The Adrenaline Rush

Ruairc Ua Aedh, or however it is his people choose to call themselves, has talked about “the one percent” left over after one accounted for the “why” and “how” of swordplay. He called it many things. The “headspace” or the “mental game.” As he put it, “ethereal” and a “nebulous arcane cluster of concepts.” The grave mistakes which he bravely described in his essay–and I must give him credit for having the strength of character to own and dissect his mistakes for the good of others–present an interesting question which he did not answer. Why did this happen? A rapier fighter with far more battle experience than myself acted brashly and endangered his teammates. I cannot speak for the Irishman, nor can I blame the sudden lapse on his birth (I’ve met my fair share of gentle Irishmen who don’t give to wanton anger. And likewise, some of my own countrymen whose tempers could set houses ablaze.)

That remaining one percent, I contend, is not as intangible as one might think. That one percent is biology. Specifically, the emotional brain. We forget that, ultimately, we are animals. Chimps with sticks, if you will. A bit over-simplified, but not without merit. The emotional brain governs those unconscious parts of our behavior that “just happen.” Sometimes, it gets in the way. Other times, it’s immensely useful. I think one important component that gets overlooked sometimes is the “Fight or Flight” response. The Adrenaline Rush. This is one that rapier teachers should keep in mind concerning new students.

A word about myself: I have a heightened, almost hair-trigger “fight or flight” response of my own; I was not always like this. Unfortunately, it is common for people with severe anxiety, particularly that brought on by military service, a car crash, a near-fatal injury, or some other form of severe or excruciating trauma. The root cause of my hair-trigger is not important to this situation. What is important, however, is that I find myself everyday navigating the fine line between Fight and Flight. It is a struggle.

Before I continue, ask yourself this: Why do you get angry when you lose? Do you ever freeze, even for a second, when you see the tip of your enemy’s sword coming head-on once you realize that there is nothing you can do about it? Do you remember how you felt the first time you tried to fight, whether at practice or at an event? How long did it take before you stopped flinching in a mêlée? Or do you still flinch? Panic grips you, even if it’s fleeting. Why panic? You’re in no danger, aren’t you?

Aren’t you?

Every time we cross blades, we engage that instinct. And as Ruairc demonstrated, you can’t wholly train it out of someone. In fact, we don’t want to. Consider an animal. The more desperate their situation, the more wild and panicked they become. The desire for flight necessitates a fight, particularly if there is a predator at hand. We must remember that it is only quite recently did we really hold dominion over the earth and all of its creatures–and even that part is debateable. None of our direct ancestors were predators. For as long as small furry creatures have been around, we in some shape or form have been prey. There is not a single primate on earth that can brandish the title of “Apex Predator.” They might eat smaller creatures, but there has always been something bigger to eat them. I mention this in order to introduce another point: evolution is highly conservative. The traits that work best stick around. As a result, the instincts and behaviors nestled in the emotional brain have been refined over millions of years. Thus, aggression is not predatory; it is a response to perceived mortal peril–namely, fear. Similarly, anger is the pursuit of dominance; when we assert dominance over another living being, we control it and thus protect ourselves from that very being. There is no human alive who can easily tolerate helplessness. Even in a fight, it is a sickening feeling to know that you are wholly at the mercy of your host–you can only hope that you will get away alive if he’s feeling generous that day.

But wait. We live in a time of modern comforts. This is not our way of life; it is a recreation, something we do on weekends in our leisure time. We’re not living in trees constantly on the lookout for hawks and leopards; nor are we living in hutches in a time when human life itself had little value. Why, then, panic over anything?

The emotional brain, the “flight or fight” response, the whole array of subtle instincts and quirky behaviors innate to primates still remains very useful. The emotional brain can override the rational brain, but at the end of the day the man most likely to survive the fight is the man who can walk away before it begins. In fact, one could argue that “flight or fight” is how human intelligence gradually evolve. Another discussion for another time. It is wrong to think of the emotional brain and the rational brain as somehow opposing forces. They work together, often without us realizing it.

