On Wednesday, July 29, CNBC takes viewers back inside the Octagon with "Ultimate Fighting: Fistful of Dollars," revealing how the UFC continues to grow - even as other professional sports face financial crisis. While the recession is putting a beat-down on the economy, Ultimate Fighting's revenues are up 30%. CNBC's Scott Wapner travels to Germany for the UFC's first-ever event in mainland Europe and speaks with Dana White, as well as billionaire backers Lorenzo and Frank Fertitta. Hear what they have to say about the sport's successes, challenges and growth. And, in just 18-months since CNBC first took viewers inside the UFC, see how this controversial sport has flexed its muscles worldwide to include major sponsors, product endorsements and brand extensions. You can check out a Preview Clip and explore some of the Web Extras if you're interested.
UPDATE: July 24 2009
Here are three new video clips from the documentary:
(Article first appeared in Black Belt Magazine, July, 2009)
Author's Note: This article marks the end of Black Belt Magazine's "Psyched!" column. It has been a pleasure writing for them the past couple of years, and I appreciate the opportunity to share information on sport psychology with fighters and martial artists. Thanks, also, to all of you who read the column. - RB
It has been said that “Breathing is the greatest pleasure in life.” It is also a very powerful tool for the martial artist. The use of breathing and breath control has a long history in the traditional arts. From the tradition of budo and the Japanese arts, the “kiai” is thought to enhance one’s power in executing a strike or technique. The Korean arts similarly use the “Kihap.” While the kiai is often thought of just as a shout that accompanies physical movement, it has a much deeper design.
Properly used, the kiai connects the mental and physical elements of a technique, and serves both defensive and offensive functions. The meaning of the term itself denotes a concept of a unified or integrated (“ai) spirit or mind (“ki”). Breath control is an integral part of its execution.
The kiai involves a forceful exhale and contraction of the abdominal and diaphragmatic muscles. Defensively, the exhale prevents the wind from being knocked out of you and the muscle contraction helps to shiled your internal organs. Offensively, the shout may frighten or distract and opponent – as emphasied by samurai Miyamoto Musashi, while the contracted core musculatrure strengthens the kinetic chain, enhancing the power of the blow. With the kiai or hihap comes an exaplsive relaease of inner energy, not just a shout.
Another simple advantage of kiai, of course, is that reminds you to breathe. That alone makes a valuable tool for the martial artist. When someone new to the arts or to combative sports first begins sparring, it is very common for them to hold their breath and tense their muscles. It’s a kind of natural reaction to having someone else trying to punch you in the face. But it can be a bad habit.
Your muscles need oxygen to function properly. Tense muscles require even more oxygen, because tension is a muscular action. Your body gets most of its oxygen from the air you inhale. If you are not inhaling, you are not providing a steady supply of oxygen to your muscles or to your other vital organs that require it – like your brain and eyes. This produces a higher “oxygen cost” and ultimately causes your mind and body not to perform as well as they should. Holding the breath for too long can also spike your blood pressure and cause dizziness. Your muscles definitely get tired more quickly. The result is that you become winded in a very short time. There are other problems too, but you get the idea.
Tactical police and military operators realize the need to breathe and integrate it into their training. Sometimes referred to as “tactical breathing” or “combat breathing”, these strategies are designed to be applied quickly even in high risk encounters. If you are clearing a building with an unknown number of bad guys – or even anticipating an ugly encounter on the street – you probably don’t want to fold yourself up into the lotus position, close your eyes, and do a breathing exercise. But you definitely should breathe.
David Grossman, who along with Bruce Siddle is one of the founders of the “Warrior Science Group” often teaches a very simple form of combat breathing that involves inhaling for a four count, holding for a four count, exhaling for a four count, and pausing. They point out that this will help to keep your heart rate in a better range (which also reduces your perceived anxiety). Research also shows that the exhale – or “expiratory response” - especially sends calming signals throughout your body.
Within the reality-based martial arts, Systema has probably the most active focus on the importance of breathing – and learning to breathe – in a threatening encounter. In their training and in their book and DVD “Let Every Breath”, Vladimir Vasiliev and colleagues advocate a technique known as burst breathing. Rather than long and deep breaths, burst breathing involves a regular series of sharp exhales through the mouth at the moment of any impact, followed immediately by a sharp inhale through the nose. They find this method is more applicable to hand-to-hand and close quarter combat situations, but produces the same benefit in reducing tension and upping the oxygen intake.
