Playing a Mental Game Against Myself

This past December I competed in a local BJJ tournament. I got a silver in my division of gi, but overall I was not pleased with my performance, I was 1-and-done in all my other divisions.  As I reflected back over my performance I felt that I wasn’t as prepared as I should have been. I don’t mean that I didn’t know moves. In fact, I’d guess there was really only 1 technique in my five matches that I would have been better drilling. Instead, it was more of a focus and mental preparation.  I don’t think I was really “ready” to compete mentally.

One area that this definitely stood out was in my gi division, my first match went the full time and I won on points. I was then given 5 minutes to recover before my next match. In training that doesn’t seem like that big of a deal, but for some reason at the tournament, that five minutes may as well have been five seconds. I was still breathing pretty hard right before the next match started.  So I’ve spent some time thinking about this and trying to see how I can improve on it.  I’m far from an expert on mental preparation or sports psychology, so I’m not writing this as how you should prepare, only what I’m trying now.

First of all, I stopped taking advantage of water breaks during sparring. Our normal sparring class will have 3 or 4 matches and then a water break, then repeat until the time is up. Now when the instructor says “water break” I stand up and walk over to the wall where we line up to call each other out.  My thought process here is that even though I’m tired and thirsty (and as the night wears on I am THIRSTY) I want to convince myself that even when I’m uncomfortable I can still execute technique, I can still compete, I can push the thoughts of “A drink sounds nice right now” out of my head.

In a similar vein, when I do my conditioning workouts in the morning I try to not hunch over when I get exhausted or out of breath. I’m not always successful, but I’m trying to focus on standing strong even when I’m tired and out of breath.  If I hunch over or sit down then I will not want to get back up and continue, so I’d rather tell myself to not get to that point that to try and convince myself to get out of that spot.

Another thing that I’m trying is on nights when we have an odd number of people sparring, if I’m not sparring, I will not be sitting on the mat watching and waiting for my turn. Instead, I’ll be on my feet, or possibly walking laps around the mat.  It goes back to the same mentality as when I’m conditioning. If I’m on my feet walking then I’m more focused and telling my body that being tired doesn’t matter right now.

In the midst of this time thinking about the mental aspect and trying to not let my mind tell me when to quit, I was talking with someone at the gym and he’d been doing a lot of drilling specific techniques (I think he said he was drilling 100 take downs a day or something like that.) He said that when you’re drilling a takedown, you get the takedown, and the desire to just roll off the guy and sit there for a second is present. Or maybe you get the take down, know you got the takedown, and so you end up just rolling on to your hip, or falling to the side a bit. Because the point of the drill is to get the takedown. But he made the point that in drilling like that, you’re creating a pattern in your mind. It is no longer Takedown-Cross Body-Submission. It’s now Takedown-on to my hip-scramble from bad position-whatever happens next.  Basically the old saying “Practice makes perfect” is incorrect, “Practice makes permanent.”  So start practicing the way you want to perform when you resort to muscle memory.

That has helped me try and look at how I train and do drills. I feel like I’m far from doing this perfect, or even well really. But I try to examine the techniques I’m doing and decide “Is that how I want it to be permanently” if it’s not, then I try to change it so that I do it the right way. That’s really what all these mental games are to me, there is the easy way which for me is usually passive. It doesn’t involve a lot of thought, it’s auto-pilot. But right now, auto-pilot isn’t taking the best course, it’s taking the easiest course. I’m trying to teach my auto-pilot to always take the best course instead.

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