Begin with the novice. We all were at one time. The “flight or fight” response overrides most everything else once in a fight. There is no technique, but there is the unshakeable will to survive. The people who choose to stay and fight become better swordsmen. The ones who walk away live to see another day. With fewer bruises. The novice picks up technique through both conditioned behavior and through deep thought. Here is the interplay of emotion and reason. The emotional brain governs “muscle memory” while the rational brain breaks down each move and justifies why that is “the right way.”

After this point, the game changes. Our emotional brain has all the tools we need to win a fight, but it needs the direction of the rational brain. In a true fight-to-the-death, we could probably rely heavily on instinct and ingrained skill. The faster and quicker-thinking of the two would win. There’s much more at stake. But we are fighting for sport, not for country. Primarily we need our rational brain to pull us back, to remind us to stay safe and that we are not actually in mortal peril. And yet, we need that emotional brain to believe with just enough intensity that our lives are in grave danger.

Thus, there is that delicate balance. The “mental game” as our Irishmen deftly put it. However, I don’t think that the “mental game” has all that much to do with our host. Very skilled swordsmen can afford the occasional move that spooks the opponent and throws them off just enough to force a mistake. But survival is rarely a game of wits; rather, it has more to do with a test of wills. Are you ruthless enough to dominate and thoroughly vanquish your enemy before he can do the same to you? The “mental game” instead is how we weigh the emotional and the rational. There are a multitude of ways to do this, no doubt a part of it being that you engage and distract the rational brain just enough to let the emotional brain do its part. And naturally, either one can get pulled into a different direction just a little bit before suddenly, we’re off-kilter. That off-kilter feeling can cause a cascade and suddenly, “Fight or Flight” takes over completely. This is when it is crucial, in the games we play, to obey the “Flight” part of that response. I am not ashamed of the number of bouts from which I have walked away because of that instinct’s sudden grip on my psyche.

Mêlée presents probably the biggest challenge for any beginner because that is when the danger feels most real. This is also when the individual has the least amount of control, instead suddenly at the mercy of both opponents and allies. A mêlée is when fencers are most dangerous because they are measuring their response to the perceived peril around them. Chaos has never been kind to the human brain.

But where does that leave us?

This means a small shift in language and thought. Rather than constantly reining in that response, it should be re-channeled. The “Fight or Flight” response is both the boon and bane of our sport (and every sport, for that matter), so it must be taken in those equal measures. When teaching students, we should immediately introduce the concept and reassure them that they are going to panic. If anything, they need to just let the panic happen and move through it. The sooner we can actively desensitize ourselves to the triggering situation and the panic itself, the safer we will be in our sport. The recognition of this response is especially important for trying to teach people with that hair-trigger as these students have special needs. If a teacher can recognize how acute the response is in the student, the better they can help the student overcome this additional barrier to improvement. Fighting becomes an insurmountable challenge if you fear that one extra blow will make you utterly snap.

This is only the beginning of the discussion, of course. As Ruairc pointed out, the masters of yore did not discuss this so-called “mental game.” But they didn’t because there was no need. A skilled swordsman could never approach his fight the way we do now–he simply didn’t have that luxury. Times have changed. The masters still have much to teach us about this timeless art. But let’s not forget that we live in a different era. Perhaps it will be left to one of us to pen our own manuals.

15 comments to The Adrenaline Rush

  • Tibbie Croser

    Ruairc’s essay sounds interesting. Where could I read it?

  • Gawin

    Ruairc did not yet post his commentary, but rather mistakenly sent a draft out to the email list, so to answer your question, Tibbie, here… in the future?

  • Dante di Pietro

    I sidestep the “fight or flight” response, in that I almost never experience an elevated heart rate while fighting. I don’t have opponents: I have things in front of me that exist as puzzles of positioning and mechanics to solve. I’m not flawless with this, but it allows me to perform technique rather than fight an opponent. If my technique is good, I usually win.

    • Yzra eben Astruc

      I’m curious as to whether you were always like that. I rather like the idea of no opponents because it reminds me of Aikido; there’s just a flow of energy. What I have noticed in very skilled and experienced fencers is that they seem to have moved beyond “fight or flight.” I’m speaking as someone who still isn’t there, and I’m going to guess it takes an enormous amount of mental training before one can move beyond that. But I do have to ask: was it always like that for you? Could you always look at an opponent as a puzzle, or did you at least once experience that urgency of “I MUST kill this person before they kill me.” I must admit, I find it a little hard to believe that you’ve managed to sidestep the response, but at the same time I do not want to discredit your experience in any way. I’m not you, so I’m certain that what you say with regard to your own experience is completely true. It’s not part of my experience which is where I think teachers and students can have some real miscommunication.