There are many ways to breathe “correctly” and many uses for different breathing techniques and exercises. The most important thing is not to hold your breath, to have a regular pattern of inhaling (through the nose) and exhaling (through the mouth). For purposes of training, having some system or method to follow – regardless of which one you choose – will help. You probably will not get very far just tying to tell yourself not to hold your breath. Instead – just breathe.
(Article First appears in Black Belt Magazine, June, 2009)
Sport-related concussions once again have hit the headlines. It is estimated that at least 300,000 of them occur every year. Martial artists who do full-contact sparring are certainly at some risk for these injuries. But are concussions really such a big deal?
Medically, a concussion is considered to be a mild traumatic brain injury. It is caused either by some type of blunt trauma – such as a punch or kick- or by forces accelerating or decelerating the brain within the skull. Typically, there is no discernible damage to the structure of the brain, but concussions do temporarily disrupt brain functions. As a result, concussions are diagnosed and graded based on their symptoms rather than by neuroimaging. Basically, the severity of concussive injury depends on the nature, duration and extent of disrupted brain functions, not on the shape, size or color of what shows up on a brain scan.
Just because there are no signs of physical damage, doesn't mean that no harm was done or that the injury isn't serious. Medical researchers don't know for sure what happens to the brain during a concussion and what causes the brain functions to be impaired, but it seems to be linked to damage that occurs at a cellular level. When the concussion is caused by abrupt rotational forces, risk increases for damaging areas of axons within the brain. This is known as “diffuse axonal injury.” Axons are the pathways that allow neurons to communicate with each other. Disrupt the pathways, and you disrupt the function.
The cumulative effect of repeated concussions is a subject of ongoing medical inquiry. For many years, the medical literature has reported cases of “pugilistic dementia”, sometimes called “punch drunk syndrome” due to its effect impairing speech, coordination, and cognitive functions. These cases have mostly been reported among professional boxers after about 15 years of competing. The more contemporary term used to describe the phenomenon is “chronic traumatic encephalopathy” (CTE).
CTE has recently been in the news because of claims that it is linked to deaths of several retired professional athletes, primarily football players. Researchers at Boston University's School of Medicine have established the Center for the Study of Traumatic Encephalopathy to better understand the problem by examining the brains of affected individuals after their death. Studying the brains directly after death, neurologists can see damage that does not appear on traditional scans. The youngest case they have studied is that of 18-year-old high school football player who had suffered multiple concussions.
In these brains studies, researchers have found deep structural abnormalities called neurofibrillary tangles caused by the build-up of “tau”, an abnormal and toxic protein. Interestingly, neurofibrillary tangles have also been implicated in Alzheimer's dementia. Signs of CTE may start with memory problems or disturbances in mood or behavior, such as depression, mood swings or erratic/impulsive actions. Incidentally, in a survey I conducted of more than 400 combat sport athletes, those who had a history of multiple concussions were much more likely to be seriously depressed than those with no concussive history.
Researchers believe that problems associated with CTE get worse over time. As the protein accumulates, the effects get progressively worse, eventually killing brain cells; in some case, ultimately leading to a full-blown dementia. Once the build up occurs, the cell damage may progress and the brain functions may continue to deteriorate even years after the repeated concussions have stopped.
Of course, most people who get concussions – even more than one – do not seem to develop this severe and progressively worsening condition. There seems to be no reliable way right now, though, to distinguish in advance those who will from those who won't. The risk of concussions is not unique to martial arts and combative sports – in fact there are a larger number that occur from football-related injuries. But those who train or compete in full-contact martial arts should be aware that sustaining repeated concussions – at least in some cases - can have serious consequences. Any single impact may seem like an insignificant “ding”, but the cumulative effects, particularly over years, can be quite troubling.
If you train or compete in full-contact sports, there are a few things you can do to educate yourself and mitigate your risk. First, learn to recognize the signs of concussive injury. Sometimes people think if there's no loss of consciousness or memory, there's no problem. That's not necessarily true. While loss of consciousness and amnesia (memory loss) are often related to the severity of the injury, neither is a necessary condition to diagnose concussion, and neither is a good isolated marker of its effects. Experts suggest that symptoms – and possibly cognitive and postural testing - be assessed and monitored at the time of the event and afterwards. Common signs at the time include confusion, feeling “foggy”, clumsy or uncoordinated movement, dizziness, balance problems, headache, nausea, and vision problems. If you are with someone who may have had a concussive injury, you can ask a couple of simple questions. Check whether they know where they are and what day it is, whether they remember the hit and what preceded it, whether they can remember new words you give to them and repeat a series of two or three numbers backwards. These questions don't provide a diagnosis. That's not what you're trying to accomplish. But failing these basic tasks could suggest the person has sustained some injury – however minor – and at least should sit out the day and perhaps consult his or her healthcare professional.
