Zen of the Cage

There is a Zen psychology to Mixed Martial Arts and there is no other experience quite as existential than stepping into the cage.  A lot of young fighters say that they don’t remember a damn thing that goes on in the cage until they watch the tape. Think about what their mind must go through when they are in the cage facing someone that wants to rip their head off. This is an intense moment. So why don’t they remember what happened?  They can recall bits and pieces but for the most part, they have no memory of the event. I would like to take a scientific approach to explain the phenomenon that a lot of fighters experience after a fight. And then try to explain how experience in the cage makes memory a lot clearer. So let’s treat this like we were writing a term paper for Cognitive Psychology. This is the Zen of the cage.

Let’s look at perceived demands or “stress level”, both physical and psychological, in the course of a Mixed Martial Arts event and how they effect a fighter’s performance using a collection of experiences of professional and amateur fighters as well as a military research study by Thomas, Adler, Wittles, Enne and Johanne (2004).

brain studyI will explore the effects of emotion and situation with regard to divided attention (multi-tasking) from preliminary training to the actual fight. I will be using my personal and a collection of professional and amateur fighter experiences from a variety of fighters in the Mixed Martial arts arena.

I believe that attention is flexible by way of repetition. I also believe that divided attention is a more flexible element of attention necessary for expanding “multi-task” capacity (and when I say “multi-tasking” I mean the ability to think, block, deliver, remember, evade and all of the things that have to happen simultaneously in a fight). In addition, I believe that emotion and situation directly effect performance and the ability to push behavior into an automatic function. I think that the physical and psychological effects of perceived demands or “stress level” (due to emotion and situation) directly effect the retrieval and storage of memory performance and  the efficiency of divided attention or the ability to multi-task.

With regard to divided attention or multi-task ability, I have found that attention can be freed up for a person to multi-task with some processes becoming automatic. I believe that the dynamics of divided attention (multi-tasking), in the MMA Cage, in relation to extensive practice are flexible. I will address three main points, which effect the flexibility of divided attention (multi-tasking). First, I will discuss the effects of emotion and situation on attention demands (in the MMA Cage) and its effect on retrieval. Second, I will discuss the separation of the physical and psychological demands as found by Thomas et al. Finally, I will discuss situational modifications for improving performance through personal and a collection of fighter experiences. I will address these points one at a time, respectively.

First, flexing the limits of attention with repetition. I believe that multi-task performance can be improved with repetition and that the confines of a person’s total attentional capacity can be flexed or expanded with practice. Automatic processing frees up resources for attention and retrieval to work more efficiently. Thompson and Tulving (1970) demonstrated the idea that when material is first put into LTM (long term memory), memory encoding depends on the context in which the material is learned. This memory encoding relies on situational context.  emotional brainThere is emotion-dependant memory, which effects the encoded memory information by emotional state.

Bower (1981) established that a person would recall more information if he or she were in the same emotion at recall time, that he or she was in at the time the memory is encoded.

In both instances situational context directly effects the efficiency of retrieval. I would thus contend that if one can step beyond the intensity of the situational context of an actual fight using emotion and other modifications one could vastly improve their performance in the MMA cage. As you can imagine, emotions run high, in front of a crowd of onlookers. Imagine yourself staring into the eyes of someone who wants to inflict as much pain upon you as possible. There is no training that can duplicate that emotion in the gym. Although one’s physical body is conditioned, the psychological demands are foreign to the fighter in the MMA Cage situation. If the fighter can duplicate this psychological situation and use a repetitive process of achieving the same emotional state, as in the MMA Cage, I believe that he or she can improve performance. Divided attention or multi-task ability has already been improved through the physical repetition. The problem now becomes the process of duplication, not so much in the physical but the psychological state in preparation for the fight. Retrieval of a larger overall strategy is imperative.  This can only be accomplished if the fighter can free up attention space and overcome the demands of a heightened emotional state and the context effect.