      I think that when some teachers move beyond that, they might forget what it’s like to have that reaction. If you can do fencing for long enough that you become thoroughly densensitized, then you might forget what it was like to still feel triggered. It can be really hard to take instruction from someone when all that goes through your head is, “You have no understanding of my experience. You clearly don’t get what I deal with.”

      By the way, thank you for the reply. I’m a little surprised that more people haven’t tried to disagree with the article.

      • Tassin

        I have distinct memories of only 2 instances in the year and a half that I have been fighting where I experienced what I would call a fight or flight response. The trigger in both cases came down to “A large man has an arm around my neck. Danger! Danger!” I generally go into fights confident that my opponent isn’t trying to damage me, I think that may contribute to the fight or flight response being less active.

        I like Dante’s description of an opponent being a puzzle to solve. I find that when I fight most successfully I am in a mindset where each motion is instinctive but it is directed with a specific goal in mind. That goal comes from a rational analysis of my opponents guard, previous knowledge of my opponent, and hopefully awareness of my own guard. The problem I run into most often is that I don’t manage to get that nice blend between analytical problem solving and instinctual motion. Far more often I end up in either a state where I am too analytical and my motions are less fluid and slower or I go completely instinctual and rely entirely on frequency and speed of attacks for defense and offense.

        • Yzra eben Astruc

          Finding that sweet spot is probably the hardest of all. Jaume pointed this out in a reply to Ruairc’s article: His mother is a psychologist who works with athletes. When asked how much of their game is mental, they say anywhere between 75% and 90%. She then asks them how much they train their mental game, and the athletes will give her a blank look. Sometimes it feels like we just assume that if someone works hard enough on the physical aspect, the metal aspect will eventually come. That happens, but it can be very frustrating along the way. I have to wonder what sort of mental exercises one can do separately from things like footwork drills. I’m certain that people have come up all sorts of things. The hardest part is finding what works for you and your own style.

          Thanks for the reply!

          • Ruairc

            My experiences, at least, suggest that after a certain point, the mental game doesn’t just “train itself”. There are inflection points along the way which require a particular focus on one thing or another; I suspect they are in different places for everyone.

            I, too, have had the fight-or-flight response mostly trained out of me. I blame years of contact sports and standing in front of hard rubber objects hurled at 90 mph. Apart from a couple incidents during my first couple practices (getting acclimated to OMG SWORD COMING AT FACE), it’s never really come up. Sunday’s incident was the result of frustration and aggression, not a panic response.

            I imagine the best way to train this out is via desensitization. The only solo work I can think of that may help is visualizing the activity.

    • Jaume

      I came to this sport from foil fencing, in which the combat simulation aspect is basically entirely abstracted away. In any pass that means something, I absolutely have opponents, I have an adrenaline rush, and I have an elevated heart rate, but I also don’t get the fight-or-flight aspect because my mind doesn’t process it as representing a potentially life-threatening situation. This isn’t curling, which is a relaxing (albeit physical) competitive puzzle game, but neither is it paintball (which in my brain very much triggers an “OMG they are shooting at me!” reaction); I process it more like soccer than like either of those.

      But I think it’s far more important to recognize what your mental game is like and what to do with that, than for it to be anything in specific. I’d say I’ve got a pretty thorough grasp of part one of that, but I’m still working on how to play to my mental and physical strengths to get what results my current level of skill should be capable of producing.

      Really, I probably ought to follow the advice my mother (a performance psychologist) likes to give her athlete clients – she starts by asking, “What fraction of your game is mental?” Almost all will give something over half, often pushing 90%. Then she asks the follow-up question, which is “And how much time do you spend training for the mental game?” Most people look at her like she is crazy.