Second, after sustaining a concussion, give your brain plenty of time to recover. It is tempting for some fighters to try to tough it out and go immediately back to trading blows, but getting a second concussion while the brain is still recovering from the first can seriously compound the severity and damage. Studies have shown that, on average, it takes approximately seven days for athletes to fully recover from symptoms of a concussion. At a minimum, the National Athletic Trainers’ Association recommends that athletes who experience a head injury resulting in loss of consciousness or amnesia should refrain from participating on the day of the injury, and that management should be more conservative for athletes who have a history of prior concussions.
You can find additional information about sport-related concussions from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (www.cdc.gov/ncipc/tbi/) or the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center (sportsmedicine.upmc.com/ConcussionProgram.htm).
How do you persist on a demanding and difficult task? Conventional wisdom often says to suck it up and tough it out, but new research from psychologists at University of Kentucky could argue for a very different approach.
Daniel Evans and colleagues wanted to understand what effects a practice called mindfulness might have on persistence. Mindfulness has become a popularly studied intervention within the past decade, and has shown significant success in reducing stress and psychological distress. The concept is simple, but it usually takes some practice to master.
The essence of mindfulness is learning to be quietly focused in the present moment- the “here and now” - while non-judgmentally observing – and not reacting to - your perceptions, sensations, thoughts and emotions.
Researchers got 142 psychology students to work on a series of word puzzles within certain time limits, but the first of the puzzles did not have any real solution. This created a situation where they were supposed to persist on a task, even after finding the first attempt to be impossible.
Learning not to judge or evaluate (nonjudging) and not to react (nonreactivity) to what’s going on inside you is the tricky part of mindfulness, but they are vital ingredients, according to the study. The better the subjects were in not judging or reacting, the more persistent they were. Researchers found the subjects were aware of what they were experiencing – positive and negative – but their mindful stance allowed them not to be self conscious about it.
Some researchers believe that people need to be self critical to motivate them to persist toward a goal. This research suggests otherwise. Those who were internally aware but self-conscious – focusing on the discrepancy between how they are doing and what they want to achieve – were less persistent. The researchers conclude the mindfulness may be a promising strategy for self-regulating behaviors, thoughts and emotions.
Evans, D., Baer, R., & Segerstrom, S. (2009). The effects of mindfulness and self-consciousness on persistence Personality and Individual Differences DOI: 10.1016/j.paid.2009.03.026
(Article First appears in Black Belt Magazine, May, 2009)
“How do I get rid of the jitters before a fight (or match)?” – That is probably the single most common question that martial artists ask me. I sense that many are looking for a dose of magic or a quick fix – particularly because they raise the question within 24 hours of their scheduled competition. Sometimes there are stopgap measures that will help you get over a particular psychological hurdle, but with just a little advance planning you can make a big long term difference.
Let me begin by trying to clear up a few misconceptions about pre-competition jitters. First, all marital arts competitors – including mixed martial artists – should know that feeling nervous is completely normal and it does not necessarily mean that you will perform badly. In the world of MMA, the fighter probably best known for calmness in the cage is Russia’s Fedor Emelianenko. Consistently ranked as one of the World’s top heavyweights, Fedor saunters into the cage like it’s just another day at the office. During interviews, he is often asked about his stoic demeanor and he freely admits that he gets nervous before fights (as he believes all fighters do), but he has refined a strategy that works for him to control it.
This leads me to address a second misconception – that there is one ideal state of pre-competition calmness that works for everyone and that everyone can get there in the same way. Sometimes we are led to believe that buying the right program, listening to the right motivational CD, or reading the right book will allow anyone to achieve their optimal performance state. My experience suggests that different competitors experience jitters in different ways, for different reasons, and have to find a management strategy that works with their specific needs and style. Their optimal states of arousal or intensity also vary quite a bit. So Fedor’s state of mellow composure works very well for him, but it could be disastrous from someone else.
