After the rats gave up on kicking and squirming and their nervous systems went into parasympathetic backlash, they were placed in the tub of water. This group lasted 20 minutes before drowning.

The last group was given the same upside-down stress treatment, and then placed back into their cages to recuperate. This was repeated several times until the rats became accustomed to the stressor. Finally, the rats were taken out, given the stress treatment and placed immediately in the water. They swam. For 60 hours.

The repeated bouts of stress allowed the rats to become inoculated against the stressor. Even with an event that had cut the lifespan of the previous group down to 20 minutes, the third group was able to perform at the same level as the group that faced no stress at all.

Immunizing Your System

There are many forms of stress inoculation, and to be most effective, they must be precisely geared toward one’s chosen activity. Fighters inoculate themselves by simulating a fight through sparring. Firefighters are inoculated against fire by being exposed to it repeatedly. Skydivers eventually develop a high level of familiarity and comfort with great heights.

As a member of a U.S. military Special Operations force, I know that we wanted our training to be as realistic as possible. Military training has improved steadily since WWI, moving toward increasingly realistic targets. The closer the training scenario resembles the real thing, the greater the performance carryover will be.

This is called simulator fidelity: Switching from simple bull’s-eye targets to silhouettes and then to 3D pop-ups was one such evolution, but we would take this a step further.

The first time I jammed a magazine loaded with blue paint bullets into my assault rifle, dove out of an ambushed car, and fired them at a living person while sprinting for cover, it scared the hell out of me. I had such tunnel vision that I could barely see the person I was shooting at, let alone aim. After several repetitions, however, I was able to stabilize myself, turn toward the oncoming fire, and hit my target.

Despite the necessary specificity, there’s still a general carryover. Adapting yourself to a stressful situation seems to create a sort of “stress immune system,” which allows greater tolerance and more rapid adaptation to other stressful situations.

In On Combat, Grossman cites an example of a full-contact fighter who joined his team for CQC weapons training in a kill house. During the first engagement, the fighter’s heart rate shot to 200 bpm, and he dropped his weapon. However, his background in facing other stressful situations allowed him to adapt relatively quickly. By the end of the day, he was performing superbly.

Learning a Motor Skill

The field of neuroscience has a variety of theories on how learning occurs and exactly how the brain functions to create a conscious, intelligent human.

Jeff Hawkins, author of On Intelligence and inventor of the Palm Pilot, has developed a theory that the brain is not a computer (a commonly attempted analogy), but in fact a system that stores experiences in a way that reflects the true structure of the world.

The brain remembers sequences of events and their nested relationships, and then makes predictions based on those memories.

These memories are stored in the neocortex, a two-millimeter-thick sheath that coats your brain. Its 30 billion nerve cells contain all your skills, knowledge, and life experiences. (Fun fact: For all the similarities in brain structure across the animal kingdom, mammals are the only ones with a neocortex.)

Now let’s talk about how you learn and remember motor patterns, so you can understand what’s happening when someone throws a ball at your head and you grab it without having to perform physics calculations to figure out that it’s on a collision course with your teeth.

The neocortex is divided into six layers that function in a hierarchy. Each layer attempts to store and recall sequences, with higher layers having the ability to put together more comprehensive sequences or concepts than lower layers.

For instance, say you’re grappling in a jiu jitsu match. You see an opening, and “triangle choke” flashes through the upper level of your neocortex. This command is passed down to the next layer, which breaks the concept down into the further sequences: “Drag one arm, throw leg over neck, shift hips.”

At the next layer in your cortex, these commands are broken down further: “Tighten fingers around opponent’s wrist, and pull in such a way as to prevent him from posturing up and escaping.”

Now let’s say that your opponent pulls out of the triangle choke. The predicted sequence being performed is supposed to end with your opponent being choked and submitted, but it doesn’t match the reality. So the new sensory data is passed back up the hierarchy until a suitable sequence is found and passed back down again.

