On Saturday I had an opportunity to measure my Gracie Jiu-jitsu skills in a test environment – I was testing to see if I could achieve my Gracie Combatives Belt (the intermediate belt between White Belt and Blue Belt). I had been training twice a week since February and more recently up-to four times a week. I felt ready and was calm and focused on the test day.  The test involves 5 blocks where you need to accurately demonstrate the 36 core skills of the Combatives syllabus (and their variations) on an instructor and achieve a level of 90/100 to pass. Each technical error costs a mark.  Effectively I had a buffer to make 10 errors over a 45/60 minute period.

About halfway through the first block (of 5) I knew I was in trouble. I felt rushed, my thinking got muddied and I began to pant. I am not super fit, but I am not THAT unfit. After the first block I got a chance to take a breather and I lay on the mat panting – my stream of consciousness went something like: “What are you doing here?  This is supposed to be fun?  You chose this! I thought this was what you wanted? Can I get out of this? Should I even be doing this?  Why do I feel queasy? Maybe this isn’t for me?”  This was especially strange for me as I was in a very supportive environment with great Instructors and at an academy where it feels like home to me.

I used Life Breathing to quieten the noise and struggled through the next few blocks getting progressively more queasy; panting more and more. I caught myself making stupid errors (and to be fair I made some genuine errors where there was gaps in my technique) and so that added to my frustration.  James – the head instructor – very kindly pointed out before the last block that I was already on 89 and so didn’t have to complete the test if I didn’t want to – I am sure he was worried about how shattered I looked. I did complete the last block, barely, with jelly legs and whole-body panting, and with the disappointment of what is.

So, what happened?

I started scratching through my mind of 20 years of working with elite athletes – had any of them described an experience similar to mine?  It felt like instead of getting an adrenaline shot (like I would for doing a key-note speech or working with an elite team or Exco board) I got what I would call an adrenaline super-dump. No gradual nothing, just straight to drowning in adrenaline. Straight to Fight/Flight for something I had a more than reasonable amount of skill and confidence in.

Around 2005 Michael Cooper and I started helping athletes balance their confidence and anxiety – we shared more about that in our book “In the Zone with South Africans Sports Heros” (2007 Zebra).  Athletes tend to have optimum anxiety ranges (coupled with confidence) that can be shifted through meaning to create more anxiousness for small games and less anxiousness for bigger games- this supports them showing up fully regardless of who they are competing against or the size of the occasion. My internal experience wasn’t comparable to this. I had also successfully worked a lot with choking and the yips with pro golfers -there the key indicator was a certain body part freezing in key moments – but this also wasn’t that- this was different.

Perhaps some of the red-mist events I had been asked to debrief and witnessed over the years for hockey players, golfers and executives could be similar? It occurs to me that the probable reason why I had seen so little of this in my elite athlete one-on-ones is that it would be very difficult to get to (or stay in) professional level sport if you are triggered this way in your sport.

According to Dr Michael Lam, “When the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal (HPA) axis becomes stimulated by stress, your adrenal glands release cortisol first to combat the effects of stress. As long as stress remains mild, cortisol usually takes care of it. However, if stress continues and the adrenals can no longer produce and release sufficient cortisol, noradrenaline comes into play.”  He also shares that if cortisol and noradrenaline are not sufficient to deal with the stress – adrenaline comes into play and can “flood the body”.

So effectively there are three chemical stages.

Stage 1: Cortisol

Stage 2: Noradrenaline and

Stage 3: Adrenaline (with possible flooding). I struggle to see any scenario where someone can use their best thinking and best skills accurately in Stage 3.

I had an “adrenaline flooding the body” experience, but it felt to me like my mind/body system jumped to flooding and skipped the cortisol and noradrenaline stages – why?

Introducing Danger Sensitivity

Danger Sensitivity is the extent to which an individual accurately classifies a situation as dangerous or not dangerous.

Even though I wasn’t in danger during my test, some part of my brain decided that I was. This led to a chemical over-reaction and a down-ward spiral.

Danger Sensitivity is context specific; for example, you could have a mild to low Danger Sensitivity for the majority of your work, but it ramps up when you have to speak in front of an audience. For whatever reason your mind thinks speaking in front of a group is dangerous- whereas for others its a challenge, or even a joy!

Most jobs aren’t dangerous, and for most athletes they have enough skill and experience that there is only a marginal risk of physical danger in what they do – and when there is a chance of physical danger, top athletes tend to not classify it as such -it’s more of a challenge, a test, living their meaning, etc.  When I reflect on the thousands of conversations I have had with top athletes – I can think of only a handful of examples when danger was mentioned.

If we had to use a scale out of /100, a standard Danger Sensitivity would be around 30 – in that an individuals stress response would generally not be triggered by the majority of their day-to-day work, and when they are triggered, the majority of tools such as breathing, exercise, time-outs, meditation, etc would be sufficient to return them back to themselves in a reasonable time-span (if given the time to do so). Their stress response is likely to be progressive with one stage leading to another.

A successful elite athlete or top Executive’s (those rare leaders who can balance beliefs, skills, physical health and mental health through their leadership and values) Danger Sensitivity is likely to be in the single digits.  They have minimal to no triggers that signal danger in their day-to-day work AND in their big events/moments. If they are stress triggered it is more likely to be a low level chemical response that creates the positive type of stress – eustress, that helps them perform at a higher level.

My sense is that my Danger Sensitivity for my Combatives test was in the high hundreds, and not my usual low numbers I experience during my professional work.  With the benefit of hindsight, I realised that I had a construct that said the test was dangerous to my physical safety – the obvious one. The less obvious ones, it was also dangerous for my ego (what happens if I fail?) and dangerous for my identity (I get that I am not a marital artist after one belt, but what does it mean to my identity if I have this verified skillset?). This combined perceived danger caused me to jump to Stage 3 Stress, where Stage 1 or perhaps even Stage 2 would have been a more logical response based on my training, the skills of the instructors and the safety and support of the environment.  However, the mind isn’t always logical – if it was, I might be out of a job!

So now what?

I think the standard two options for someone who has a similar experience is to either

a) Quit  “It wasn’t for me, this is not a fit, life is too short, do things that give you joy, not take it away” etc. However the whole jiu-jitsu experience is not that for me, only my internal experience of my first belt test (with a significant contributor to that experience being that my Danger Sensitivity was too high) – so I need to keep that in mind.


b) Rinse+Repeat – Do enough repetitions and train more under stress/duress until I acclimatise to the ‘danger’ and therefor I don’t find ‘it’ as dangerous and get to perform closer to my skills over time.

or the third option

c) Figure out a way to reliably detect (and possibly measure?) Danger Sensitivity per context/event before the event. Then develop tools to reduce to the extent possible the Danger Sensitivity so that me and other athletes and executives that have Danger Sensitivity challenges have more control over their performance and more choices about what opportunities they want to take.

I am choosing Option C).