So, here’s the starting point for our discussion: if you get nervous jitters before a fight, “good for you” – you’re in very good company. There probably is not a “one size fits all solution”, but there are some fairly straightforward, battle-tested strategies and approaches you can use to find what works best for you. Here’s how you might begin:
First, try to understand how your jitters work. Typically, pre-competition anxiety can appear in your physical sensations (e.g., rapid breathing and heartbeat, sweating, muscle tension, butterflies), your emotional state (e.g. “feeling” nervous or fearful) and your thoughts (e.g., things you are saying to your self, negative thoughts, self-doubt). Write down what kinds of jittery experiences you have in each of those three areas before a competition. Then – as best you can determine – make a note about when they occur, how severe they are, and how much you think each interferes with your performance. Part of the task here is to figure out what “triggers” and patterns you can identify. Try to discern your earliest indictors or warning signs, then run through the progression. Ask yourself: “What comes first?”, “Then what happens?” until you understand the usual sequence.
Second, be proactive by preventing the jitters before they start, and deterring them at the earliest stages. Part of anxiety’s potency comes from its ability to sneak up on you and to build momentum. Because the human brain tends to default to a negative state (see Psyched column in the December, 2008 issue), unless you are being proactive, then you are increasingly vulnerable to the jitters’ destructive effects. You don’t realize you have been overcome by anxiety until it’s too late.
Being proactive here means intentionally orienting your thoughts, feelings and body in a positive direction. To do this with your thoughts, you might try writing down a few first person statements about your strengths, skills and preparation (e.g., “I can take down my opponent at will”). Read them to yourself at different intervals at least four times a day. These are the positive thoughts that can be occupying your mind. To orient your mood or emotions, you might try mental imagery or visualization. Observing yourself and experiencing the feeling of being successful in executing moves and techniques against an opponent. Reflect on past successes in training or competition to re-connect with that feeling of confidence and mastery.
Proactively creating a positive physical state involves two different tasks – first knowing your optimal state of intensity for competition and then being able to regulate your body’s response accordingly. A Zen-like state of tranquility may or may not work for you. Some competitors prefer to go in at a fairly high state of intensity, which is fine as long as it is controlled and energy is not being unnecessarily wasted. But know what has worked best for you in the past (or, if you are just beginning, what is most likely to work for you) and try to keep yourself within an optimal zone. That’s where self-regulation comes in: Learning to ramp up or down as needed. For most people, firing up is not the main challenge, but rather it is handling the “adrenaline dump” that happens at show time. Using deep breathing and progressive muscle relaxation – particularly after a bit of practice – can help you transition from a state of anxiety to a state of readiness.
If you do this successfully, does this mean that you will never again feel nervous? No, and that’s not the objective. The point is keep the jitters from hindering your performance and to facilitate a state of optimal performance. As you become more aware of your early warning signs, you can take a few minutes and re-center yourself before the nerves spin out of control. One useful tip is to remember that the thoughts, feelings, and physical reactions are all connected to each other. If you are getting jittery in one area – like getting negative thoughts - you can respond not only by invoking your positive thoughts, but also by calming your body. It might then be easier for your mind to focus on the positive thoughts and it will take some of the sting out of those doubts. A number of elite-level fighters I know feel jittery before a match, but in their minds, they interpret or label it as “energy”, “excitement”, or a signal that they are “ready to go.” Sometimes the jitters just need to be put in their proper place.
(Article first published in Black Belt Magazine, April, 2009)
“Hard work…”, yells the instructor. “Pays off” the kids respond loudly and in unison. This is how 2007 World Grappling Games Bronze Medalist Cristina Rodriguez (pictured at left) concludes every class she teaches in the children’s program at Gracie Tampa in Florida. It’s a good life lesson. And research shows she’s right.
