No Such Thing as Tough – Psycho-Physio Plateaus in Fight Stress

The above is information from Dave Grossman’s On Combat.  When Things Stop Functioning – Know Your State A frequent and nevertheless persistent disappointment many of us face in sparring...

Stress Inoculation - Fighting Mental Game - Stress Condition Red and Black

The above is information from Dave Grossman’s On Combat. 

When Things Stop Functioning – Know Your State

A frequent and nevertheless persistent disappointment many of us face in sparring and in fights is finding ourselves in a state where our body, or our mind, simpy will not respond to what we want it to do.  What we’ve trained it to do.  It can be little things like not being able to start a combination, or to take a step forward or pivot, or big things like freezing under the pressure. While I’ve experienced all of these things and have been consistently frustrated by them, I’ve slowly come to realize how much these are involuntary states; our body/mind is put into conditions where what we are capable of accessing – what we can possibly do – can become incredibly limited.  It isn’t our “fault” when this happens, we aren’t being stupid or even cowards – it doesn’t mean that you are a “bad fighter” in an essential way – it is much more a matter of conditioning and training, just as is the case with any other technique. You know the physical skills, but do not have the acclimated skill or experience to put yourself into physiological/psychological states where you can access them under duress. And even very experienced fighters face this.

Some people may come into fighting arts already acclimated to violence, to some degree. They may have had experiences with violence in their childhoods which will allow them to remain calmer or to become aggressive in the face of fear.  Some people will become conditioned to respond to aggression with greater aggression, while others are conditioned to respond by freezing or even “learned helplessness.”  The latter, while certainly not great for “acting” against pressure does in fact help in terms of one’s ability to endure under pressure.  In my own experience with violence at a young age, I became conditioned to paralysis and high levels of tolerance, but now I’m forced to learn how to respond, which goes directly against this conditioning – and this may account for some of my passion for fighting.  But whoever you are, a big part of training is stress inoculation, whereby the body becomes used to executing skills under stressful conditions – learning how to respond and execute, strengthening what Dave Grossman in his book calls the “stress immune system.” Part of what I’m learning now is how to recognize when you are in these stress-induced states. These are involuntary states and one cannot simply force oneself out of them by sheer will power.  Don’t beat yourself up, don’t keep saying “Go forward! Go forward!” or “Kick, kick!” if you are not responding. You need to bring your body and mind back down a few degrees into more skill-accessible states.

Just as a debate isn’t always won by the person with the largest vocabulary, or even the best arguments in their head – you have to deploy your vocabulary, your arguments – a fight isn’t always won by the most “skilled” fighter, the one with the most abundant or beautiful techniques. It very often is won by she who puts her opponent into the state where the fewest of her skills can be accessed. It is in many ways a contest of diminishment. Fighting Muay Thai isn’t a demo sport, though many from the west try to treat it that way. That’s because one of the most beautiful aspects of Thai Muay Thai is that its training from childhood on up allows such a high level of skill set retention, so that a great variety of skill is available. Thais look beautiful under stress. But it is still largely a battle in which the aim is to limit the available fight vocabulary of your opponent, and expand yours. If your opponent has 30% more skill than you do when they walk into the ring, but only accesses 50% of it, and you access 70% of yours by being in the better mental-physiological state, you will have the skill advantage. This is why composure plays such a strong role in Muay Thai scoring in Thailand – it isn’t just what blow landed and where. It is remaining as close to your full complement of skill under duress, and diminishing your opponent’s. It is often the case that Muay Thai wins are most esteemed when the opponent appears to fall apart, rather than you yourself proving technically dominant. In the west we are always looking for “the move”, some great Kung-Fu Movie moment. In Thailand they are looking for the moment when the opponent becomes diminished, the breaking point.  When I watch fights here in Thailand I see it as each opponent asking, “Am I dominant?  Am I dominant?” with their strikes until finally the opponent, with their inability to respond, affirms the positive, “yes, you are dominant.”  And it’s over.  It’s a battle of appearing less affected by the stress that’s caused by your opponent.