  • Dante di Pietro

    I understand that experience. I’ve had it. I just tend not to anymore. I wrestled in high school, so I came to the SCA with about 100 one on one events, and had already been battered, bruised, and bloodied far worse than anything in fencing. I got it out of my system for the most part: the nerves, that is. I ramp up like CRAZY for champion points still, but I can’t do that regularly. I’m admittedly odd with that though; a year ago we blew out a tire going 70 on I-95, spun 180, and careened across 3 lanes of traffic and my heart rate didn’t even elevate. No adrenaline dump.

    • Yzra eben Astruc

      Well done to you for not panicking in a perilous situation. There’s definitely a critical period of desensitization with any sort of martial art, fencing included. Now as I hear more people’s experiences, I have to wonder what exactly would have been the experience for a swordsman in the medieval period. I still think that the game we play is different from the one that swordsmen of the time would have played. Because we do NOT want to hurt each other, there’s a level of courtesy and regard that a swordsman from the 1500’s simply would not expect from the average opponent. That’s why the idea of an opponent as a puzzle seems like a luxury we can afford.

      • Dante di Pietro

        They practiced with blunted swords and held tournaments without lethal consequence. I imagine that we have a fair degree of overlap in that regard.

  • Wistric

    I think Dante’s and Ruairc’s responses point to one of many of the unfortunate effects of social attitudes towards little boys and little girls. Boys grow up play-fighting, playing sports, and actually fighting, far more frequently than girls (My sister-in-law apologized to my brother for fighting with her sister. They’d been talking at each other loudly. My brother’s response was to the effect, “You didn’t break a door, you weren’t fighting.” This is an historical standard in our family.) We’re trained from a young age regulate our adrenaline output well, or at least to still be mentally functioning during the adrenal response. The “It’s not lady-like” attitude towards girls doing the same suppresses those opportunities for exposure.

    It may also not be entirely societal. One of my endeavors is to eventually track down some scientific literature on the subject, but I think there’s something about male biochemistry that makes the adrenaline rush a lot more enjoyable than it is for females. There are, of course, anecdotes and counter-anecdotes (Jenny loves rollercoasters). So most of this is speculation.
    Oooo… just stumbled across a study showing that adrenaline and other stress hormones increase with increasing anxiety in men, but decrease with increasing anxiety in women.

    The end result of whatever combination of social mores and genetic wiring is that the general male response to a physical confrontation is “Fisticuffs? BULLY!” Whereas I’m led to understand that women are generally reluctant to enter in to a real physical confrontation, but when they do it results in a complete response.

    End result: male fencers can regulate and focus their adrenal response on the list field; female fencers may be better off suppressing their adrenal response.

    • Dante di Pietro

      I’ve read studies that show that the male/female adrenaline response (and sexual responses as well) are simply very different. Men spike fast and crash just as quickly, which is why we can get mad, punch someone, and then go have a drink with that same person. Women take much, much longer to spike, but they then plateau and can ride the rage wave from here to Australia. That’s why girls fighting seems to come out of no where (they’ve been working up a frenzy for an hour) and is then usually exceptionally brutal. The theory is that men evolved to hunt, kill something, and then be done killing, and women evolved to defend the children, which in turn means she needs to stay angrier, longer. I know a few women who ask to be shoved (and shove back) a few times about 20-30 minutes before a tournament starts, and then proceed to light people the hell up.

      • Wistric

        Agreed. I’ve had a female fencer who was frustrated with her capacity to aggress think of the person she hates most in the world, then engage in a bout with me that was as brutal as anything I’ve had with a guy. That didn’t happen more than once.
        The number of women I know who have been in a helmet or mask once, received a hit, and immediately stepped off the field and taken the gear off is at the very least statistically significant, if not an outright majority. Sweetums won’t even risk it, because she will destroy anybody who swings at her and triggers that “mother bear” mode.
        On the other hand, there are female combatants who have successfully channeled that aggressive response on the list or strip(female saber fighters… damn scary, yell a lot, charge).

  • Tibbie Croser

    I’m a tiny female fencer (with a very hot temper). One thing that helps me to be aggressive in a controlled way is for a big male opponent to tease or patronize me. Treating me like a mascot or a fuzzy little bunny pushes my buttons and prompts the “I’ll show you!” response.

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