This brings me to our second point. I believe that physical and psychological demands must be dealt with equally. Thomas et al examined elite military troops and their performance on a number of stress related tasks. The study compared elite soldiers’ perceptions of physical and psychological demands over the course of an intensive military training exercise.  elite training The research hypotheses were that (1) perceptions of physical and psychological demands during unrehearsed training phase will be higher than routine training; (2) perceptions of physical and psychological demands during the recovery phase will be lower than during the unrehearsed training phase; and (3) psychological demands at recovery will be higher than at baseline, whereas physical demands at recovery will return to the base line level. The measures in which this study was conducted were questions followed by a 1 to 5 scale of demand (5 being the highest level of perceived demand). The question was; “In the past 24 hours, the (physical/ psychological) demands placed on me have been___?” Thomas et al found that hypothesis (1) did show a significant difference in the unrehearsed phase in both physical and psychological areas. Hypothesis (2) was not found to be of significance but there was a slight decrease in the recovery phase. In hypothesis (3) the psychological demands did not recover as quickly as the physical. The study concluded that assessing the separate impact of physical and psychological demands is inherently difficult because of the underlying psychological component to an intense, unrehearsed physical demand and the underlying physical component of many psychological demands.

The fact that training tends to emphasize the physical and not the psychological demands suggests the need that soldiers must train in both.  I would suggest the same from the experience that MMA fighters have had in the Cage. More experienced fighters remember more details of a fight. I believe that a change in the emotion and situation drastically effect divided attention. I would agree with Thomas et al in the assessment that physical and psychological demands are important but the emphasis in a fighter’s training has mostly been on the physical. exhausted fighterA fighter must also try to alter the emotion and situation into as many unrehearsed scenarios as possible and thereby decrease the demand or stress level at the time of the fight.

Finally, These situational modifications must be both physically demanding and unrehearsed. The effects of stress level during training, in the practical, MMA Cage, application clearly effect a fighters performance in retrieval and the efficient use of divided attention or multi-task ability. The study of Thomas et al,  is now very clear. A fighter’s emotion and situation directly effect performance and the ability to push behavior into an automatic function and the more repetition of all variables gives the fighter the ability to slow things down. That is why more experienced fighters remember more details of a fight. Thomas et al showed psychological demands during the unrehearsed phase of training were significantly higher. Thus, the intense unrehearsed training scenario was perceived as more physically and psychologically demanding than the routine scenario, this is also consistent with most fighters’ observations in the MMA Cage.

I would conclude that altering one’s stress level, at the time of training, with emotion and situational stressors will significantly improve one’s performance in the actual fight.  I would also conclude that one’s memory retrieval performance and the efficiency in which a fighter uses divided attention is drastically improved by increasing the levels of physical and psychological stress during training. Psychological training is a much more important aspect than the physical. I would thus contend that psychological stress can be used as a tool to alter a fighter’s ability to retain and increase automatic function (making higher levels of memory retrieval more efficient) by altering the emotion and situational levels during training. mma trainingThe fighter can more efficiently use his or her divided attention and decrease their perceived demands or stress level by increasing the physical and more importantly, the psychological demands during training. In the actual fight they are now much more effective and the fighter’s “stress training” with emotion and situational preparation has become critical.

Okay, that was a mouthful. There is a special psychology to Mixed Martial Arts.  The reason people can’t remember what happens in a fight is that our brains don’t have enough processing space and speed. If you think of your brain as a computer, attention is the processor (we only have so much speed). If we are using it all to process a complex equation like a fight, we can’t retrieve or save anything to RAM or our short-term memory (we only have so much space). And we sure as hell aren’t able to save anything to the Hard Drive or long-term memory (processor is not efficient enough). The way to improve is through experience. That is why seasoned fighters can remember what happens better than first timers. Their psychological processor is way more efficient. There is no substitute for the Zen experience. “Victorious warriors win first and then go to war, while defeated warriors go to war first and then seek to win.” – Sun Tzu

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