Danger Check! or, Managing Fear

One of the most difficult things to deal with in grappling has nothing to do with pins or chokes or hold downs, oddly enough. It's panic.

For all the Hitchhiker's Guide fans out there...

Grappling—unlike standing judo or other standing arts—has a nasty tendency to trigger some very real, very powerful feelings of fear and panic when someone else is baring down on top of us. We're trapped, the ground is behind us, preventing us from having the option to just turn around and run like hell.

That panic doubles when our ability to breathe effectively becomes compromised, whether it's because we're being choked, or because a 250 + pound gorilla is lying on our chest, or we're used up all our gas fighting fruitlessly and now we just have to collapse.

It's a problem I still deal with, for sure, even after all this time. But there are things you can do to help.

In general terms, we need to get comfortable with being down there. The more principles and techniques we learn, the more "tools in our toolbox" we have, so to speak. And part of the fear comes from simply not knowing what the heck to do when someone jumps on top of us, which most beginners don't. So knowledge helps us relax a little; we're not totally defenseless.

Another big part of feeling more comfortable on the ground is learning your escapes. I mean, really learn them, inside and out, over and over. Not from arm bars or chokes, necessarily, but from pins. Remember, loosing your ability to breath is a big factor in generating fear, but if you're fairly confident you can escape most holds, you won't panic much when you find yourself in them. Learn to escape from the gutter, the worst possible places first. After that, the rest is gravy.

This last point, however, is not one I understood for a long time. And I'm beginning to think it's worth turning it into a sort of drill to help younger students internalize it. I refer to it simply as a routine "Danger Check."

Think of it like chess. Now, bare in mind, I know extremely little about chess, but enough, I think, to illustrate the point. Let's say, for example, you're this knight piece:

In grappling, at any point, you have options of what to do or where to move, just like this knight. But a good chess player will think about the possibilities before he moves. For instance, if he decides to capture the white pawn on E5...

... he ends up in a dangerous position because the white pawn at D4 can capture him. However, if the knight moves to D4...

... he not only captures a pawn, but puts himself in a place with relatively fewer dangers. But here's the thing: why should you move the knight? You see, another critical aspect of strategy is to also be constantly aware of whether or not any given piece is in immediate danger and needs to move. The knight in this case was not in any immediate danger, so you have the luxury of leaving him there and moving another piece.

So what do I want you to take away from this? Grapple like a chess player and get in the habit of making constant DANGER CHECKS:

Am I in danger right now, where I'm at?
Just because you're on the ground and in the middle of a "fight," it doesn't necessarily mean you're always in danger. Take a moment —literally ask you partner to stop and freeze where they are—and evaluate your position. 

Can he arm bar you? No. Can he choke you, even though he may have one hand in your collar? No, he really doesn't have the leverage he'd need. Are you pinned? I'm not pinned, but I am entangled in his legs...

So if he can't arm bar or choke you, and even though you're entangled, you're not pinned, then guess what? You can breath. You can slow down, breathe deep and take your time. In other words, don't panic.

If anything, get in the habit of doing that much—always do a Danger Check to make sure you're not in any immediate danger, which means you can relax. Then...

Foresee the consequences.
Even if you're relatively safe, think about your next move. If I move to my right, I'll put myself in a position that will give my partner the necessary leverage to finish the choke. What about the left? Well, my leg is trapped, and if I try, he could possibly sweep me. Sounds like you need to worry about getting out of the legs first...

Just like the chess player, we have to develop the ability to quickly foresee the consequences of our moves. We need to develop the instinct to know when we're in danger, and how not to move into danger.

And that, my friend, tales time. A lot of time. So spend some practice sessions playing the "Freeze—Danger Check!" game. Both of you pause every few moves right where you are and talk to each other about what's happening, what you're options are. If you don't know what will happen if you do something, try it. If it works, great. If not, go back to where you were and try something else. 

Either way, you just learned something new.