Meta-Choke; the cognitive benefits of recreational choking

If you don’t already grapple, you should. Opinions aside, you may find the following breakdown interesting. When I’ve mentioned to people in the past that I grapple, sometimes I have been met with “But that’s seems such a meathead thing to do!”

I wanted to give an overview of what is going on in the brain during a grappling sparring session. So if you know someone who would like to know the cognitive benefits of recreational choking, this piece is for them.

If you do already train, then you’ll have a better understanding of what I’m trying to articulate with regards to the different layers of mental activity that take place whilst sparring. If you don’t currently practice the sport of grappling then hopefully you’ll glean some of the cerebral benefits from reading this piece.

What is META? and how does it relate to jiu-jitsu?

At first sight, grappling is a physical display of many things; technique, skill, athleticsm, determination, aggressive hugging, etc. The mental side, however, although hidden from plain sight, is as impressive as it is confusing.

For rapid understanding of these terms, it helps to think of Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu as not only a martial art, but a type of language centred in the physical realm.

The English language uses the word meta as a prefix that highlights the process of self-referencing. Originally taken from the Greek μετά, meaning after or beyond, meta in the English language is a prefix, meaning; more comprehensive, or transcending.

Here’s some example definitions of the meta-prefix in action;
Meta-Language – a form of language or set of terms used for the description or analysis of another language (think how English grammar does this with the English language.)
Meta-cognition – awareness surrounding the process of thinking
Meta-discussion – discussion about the process of discussion
Meta-programming – writing programmes that manipulate programmes
Meta-game – the game about the game

What is the equivalent of what grammar is to the English language, in Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu?
It would be the informed strategy based on knowing the game about the game; the overview, the general gameplan, the direction you want to lead your opponent all the way to submission.

This overview and understanding of the game is comprised of multiple layers and variables.
Let’s take a look at all the crazy, invisible things that are happening during a grappling exchange. The following layers are not listed in order of importance.

Layer 1 – What’s in front of you, right here, right now

The most obvious mental layer of all is actually a combination of the brain’s visual and kinaesthetic centres; observation – using the eyes to decipher what is going on in front of you, and using kinesthetic awareness to feel how your opponent is loaded (where is their centre of gravity?) and how much muscular tension they are holding. These variables can change from second to second.

This observational layer can be split down further;

  • What’s your opponent’s body type? Short and stocky? Long limbed and lanky? This can play a part in deciding your overall strategy.
  • What position do you currently have? What position do they have? Is it neutral, positive in your favour, or negative? Both your eyes can tell you this and your kinesthetic awareness. If it’s an MMA scenario or street fight, then are you about to get punched in the face?
Layer 2 – WHAT’S THE APPROPRIATE RESPONSE TO THE PRESENT ACTION

Based on the above, there will be at least one appropriate response to the present action/position. Sometimes there is a list of responses, but usually, unless it’s a checkmate position and you’re already tapping, there’s one key thing you must do to succeed/not tap.

This is a knowledge-based layer. The more you know about concepts, principles and techniques, the better your chances are of choosing the appropriate responses in the heat of the moment. Coaching can also play a big role here; if your coach calls the appropriate response for you and you listen before enacting on the advice, you can increase your chances dramatically as coaches can have a clear overview of what’s going on. The crazy part about this layer is that so far, there doesn’t seem to be an end to how much you can know about the positions that exist in grappling; it seems to be an infinite landscape.

LAYER 3 – PLANNING AHEAD – WHERE DO I WANT TO GO?

Usually what is in front of you will dictate the opportunities available to you in terms of moving forward and progressing the exchange in your favour. A common theme in grappling is that the better you are, the further ahead you can plan and see. Having an overview 5 moves or more deep, appears to be a trait that intermediate and advanced grapplers possess. They can see into the future based on what’s currently available in real time.

Again, the better you are and the more you have trained and studied, the more opportunities are presented to you and destinations appear in view. The ability to plan ahead seems to be based largely upon time spent on the mat. You could look at this as being a chronological layer, based around the present moment and what the future holds.

LAYER 4 – HOW DO I NEED TO MASK MY INTENTIONS SO THAT THEY ARE SUCCESSFUL?

Choosing to pull off a move ‘cold’, with no setup or mask, is risky and there is a high chance of failure. In fact, failure is an intrinsic part of the grappling exchange. Most attempts at most moves will be shut down by the opponent. The grappler who adapts best to these fluid exchanges of failures proceeds closer to pulling off something successfully. Adding layers of red-herring movements to cover your initial intentions is an advanced cognitive skill where a grappler can pre-load a list of distractions into the current exchange, in order to distract their opponent for a split second – just long enough to pull off the desired move with success.
How many layers do you add? That depends, but there is no limit.
This is the deception layer, based on….layering.

Layer 5 – Self-Regulation; managing thoughts, breathing and tension

On top of the other 4 layers, there is the layer of self-regulation. Having the ability to remain calm under pressure is a cognitive skill in itself. Learning how to regulate one’s breath in the heat of an exchange is not always instinctive but the grappling masters rarely gas out. Combined with this is the regulation of muscular tension. Beginners often gas out because they use inappropriate levels of muscular tension (due to lack of knowledge and specific experience) combined with an ill-managed breathing cadence. Expert grapplers know exactly when to squeeze and when to remain loose enough to use pure mechanical advantage to get the job done. This becomes a case of mental and physical efficiency.

Learning what thoughts are worth paying attention to and which ones should be discarded when they arise is also a skill perfected by the experienced grappler. The brain has the ability to calculate a lot of information at record speeds, and one form of that information that takes up a large portion of our life on earth, let alone sparring, is thoughts. Although they seem like they’re always there, not all thoughts are useful. Setting parameters of what thoughts benefit your sparring and which ones are superfluous takes a long time to figure out, consciously or otherwise. You would think that with the other 4 layers of information being processed, there isn’t time for aimless thinking, but still the odd sneaky thought is able to worm its way in to your head if you’re not careful, especially under the pressure of competition. This probability of superfluous thoughts arising and distracting you from your game seems to increase the more tired you are relative to your opponent, or the more nervous/scared you are.

A lot of games utilise the above mentioned layers. From board games to video shoot ’em ups, there’s a lot going on in the brain that isn’t obvious to the bystander. The beauty of grappling is that it’s a layered approach to cognitive problem solving, with consequence. You might lose a limb or get put to sleep if your solutions aren’t suitable, and unless you’ve tried it, you won’t understand just how fun those consequences make the entire pursuit of jiujitsu.
Enough theory, time to get on the mats!

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