In all aspects of our lives, it’s important that we care for our heads. It’s the origin of such phrases reminding us to keep our head “in the game” and “out of the clouds.” They’re good reminders of the importance of remaining focused on the task at hand. Most of the time, it’s for mundane things like catching a fly ball, not getting psyched out when shooting a free throw shot, or preparing yourself for the career you want. Sometimes however, it’s far more serious.
Jeff Cooper, founder of the American Pistol Institute in 1976, developed what he called the combat mindset (also called the Cooper Color Code). It‘s a heuristic method (or mental shortcut) for thinking about alertness in one’s combat state of mind. He used four color codes as shortcuts (summarized here):
Most people, frankly, bumble through life in the White state: oblivious to all chances that they could find themselves in a martial situation that requires them to defend themselves. It takes practice and focus to live in the Yellow state of mind as it does not come naturally to us. It’s hard (and mentally taxing) to be constantly scanning and evaluating your surroundings for situations that require you to escalate to Orange or even Red. But if you are in White, getting to Red is that much more difficult.
I think about this alertness model when practicing Aikido. When testing, one of the factors measured in evaluating your progress is your zanshin. You have to practice being alert to be able to effortlessly slip into alertness in your daily life. If you can’t manage it during the test, then it is improbable that you would be able to maintain focus when it really counts. Sure it’s important to know the techniques (without which all the alertness in the world would not save you), but more important is to know when to use them. Proper zanshin aligns you physically and mentally so that you don’t overreact, but also so you don’t fail to be proactive in your own defense.
And it’s for that reason that zanshin is all the more important as you rise in the ranks of Aikido. There is an expectation that when you reach Shodan, you have a battle mindset commensurate with that designation. They don’t bestow that on you once you don the black belt; you have to earn it as you progress through the Kyu ranks.