No Such Thing as Tough – Trained and Untrained

In the movie “Man on Fire,” Denzel Washington plays a retired Special Forces assassin who has lost the will to live. Broken down, he takes up a body guard assignment in Mexico, hired by a wealthy family to protect the young daughter on her way to and from school.  The precocious little girl is beautifully played by the equally precocious Dakota Fanning. His heart starts to soften as he watches over her and he decides to help her train for her swim meet, as she’s convinced she’s just too slow a swimmer. He has a great military line in the process of teaching her – an edit of her training scenes with him is below (video): No such thing as tough. There’s only trained and untrained. Which are you?

We like to think of certain people, or even ourselves, as naturally tough or natural fighters. But there aren’t any. There are no “tough people” or “tough guys” or “tough women”. Everyone who is tough has been made tough, they have been trained to be tough, either by circumstances in life, or by purposive training…and usually it is through some combination of both.  Guys who walk into a gym and think they’ll be good at fighting because they have fought a lot “in the streets” are sometimes idiots, unaccustomed to going against an equal or better opponent who has trained to face them in the ring – not the same as a street fight – or they’re actually quite well acclimated to the pressure of someone trying to hurt them and they can stand in the fire without losing their minds the way someone who has never experienced “real world” violence might.  In either case, acclimation was required.

The gunshot holds no fear.

from Man on Fire (2004) above

In the real world what we are and are not capable of under extreme duress can be quite surprising.  In Grossman’s book he describes the inability to dial 9-1-1, the kind of mindless motor skill one would assume is possible in all cases.  But your brain simply cannot captain the ship under extreme stress, when your heart rate is through the roof you simply cannot hold an object, fire a gun, not fire your gun, identify the difference between a weapon and an ordinary object, etc. These are involuntary states.  To take a different, but related example of how situation can lock us out of actionable knowledge, there are countless examples of women who spend a great deal of their time and attention advocating for self-defense, for women to stand up against street harassment, public groping, rape crisis counseling, etc.  And yet when these same women who have all the skills in their minds are confronted with the impossible stress of being harassed, stalked or assaulted themselves they can find they cannot access these tools.  They simply don’t know what to do or they cannot respond, even if their minds are screaming all the answers.  It’s one thing to know what to do and even be able to perform it quite well in ideal circumstances, quite another to have acclimated yourself to the stress and pressure of those dangerous situations in order to be able to do what you know…and this actionable knowledge is paramount in moving to become a fighter.  In particular for women who may be drawn to fighting arts because of the empowerment and even beauty they can give to the context of violence, becoming familiar with fight stress, but even more importantly becoming aware of what states you are in, and how to move between them is the core of what becoming better means. Some fight notes:

  • If you pass into Condition Gray, it’s okay. You are just a few BPM from Condition Red where you do well – ease down into a more optimal state.
  • If you pass into Condition Gray and are becoming impaired your opponent probably does not know it. They assume you have the full complement of your weapons. Fake your way until you can gain more control.
  • Your opponent, even though she is going great, is probably only 15-30 BPM away from hitting Condition Gray. If you push her, she may start to breakdown. Once breakdown happens, it can snowball. Very close Thai fights can suddenly become runaways in this way.
  • Train your skills so that more and more of them can survive in Condition Gray. High repetition to perfection, stress inoculate, visualize. And train yourself in sparring (and padwork), on how to pull yourself back into Red. Learn to feel the edge.

If you liked this post, you may like:

Brain Science: Why Sparring Gets Out of Control – Neurology and Muay Thai

The Myth of Overtraining – Endurance, Physical and Mental for Muay Thai

Interview With Sport Psychologist Dr. John Gassaway – Getting Into Mental Training


You can read more about these stages in the context of fighting here.




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A 100 lb. (46 kg) female Muay Thai fighter. Originally I trained under Kumron Vaitayanon (Master K) and Kaensak sor. Ploenjit in New Jersey. I then moved to Thailand to train and fight full time in April of 2012, devoting myself to fighting 100 Thai fights, as well as blogging full time. Having surpassed 100, and then 200, becoming the westerner with the most fights in Thailand, in history, my new goal is to fight an impossible 471 times, the historical record for the greatest number of documented professional fights (see western boxer Len Wickwar, circa 1940), and along the way to continue documenting the Muay Thai of Thailand in the Muay Thai Library project: see


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