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

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
— 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 increase.

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

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

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
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

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

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. Suck that, reptiles!)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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. But 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

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

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.

Craig Weller spent six years in Naval Special Operations as a Special Warfare Combat Crewman (SWCC). He also served close to two years on the High-Threat Protection team for the U.S. Ambassador to Baghdad in Iraq. Craig trained special operations personnel for foreign governments on three different continents. He has been published in the Journal of Strategic Studies. Craig is now studying human performance and how it relates to motor and perceptual learning. Follow Craig Weller on Facebook