“I am going to die I am actually going to DIE“.
My mind twists with terror, like a wriggling bug trying to escape a crushing thumb. I am on the side of a windy mountain in the Coast Range of British Columbia, Canada. Alone. Dangerously close to slipping off an eggshell covering of snow, which somehow remains attached to the steep rock under my weight. The winter is cold against my sweat, and the light turns a cast iron grey. It quickly becomes hard to see beyond a tunnel of blurry panic.
I feel an unnatural sensation of a giant hand trying to pull me backwards, and a sensation of my hands detaching from the rock without my commanding them to. Petrified beyond reason, it seems my animal instincts to hold on for dear life has failed. I slide my heavy backpack carefully off my shoulders and watch as gravity takes it greedily into a crevasse 400 feet below me.
But I did not end up falling.
I moved across with my feet until I was hanging plum under my hands and quickly lowered my weight down to my lower perch. Then, I got down the cliff onto the glacier and walked down the 5,000-foot drainage to the valley bottom, crossed the Squamish river, and biked back to town in a trance. “I never want to do that again.” While I remember saying to myself, over and over again with every pedal revolution.
I swore I would never end up in such a precarious position again. But I also knew that what happened up there was not entirely unfamiliar. Even when roped-up with another climber, I choke. And not just in my climbing.
One week earlier the girl with the woven auburn hair and blue crystal eyes said “hi” and I couldn’t think of anything but “wha-hi”, to say back.
In my past life as a competitive athlete I could choke and completely lose my abilities in the start gate, like the wind blew a grocer list away. That grocery list was in fact over ten thousand hours of training infused into my muscle fiber. I had a problem. I could not perform under pressure. Even if my life depended on it.
Initially after my incident on the North shoulder of Omega (that’s the peaks name), I did not try very earnestly to find a way to address this reoccurring issue. For a couple of days afterwards I coped with my experience on the mountain by staring at my computer. And by calling my mom to apologize for “no reason”.
At some point I lazily decided to search the Internet for topics combining visual focus and anxiety. 1 hour, and a tubletté of ice cream later, a scientific study caught my eye.
A somewhat dated 1999 Journal of Sports and Exercise Psychology article, titled: Anxiety, Expertise, and Visual Search Strategy in Karate, by A. Mark Williams and David Elliott. It was of 18 martial artists video taped in slo-mo to gauge reaction times. They rigged eye scanners to their heads to track exactly where their eyes were looking. Their eyes were looking at a life-sized projection of an offensive opponent, which each participant would face and react to defensively.
The slo-mo camera gave information on how quickly their bodies would react to avoid the offensive attack. Speed was how the scientists and three martial-arts-expert-judges would rank who the best was and take notes on what visual search strategy techniques ‘the best’ used. Also, it’s important to note that 9 of the participants were karate experts, and the other 9 were karate novices.
They tested all 18 of them for 35 rounds in a low stress environment, and 35 rounds in a high stress environment.
The hypothesis was that:
A technique that was basically the use of a steady gaze directed at the opponent’s torso while also maintaining a wide field of view around the opponent, whereas the novices reacted to a thrown punch or kick with frantic eye movement. The novices, through their tunnel vision, would attempt to focus on an attacking punch when suddenly a kick came out of nowhere.
Near the end of the paper I found something that got my gears turning with a spark. Instead of affirming my worries, that no matter how well someone is they will never perform as well in high stress situations. I was happy to find the opposite in the results of this study – an unexpected surprise to even the scientists.
All the participants, most notably the experts, reacted faster and more effectively in the high stress situations. I interpreted this as a beacon of hope. A way to get rid of my stress induced tunnel vision. The science proved only a part of the hypothesis – tunnel vision is not very effective to react quickly to things.
I felt this was pretty obvious. I chose to be more interested in the discussion of how the experts performed. Once I concluded my reading I paused, and a culminating thought came over me. One that said: Thousands of martial art masters, of battles long past, and of pupils long taught, all would have been able to tell me that simple fact and more.
Like any good scientific study they did not assume things that could not be verified. And they did not manipulate their results to fit their hypothesis. They simply noted that they did not expect the results. Such a thing has happened before on rare occasions with similar studies. However, I could not help myself to extrapolate far beyond the study and continue to splurge my thoughts.
Martial arts may be a very effective way to overcome this pesky human impulse – to shrink my surroundings when struck with fear, mentally and physically.
I sense there is something incredibly effective about training ones mind and body with any form of martial art. To train in an environment where someone else is trying to attack you, but instead of reacting with fearful instincts, the response, with practice, is the use of an art from centuries of studying how to master the mind and body in high stress situations. Brilliant.
I filled a space inside me with these thoughts, “maybe if I was a karate master I would have seen that hold on the cliff sooner; would have said, hey Brooke! You look beautiful this morning; or would have taken that stupid grocery list and thrown it into the damn… recycling… and just relaxed and trusted my body to move where my gaze wanted it to.”
I sit here now in front of my computer editing this article. And I browse the web for martial art classes in Squamish BC. I see an ad for a free Aikido class. Should I sign up?