When we see a martial artist who is truly exceptional, we often are inclined to focus on how talented or gifted that person it. Sometimes that’s true. But more often than not, even the talented ones only achieve excellence after a lot of practice. How much practice? Research estimates it’s in the neighborhood of 10,000 hours. They even refer to it as “the 10,000 hour rule.” That roughly approximates 20 hours of practice every week for ten years. Nobel Laureate Herbert Simon said: "It takes 10 years of extensive training to excel in anything." The 10,000 hour rule has held to be true for a variety of physical and mental tasks ranging from playing chess, to playing violin, to performing surgery. The advantage of practice over talent is even the subject of two recent, popular books: Outliers (Little, Brown and Company) by Malcolm Gladwell and Talent is Overrated (Portfolio Publishing) by Geoff Colvin
Before you decide to camp out in your dojo or gym just to rack up those hours more quickly, there is a bit of a catch. It must be deliberate practice, focused on improving and getting progressively better as a result of receiving and responding to systematic feedback. Another of Rodriguez’ mantras to her young jiu-jitsu students is that “Practice doesn’t make perfect; Perfect practice, makes perfect.” We have all had practice sessions where we just go through the motions. That’s not deliberate practice, and it does not necessarily facilitate improvement and excellence. It’s the difference between working on the heavy bag for thirty minutes, and working to improve you front kick for thirty minutes on the heavy bag by striking the ball of your foot within two inches of a target mark 90% of the time from optimal range, while maintaining proper upper body posture and leg extension. Making hard work pay off requires more than time and exertion; it requires focus.
What does this mean for you as a recreational or competitive martial artist? As a recreational martial arts practitioner, the idea that deliberate practice – not just raw talent – determines success and improvement means that you can get better, probably even get “good”, if you choose to do so. If you try something for thee months and quit because you determine you’re not good at it, at least be honest with yourself. You are quitting because it is not sufficiently important or rewarding to you to invest the time in deliberate practice, not because you lack the natural talent. You may also choose to stick with a martial art because you enjoy the physical activity, even if you decide not to strive for your best performance. That’s okay, too. You can’t pursue 10,000 hours of deliberate practice in everything. While numerous studies show that thousands of hours are required to excel, there is much less research on why people put in that kind of time and effort. You have to choose what’s most important to you.
If you are a competitor or just decide to pursue excellence in martial arts, there are a few tips that will help you succeed. First, check your assumptions about how success happens. It helps when you realize that what you do often matters more than what come naturally. Faithful readers of this column may recall a few months back, I discussed here Carol Dweck’s research on the “mindset.” She describes two basic mindsets for goal attainment: the fixed mindset and the growth mindset. The basic difference is whether ability is believed to be determined more by talent or by hard work. Those who give priority to talent tend to have a fixed mindset. They believe their success comes from a fixed trait that they either do or do not possess. Those with a growth mindset view natural talent just as a starting point – not an end point. They believe ability can be improved through commitment and hard work.
Secondly, seek feedback and use it. Ask for input from instructors, coaches and respected training partner. Don’t just frame the question as “What did I do wrong?”, but “What are some other ways to do it?” One of the best tools is to videotape yourself training or competing. Every martial arts competitor I know – even those at the elite level – learn new and valuable things about their game by watching themselves perform. It gives you a new way of understanding feedback from others and a new perspective on the fine points of your movement. Watch the video closely. Compile a list of what you think you should be doing with posture, speed, agility, strategy etc and how your torso, limbs and head should be positions at each juncture. Consider watching several times, each time looking only at one specific element of your performance. If you see something that needs correction, take a moment to picture in your mind how it would look doing it the right way. Pick something to work on next time, and compare the tapes to see if you are more closely approaching where you want to be.
Thirdly, be systematic. To make deliberate practice work, you can’t just plan to put in a given number of hours, but you must set and monitor specific goals for every workout and practice session. Goals will help your motivation, they will give you focus, and they will guide your ability to learn and improve. In setting goals, think about how a given practice fits within your larger, long term objectives. Ask yourself, how will meeting my goals today move me closer to what I ultimately wish to attain? Make a plan and follow through.
Finally, be persistent. Deliberate practice – when done correctly – is highly effortful and often not very much fun. By itself, it will probably not provide you with much satisfaction or motivation. That’s where goals and feedback come in. You might get at least a bit of satisfaction from having achieved your goal for the session or seeing your improvement from one videotape to the next. Learning to persist, even when it’s not fun, is one of the benefits – yes, benefits - of deliberate practice. You build a measure of resilience and mental toughness by persisting through adversity. You’re likely to need it to get those 10,000 hours of hard work to finally pay off.
Ancient Wisdom for Sport Psychology By Dr. Randy Borum (First Published in Black Belt Magazine, March, 2009)
What could a bunch of old guys hanging out on a porch more than two thousand years ago say that would be relevant for today’s martial artists and competitive fighters? Quite a bit actually. Around 300 BC in Athens-during the Hellenistic period., Stoicism emerged as a popular philosophical movement
Philosophers in ancient Greece tackled big questions about the nature of life, being, and morality, but they also sought to apply their principles and theories to practical problems. The Stoics, for example, focused on understanding happiness in living. That issue is certainly relevant today. But some of its core teachings parallel many modern concepts in performance psychology.
