Choking While Performing in the Martial Arts (Or Anything!)

Back in 1995, I tested for Shodan over the course of a 6-hour grading along with 20 or so other candidates. It was a long, exhausting test, but I performed well consistently as I proceeded through the test… that is, until I got to the portion covering basic yellow belt curriculum. Midway through that section, I was grabbed in a basic bear hug. I had defended against this bear hug countless times over the course of my years of training leading up to that moment. But at that moment, I paused. I paused just long enough to let the pressure of the situation sink in; all the people watching, all the high-ranking black belts overseeing the grading, the importance of the event. At that moment, the defense I had previously hardwired into my body wasn’t forthcoming. I started go through it in my head like I used to do as a complete beginner. Fortunately, the examiner overseeing this segment of the grading saved me from myself by yelling, “REACT!!!” And react I did. My hardwired skills took over and I didn’t have any other problems for the rest of the grading.

The above is an example of what is commonly known as “choking.” Most people have heard or used this term, but don’t necessarily know what it is exactly or why it happens. Many people who watched last night’s game 3 in the Stanley Cup series between the Canucks and the Bruins said that the Canucks choked, leading to a devastating 8-1 loss. But was this actually a case of choking, or something else entirely?

Choking happens for a reason. It’s related to the way we learn and apply skills, as well as how stress affects us. When we first start learning a new skill, we use ‘explicit learning’. We are shown a sequence of movements slowly and mechanically at first, allowing us to grasp the foundations. We then pick up the pace, doing the movements faster, as well as more fluidly. Eventually, we get to a place where we no longer focus on the pattern. We can still get faster and more fluid, but the sequence is learned unconsciously. This is known as ‘implicit learning.’ Fine-tuned skills, like distance, timing and accuracy develop at this stage of learning, aspects that are more intuitive.

When under stress, however, the explicit system can sometimes take over, even though you have a developed implicit system. On occasion, I’ve tested people for a higher belt level and they perform well below their usual level. When I chat with them privately after the grading, before I let them know their results, they usually say, “I know I could have done better.” Nine times out of ten, their less than optimal performance came as a result of nervousness from the pressure of being tested. They lose their fluidity, they second-guess things they know very well, having reverted back to the learning system they used most as a total beginner. By trying to think through all the minutia of each move, they trip themselves up with the details.

With regards to last night’s hockey game, I don’t think the Canucks “choked” per se. It’s not like they were completely botching their plays. There were a few incidents that disadvantaged them in ways that led to points being scored against them and after they got so far behind, they probably just gave up trying, which isn’t the same as choking. That’s losing the will to win, and being two games ahead at the time, they could afford to say to themselves that that particular game was a wash, but they can pick it up again next game. This attitude has its time and place in competitive sports, but not in a real self-defense situation. The “will to win” is a vital aspect of self-defense, and can potentially be the difference between life and death.

In my next blog post, I’ll discuss the importance of the having the will to win psychologically and how it relates to the martial arts.

Comments (4)

4 thoughts on “Choking While Performing in the Martial Arts (Or Anything!)

  1. The most important thing when testing is to keep going and showing determination and perserverance is in my opinion even more important than technical skill. Surely your teacher has seen what you are capable of in training and it's normal that technique degrades somewhat under stress. In reality what's important is not which technique you used or how 'perfect' it was but that you get the job done and win, which in serious situations means survival and escaping great bodily harm. Sometimes I feel too much emphasis is placed on developing perfect technique at the expense of intention and improvisation which is vital to good performance in a fight. A lot of techniques in more elaborate and comprehensive arts like jujutsu are fairly redundant or overly complicated when it comes to self defense and I believe it's far more important to know a few proven basic techniques (especially strikes) well than knowing hundreds of fancy moves you're unlikely to use for real let alone pull off succesfully. Still for the art's sake and for your own development as a martial artist you should know these techniques but you must remember that fine motor skills and complicated moves have an inherently higher risk of failing and it's probably those techniques that students will choke on or fail to perform adequately.

    In any case if a student forgets a move I'd much prefer he or she reacts and does something that's effective than not doing anything and just standing there: for the lower belts this may be somewhat acceptable but for the higher ups this will cost you greatly and will weigh heavily on the final evaluation. Can't call a time-out for real and I do believe a blackbelt shouldn't just be an award for mere technical skill or years spent training: you should actually be able to fight, at the very least fend off complete amateurs.

    With that in mind: do you spar a lot in your dojo and if so at what level does it become mandatory?

  2. I agree with your points for the most part. It kind of depends on how the person degrades under stress. If the person just falls apart and is consistently unable to perform, especially at a higher level, then that person needs to learn to cope with stress better. But if a person messes up one technique or is just not quite as sharp as he or she is when doing their usual training, that's a different story.

    As for sparring, I believe live training needs to be an element included in the development of a martial artist. We don't do it every class, but we do it often enough to support that goal. Open sparring becomes a requirement once our students reach orange belt, but they are restricted to punching and shin kicks to ensure they learn to maintain and use their guard. Greens add all kicks to their sparring. Purples add takedowns. Blues apply basic ground defense with the goal of getting back to their feet as well as 2-on-1 sparring. And so on…

  3. It depends: if you stop in the middle of a technique because you forgot or simply hesitated that is pretty bad. You should at least keep going and do something else that's effective, even if you didn't demonstrate what was asked or planned. Failure to initiate an effective defense should not be tolerated in those who aspire to become black belts, especially in weapon defense this is likely to be fatal if it's done for real and that is, in the end, what martial arts are designed for. If you fail to properly fend off an attack with a weapon (I'm talking shodan shiken and higher here) you should be disqualified: if you cannot perform in more or less ideal circumstances (practice weapons, a considerate opponent, foreknowledge of the attack) how will you ever be able to deal with someone actually trying to stab you or bash your head in?

    I agree on the issue of sparring and I like your gradual exposure approach. When grappling do you teach judo throws or MMA/wrestling style takedowns?

  4. Yes, that sounds right. As to your question, we do both types of throws/takedowns, as well as ones that aren't in either. We put more emphasis on the ones that are the most practical for self-defense, but we do have some of the more esoteric ones at higher levels too.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Jiu-jitsu Sensei
Martial Arts Blog