Too Much Information

If you’ve ever taught someone a movement in the weight room, you’ve probably been frustrated by the process. Teaching someone a kettlebell swing involves a number of cues which, for an experienced lifter, are ingrained so well and so low in the cortex that they can be carried out without conscious thought.

Not so with the newbie, whose upper neocortex is at full tilt processing and associating commands like “keep your heels on the ground,” “neutral spine,” and “fire your glutes.” This is often when you’ll hear the trainee say things like, “There’s so much to remember at once.”

Within the newbie cortex, the uppermost level is occupied just trying to ingrain one of those completely foreign commands. This doesn’t leave room for much else, since the higher a pattern must go to be recognized, the more regions of the cortex must become involved. The sensory feedback in response to those actions is completely novel, so the patterns from something as simple as putting one’s heels on the ground create countless new associations.

After a while, the cortex will be able to associate a variety of new sensations with expected forms of feedback. Now, when the trainee hears the command, his cortex will be able to predict what it will feel like to carry it out.

The command can now be relegated to a lower level of the hierarchy, freeing the upper levels to process other commands. The more associations brought on by repetitions of a movement, the lower in the cortical hierarchy the pattern can be relegated.

Think of the first time you ever rode a bicycle. It took all of your conscious energy. But after countless repetitions under varying conditions, you can do it while talking to your buddy about the worlds dirtiest strip club (it’s in Mexico, in case you’re wondering) — even if something unexpected comes up, like grandma walking in front of your bicycle.

This is why repetitions are so crucial in learning a motor skill. More repetitions equal more associations and a more strongly ingrained motor pattern.

Quality Matters

We know that repetitions create auto-associative memories within the cerebral cortex, which in turn dictate behavior. This process happens for everything, from shooting a basketball to lifting a barbell to throwing a punch.

Since you’re ingraining a pattern with each repetition, it’s crucial that any sort of technique be drilled flawlessly. Even in a controlled environment, with a punching bag for an opponent, poor technique in training will be reproduced when it matters. You can’t train sloppy and then expect to perform well.

Even if two different motor patterns are ingrained, the act of deciding between the two and discarding the poor one will slow reaction time and performance. A study conducted in 1952 by W.E. Hicks found that increasing the range of potential responses from one to two slowed down reaction time by 58%.

This is why running backs are taught to cover and protect the football at all times, even when they’re just practicing and nobody’s trying to strip it away. For the same reason, a shooter in the military or law enforcement will never place his finger on the trigger of his weapon until he’s made the decision to fire.

When the trained motor pattern is relegated to subconscious thought, there can be no question that it will be carried out correctly.

Navigating a New World

So let’s say you’ve been training, practicing, and grooving the necessary motor patterns for your sport or profession. You’re ready, and you step into the ring, onto the field, or into the kill house.

You’ve just entered a new world.

The patterns ingrained in your cortex will be largely unassociated with this new, stressful environment, unless it’s been simulated using stress inoculation.

The higher stress levels and the overwhelming sensory feedback from the ongoing situation are going to occupy the highest regions of your cerebral cortex. Your only available motor patterns will be those that have been relegated lower in the hierarchy. If you’ve just learned a new skill, now would not be the time to rely on it.

Complex motor control is going to diminish as your heart rate increases; the exact heart rate at which this happens will depend on your level of fitness and the degree to which you’re inoculated against stress.

As motor control drops off, the first patterns you’ll lose are those that haven’t been strongly ingrained low in the hierarchy. This applies to the ones with the most variations, the ones you’ve rehearsed with the fewest repetitions, or those you’ve learned in environments that least resemble this one.

During my first MMA fight, my immediately available motor patterns were only the simplest: punch, kick, charge, clinch. Even something as elementary as a guillotine choke took on sudden complexity. In my adrenaline-fueled state of mind, I kept making the same mistake as hard and fast as I could.

The same thing occurred with the Special Forces soldiers who found themselves clumsily trying to jam a zip cuff together. The pattern hadn’t been rehearsed well enough to be recallable under high stress, and was temporarily lost.