Keep in mind Stoic philosophy was highly influential among the Spartan warriors and their leadership and in structuring the training at the agogae. Spartan warriors certainly seemed to know something about mental toughness. No one is calling for a full-scale return to the ancient Spartan lifestyle. Nor am I suggesting you need to change your life philosophy. But consider the modern relevance of these old-school ideas
First say to yourself what you would be; and then do what you have to do.– Epictetus
Stoics were big into logic, reason, and planning. This quote is only one of many references to the importance of setting goals and moving purposefully toward them. The assertion to “do what you have to do” reflects their “no whining” orientation. Keeping your goals in mind will motivate you to push through adversity. Complaining when things get tough will not help your training. You must take responsibility for your goals and for doing what you have to do to attain them.
Your life is what your thoughts make it. -Marcus Aurelius
Thoughts control the climate of the mind. They also affect how we feel emotionally and physically. We can choose which thoughts will populate our minds. We should choose thoughts that are positive and that facilitate our best performance. If you occupy your mind with doubts, limitations and physical discomfort, you give those thoughts power and make them stronger. Unless you are being proactive and directing your thinking, your brain will likely default to something negative. Focusing on negative thoughts, feelings, and sensations makes them worse. Confident thougths and fortitude can help give you a much needed boost.
People are not disturbed by things, but by the view which they take of them. It's not what happens to you, but how you react to it that matters.– Epictetus
How we think about things often matters as much as what we choose to think about. Sure, bad things happen. We can reasonably react with sadness or disappointment. But disappointment doesn’t have to lead to devastation. A loss can lead to an opportunity. If you feel jitters, you can interpret them as a sign of anxiety or as feeling energized. We have the potential to control our reactions and attribution and those often affect our happiness and performance more than events themselves.
You have power over your mind - not outside events. Realize this, and you will find strength. - Marcus Aurelius
Part of the wisdom of focusing on our attributions rather than events is that our attributions and interpretations are under our control. One of the cardinal rules for managing sport anxiety is to focus on what you control. If you compete, you will do better to focus on your performance than on the outcome. Many things can shape the outcome of a fight or competition, but if you prepare yourself and perform to your potential then you have succeeded in moving closer to your goals. How did Stoics think people should handle negative events beyond their control? Acceptance.
To be everywhere is to be nowhere.– Seneca
If you’re competing in martial arts, it’s important to keep your head in the game. You need to keep your focus. That means learning to manage distractions and fixing your attention on your performance and your goals. Losing focus is one the greatest sources of error in competition. Staying focused in the present is most likely to keep you in your zone of optimal performance. Marcus Aurelius said: Confine yourself to the present. Never let the future disturb you.
Control thy passions lest they take vengeance on thee.– Epictetus
Stoics are sometimes misunderstood as being unemotional. Not true. They firmly believed, however, people should control – not be controlled by – their emotions. This is true for competition as well. Stoics warned against destructive emotions like fear, hate , and envy and any consuming, uncontrollable passion. Negative passions were likened to running down a hill and not being able to stop. They cause bad impulses and bad judgments, which make you feel emotionally unsettled. The Stoics instead sought inner calm and peace. They strove to be unimpassioned, not unemotional. Self-control and mental toughness were virtues that led to a balanced and rational approach to life.
As you reflect on your modern dilemmas and seek to excel in your chosen sport or discipline, consider how the wisdom of ancient Stoic philosophers might apply today.
Anticipating Your Opponent’s Action By Dr. Randy Borum (Article published in Black Belt Magazine, February, 2009)
Imagine while sparring, your opponent repeatedly uses a double jab to close the distance on you before throwing a straight right to your chin. Again, he moves forward with a jab. Your hands go up to defend. He begins to throw another, but this time he changes levels and delivers a left hook below your lower ribs – a liver shot.
You were paying attention. You were watching your opponent’s patterns. What happened? Successful deception and failed anticipation.
Anticipation is like prediction. It relies on your ability determine what it about to happen. It is also a sport-specific perceptual skill. In combat sports, your defensive expertise depends on how well you anticipate what you opponent is going to do; how wisely you choose the best response; and how well – and how quickly - you execute the action.
