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The ‘pressure-pain-danger’ scale

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There are two thresholds between 3 levels of impactful pain. Pressure, pain and danger (or simply ‘light’, ‘medium’ and ‘strong’ pain) are things that everyone need to deal with during training and come with severe physiological consequences.

In combat sports, causing pain is commonly used in tournaments as a technique itself. Or more like, there are methods of executing some techniques that cause pain. Causing and taking pain is a different art itself if one aims to do it mindfully. Simply butchering the opponent’s body is not martial art.  

When these techniques are used considerately, force has 3 main application levels:

#1. Pressure

The first level is called pressure. It doesn’t hurt, but the opponent notices the force and will apply force of their own in response. Fights usually slows down in this case and wrestling starts. Pressure in this stage, however, is nothing more than the presence of the opponent, their body weight and their grip. That pressure makes the opponent work harder and burn out faster, but also makes both the player able to learn and practice without risk. Under this condition, the training is very efficient and the techniques are applicable which makes it ideal for entry level students to build up their game.

#2. Pain

When the pressure reaches the threshold to evoke pain, a brand new game starts. Physical pain triggers stress chemicals that quickly circulate around the body. A student’s state of mind and the condition of the body both change. This threshold is important for lower belts or entry level budokas because one of the most important consequence of this stress response is the complete lack of access to the learning centre of the brain. Learning is one of the most complex and most energy-consuming cognitive activities. The brain saves this cognitive load when in pain, diverting resources to other, action-responsive areas.

Accordingly, when passing that first threshold during sparring, you don’t listen to your moves anymore, you don’t observe the techniques, and you do not build any knowledge. You just try to get rid of the pain.

When you spar with people who come at you hard or have a body mass great enough to cause you pain, you don’t really learn martial art. What you can learn, though, is emotional control (managing the emotional responses that drive your movements when you feel threatened). At a competition level, emotional control will be critical, but at entry level, technical readiness is what needs to be built up, for which, this circumstance is not suitable.

#3. Danger

When the pain becomes so intense that it threatens to become physical injury, the second threshold has been passed. Here, pain becomes danger. This is a situation that has to be actioned on immediately. You will have little to none control over your response; your survival instinct kicks in and you drop all your strategy. Your attention narrows down to the task of getting rid of the danger without delay.

This threshold is the most important for regular competitors because it is when instincts override and you lose control of the game. Even if you can get out of the situation, the stress response is so strong that you will likely remain stuck in the mental state of self-preservation. It takes about 15-20 minutes for the stress chemicals to disperse from your system. If you haven’t developed strong enough emotional control to catch the stress flood before it fills your body with chemicals, you have very little chance to win.

Ideally, you’ll find a way of dialing up and down on the pressure scale, choosing the force you apply and pick your partners for sparring, aligned with your learning goals or game plan. It doesn’t actually matter if the dialing skill is pushed consciously or develops unconsciously by itself due to the great class structure.

But if it doesn’t develop by itself, then you need to apply conscious efforts to heighten your awareness. You’ll have a sense about it’s not happening by itself, when you keep getting injured and in full pain constantly after classes, even after a year of regular training. In that case, you need a conscious growth strategy put in place.

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