Those who wanted to dial 911 and found themselves listening to a 411 message over and over again were repeating the pattern of keys most heavily ingrained. Their cortex knew they had to dial a three-digit number and went with what it could immediately recall.

The 911 pattern hadn’t been ingrained through physical repetition. This is why it’s actually a good idea to have your family members practice this. (Just remember to disconnect the phone first.)

The 16-Second Solution

There are three basic ways to combat the effects of stress on physical performance:

• Stress inoculation

• Quality motor-skill repetition in an environment of high simulator fidelity

• Biofeedback

I’ve already discussed the first two, which brings me to biofeedback, the process of consciously regulating the body’s normally subconscious functions.

In On Combat, Grossman teaches a technique called tactical breathing.

Next time you’re under stress and feel your heart rate picking up uncontrollably, take four full seconds to draw a deep breath. Hold that breath for four seconds, and then exhale for the next four seconds. Pause for another four seconds before repeating the entire 16-second sequence at least three times.

This practice will immediately slow your heart rate and bring your stress response under control. You’ll feel mental clarity and manual dexterity return, and it’ll be easier to recall previously ingrained motor skills.

Using Condition Black to Your Advantage

Gross motor skills like sprinting, charging, and picking up really heavy stuff are at their peak in Condition Black, as I’ve mentioned. That’s why you see powerlifters slapping each other, yelling, and generally making a ruckus before a big lift. It’s intentional nervous system arousal.

According to a study coauthored by Grossman, these performance benefits peak within 10 seconds.

That is, if you need to perform your task within 10 seconds of reaching Condition Black, with your heart rate exceeding 175 bpm, you’ll get 100 percent of the benefits.

After 30 seconds you get just 55%. It’s down to 35% after 60 seconds, and 31% after 90 seconds. It takes a minimum of three minutes of rest for the nervous system to fully recover from this ordeal.

Prior to a big lift, you can maximize your gross motor skills by artificially inducing stress and creating sympathetic nervous system arousal. For the greatest benefit, you’ll have to time it well so that you take your position on the bar right around the 10-second mark.

Afterwards, in order to prevent subsequent drops in nervous-system arousal, allow for at least three minutes of rest. This is where tactical breathing can come in handy, as it can bring your arousal levels back to normal and speed recovery.

Wrapping Up: Preparation Is Power

Sun Tzu wrote, “If you know the enemy and know yourself, you need not fear the result of a hundred battles.”

In this case, the enemy is stress, which, as you now know, comes in a variety of flavors. You’ll enjoy peak performance in complex motor skills and reaction time at Condition Red, when your heart rate is between 115 and 145 bpm. But even then, your fine motor skills are starting to diminish, meaning that you might struggle to tie your shoe even though you’re at the top of your game.

As your heart rate rises above 145 bpm, you might see a real drop in your ability to do the things you can do perfectly well in practice and other less stressful situations. And when you get past 175 bpm, you might not be able to do anything precisely the way you’ve been trained to do it.

But even then, in Condition Black, you could hit a personal record in the bench press or deadlift, as long as you start the lift within 10 seconds of reaching that state of nervous-system arousal.

And you can mitigate the negative effects of all these states of stressful agitation by practicing your skills and your craft within the parameters in which they’ll be most difficult to perform. That’s why coaches whose teams are about to play in notoriously hostile arenas will try to simulate that environment in practice by bringing in noise machines or deliberately throwing distractions at their players. And it’s why elite military units go as far as they can to simulate battle zones before the soldiers are forced to perform their duties inside a real one.

But, as Sun Tzu wrote, it’s not enough to understand the conditions in which you’ll have to perform. You have to understand how you react to those conditions. That takes more than practice. It takes the right kind of practice.

The reward? When you perfect your game under properly simulated conditions, you’ll be invincible.

Originally published on Testosterone Muscle, 2009.

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