Blocking an opponent’s punch, for example, is actually the end result of an extraordinarily complex psychological process. Saccadic eye movements rapidly scan multiple possible cues in a dynamic, moving opponent. The eyes fixate – or pause – on one or more cues that might signal an opponent’s intention. The visual system puts those cues in context to perceive depth, speed, and trajectory, sending those signals to relevant areas of the brain to interpret them. The brain discerns what kind of actions the cues might signal, then chooses the one that seems most likely. The brain generates a corresponding menu of responses, and chooses the best one for the situation. Then, it sends the necessary chemical and electrical messages through the nervous system to execute that response. Before you get hit, of course.
Deceptive actions – such as feints – are cues that signal one action, when something else is actually intended. Deception, for centuries, has been a cornerstone of warfare strategy and martial art tactics. Martial arts Master, Yoshinori Kono even describes the classical Japanese martial arts as a form of "perceptual warfare."
Sport psychologists have studied how anticipation works in motor skills and athletic endeavors. Often these studies compare expert performers with novices to figure out what causes some people to be better than others at countering an opponent’s moves. Speed and quickness obviously have something to do with anticipation expertise, but it’s not just about reaction time. A number of studies have found that simple reaction time - the time needed to respond to a target cue – is fairly similar for experienced and beginning practitioners. But defending in marital arts requires more than a fast reaction time, right?
To anticipate an opponent’s attack, we must know what kinds of cues to look for; to be able to see them; and interpret what the signals are likely to mean. Visual acuity is needed, but not just good eyesight. Dynamic visual acuity – the ability to accurately perceive objects in motion – is a must. Visual search behaviors also play a key role. These are the patterns and speeds at which your eyes scan and fixate on particular cues. Once your eyes fix on something, your focal field of vision narrows to about a three degree angle. You have to rely a lot on peripheral vision, particularly to detect movement. Finally, there are the cues themselves - what are you looking for? Again, research shows that experts and novices are often not looking at different cues.
What seems to matter most in sport-related perceptual expertise is not good eyesight or necessarily what they see, but how the person uses the information they perceive. In martial arts an opponent’s postural cues provide some of the best information about his intention. But learning which postural cues are going to signal which attacks mostly occurs through sport-specific experience. Sometimes this learning is acquired by understanding the biomechanics of the general technique, but sometimes it comes by discerning patterns within a specific opponent.
What tends to distinguish experts in the perceptual warfare of martial arts is the ability to anticipate how an opponent’s cues relate to his intentions. In the terminology of sport psychology, they have superior anticipatory skills. More experienced practitioners tend to be able to identify an opponent’s attack and defense patterns much more quickly, easily, and accurately than their beginner counterparts. They have learned from experience which actions are most likely to follow which cues. They also adapt that knowledge to what they observe in their present opponent. In the language of the sport scientist, they have superior response selection performance, which makes for better tactical decision making.
How do you improve your perceptual expertise? Practice, mostly. What is most helpful, though, is practice with feedback. Get feedback from your sparring partner and from an observer about how you may be telegraphing your actions.
High-tech solutions are also available. Sport psychologist Joan Vickers at the University of Calgary has developed a training program called “Quiet Eye” to enhance gaze control, perceptual expertise, and decision-making. They use a wireless, spectacle-mounted eyetracker, with software that can precisely gauge your eyes’ movement and direction. You can see where your eyes are really going, not just where you think they are. Vickers’ decision training program is based on identifying the primary cognitive skill needed for a sport-specific decision task, designing drills that use cognitive triggers for that skill, and using certain tools and methods to train the decision in competitive context.
If you are looking for a low-tech introduction, you might use your light sparring sessions as a way to experiment. Choose a particular time period - maybe one or two rounds - where you will focus on learning to anticipate your opponent. As a general rule, you don’t want to be this analytical and “inside your head” when you’re standing in front an adversary, but you can carve out a time for this exercise. Give yourself a couple of minutes afterwards just to reflect on what you observed and what you learned, then go another round. Use that round as a way to test the hypotheses or theories you developed about your opponent’s cues. See what works. Afterwards, reflect again for a couple of minutes, trying to visualize specific patterns and cue in your head. Then, turn off the analytic switch and try flow sparring for a round or two. Don’t consciously focus on patterns and cues this time or try to give yourself any instructions. Just allow your new learning to settle and to flow.