THE MIND OF A CHAMPION
How Sports Psychology Applies to Grappling
By Stephan Kesting
years ago I was discussing the sports psychology and Jiu-jitsu
with a friend. We were debating what makes grapplers like Rickson
Gracie truly great - what is it that sets him apart from the
rest of us? Obviously he is fairly strong, fairly quick and
fairly flexible, but ask anyone who has rolled with him and
they ALL say that there is more to it than those physical traits.
I believe it was Roy Harris who described wrestling Rickson
as fighting "a 400 pound mind-reading anaconda".
friend then goes over to his bookshelf and pulls out a book
about hockey called The Game of Our Lives by Peter Gzowski,
claiming that this was the single-best explanation of why some
athletes excel and others don't. Although I am not much of
a hockey fan I read the section he suggested, which was an
analysis of what made Wayne Gretzky the greatest hockey player
of his time.
found this analysis incredibly interesting and believe that
it is very applicable for the martial arts in general, and
grappling in particular. Here are some experts from the book,
and I hope you enjoy it as much as I did.
note that these are mostly Gzowski's words, not mine. All
my own commentary is in italics.
him (Gretzky) from his peers in the end, the quality that has
led him to the very point of the pyramid, may well have nothing
to do with physical characteristics at all, but instead be a
matter of perception, not so much of what he sees - he does not
have exceptional vision - but of how he sees it and how he absorbs
it. Here, some works in fields that at first glance seem a long
way from hockey, yield some enlightening clues.
"Much of this
work is recent, but it is an extension of experiments carried
out in the late 1930s by Dutch psychologist Adrian de Groot.
De Groot worked with chess players, whom he divided into groups
according to their level of play: grand masters, experts and
club players. In one experiment he had each player look for a
limited time at a number of chess pieces arranged on a board
in a fairly complex middle-game position. Then he asked his subjects
to reconstruct that position. Perhaps not surprisingly, the grand
masters did much better than the experts, and the experts did
much better than the club players.
de Groot exposed all three groups to yet another set of positions,
only this time the pieces were arranged not in game situations
but at random. This time there was no measurable differences
in the participants' ability to recall the arrangements. What
the better players had remembered, in other words, was not so
much the positions of the chess pieces but the overall situations.
Later experiments confirmed these findings; the more highly gifted
the chess player was, the more likely he was to see on a board
not individual pieces, but the combinations they formed, the
forces in play.
"In the 1970s,
Neil Charness, a professor of psychology at the University of
Waterloo, himself a chess player who had carried on work in the
de Groot tradition, extended these explorations to the field
of bridge. Charness found - to oversimplify - that expert bridge
players could remember bridge hands much better than beginners,
but at remembering combinations of cards that had no relationship
to bridge they were no better at all. And in a recent PhD thesis,
an Ontario psychologist named Lynne Beal showed that the same
principle held for music: accomplished musicians could recall
and repeat sets of chords better than non-accomplished musicians
could, but when notes were assembled in random clusters, the
experts fared no better than their less well-trained partners
in the experiment.
"The more we
are trained in a given field, then, the more we tend to understand
that field in combinations of familiar information, or what psychologists
call "chunks". A chunk, to use one of Neil Charness's examples,
might be a telephone number. If you are familiar with a telephone
number - your own - you can summon it up at will. If you're learning
a new one, you will stumble over it as you begin to dial. Given
two new numbers at once, you will almost certainly get them confused.
This is the difference between short-term and long-term memory.
Short term is what you pick up and use instantly. Long term is
what has become part of your bank account of information. When
a chunk of information becomes part of your long-term memory,
it can be summoned up as s single piece. The chess player can
react to a combination he has seen before, and expert chess players
carry around as many as 50,000 combinations. A concert pianist
tends to practice longer phrases from his musical repertoire,
and recall them as longer phrases than a Sunday thumper.
in a grappling context, the more time you have spent
on the mat, the more situations (or chunks) you will
be familiar with, and the faster you will be able to
"Elite athletes, then, like
chess masters or artists of the jazz piano, may not so much think
differently as perceive differently. Moreover, because they can
quickly recall chunks of information from their long-term memories,
they can react to those perceptions more efficiently. What Gretzky
perceives on a hockey rink is, in a curious way, more simple
than what a less accomplished player perceives. He sees not so
much a set of moving players as a number of situations - chunks.
Moving in on the Montreal blueline, as he was able to recall
while he watched a videotape of himself, he was aware of the
position of all the other players on the ice. The pattern they
formed was, to him, one fact, and he reacted to that fact. When
he sends a pass to what to the rest of us appears an empty space
on the ice, and when a teammate magically appears in that space
to collect the puck he has in reality simply summoned up from
his bank account of knowledge the fact that in a particular situation,
someone is likely to be in a particular spot, and if he is not
there now he will be there presently.
you ever grappled someone who was always just a step
ahead of you? Have you ever felt like this person
was always anticipating your next move and you were
continually jumping from the frying pan into the
fire? If so, then they may just had a larger library
of chunks than you!
corollary, of course, is that Gretzky has seen all these situations
before, and what we take to be creative genius is in fact a reaction
to a situation that he has stored in his brain as deeply and
firmly as his own telephone number. When I put this possibility
to him, he agreed.
said. "That's a hundred per cent right. It's all practice. I
got it from my dad. Nine out of ten people think it's instinct,
and it isn't. Nobody would ever say a doctor had learned his
profession by instinct; yet in my own way I've put in almost
as much time studying hockey as a medical student puts in studying
take-home message is clear then - turn off your computer
and get back onto the mat!!! Stephan Kesting
excerpted from The Game of Our Lives (pages
185 to 189), by Peter Gzowski, published by McClelland and Steward,