How to improve your mental game for Brazilian jiu jitsu

Brazilian jiu jitsu is – obviously – a physical endeavour. It’s a full-contact martial art, after all! But as in other sports, there is a mental aspect that can improve your physical performance. Professional teams employ sports psychologists for this reason, and elite athletes across all sports spend a lot of time on their mental game. This post is intended to provide a few basic tools with which to build habits that will help your jiu jitsu over time.

  • If you’re new to jiu jitsu and trying to put your training into perspective, this is for you.
  • If you’re preparing for a tournament (whether or not it’s your first or your fiftieth), this is for you.
  • If you just like to train and want to improve your jiu jitsu, this is for you.

Important disclaimer here: I am not a sports psychologist. My goal, as always, is to share some of my personal experience in the hopes that it can help you. Much of what I discuss here comes from what I have learned from peers over the years, and some I have picked up from experts. Hopefully something can be of use to you.

3 mental shifts that will improve your jiu jitsu:

Your mindset matters when you are actually fighting in a Brazilian jiu jitsu match. But that’s just one of the three key areas we’re looking at here. We’re going to look at your mental approach to regular training, mental prep for tournaments, and lastly we’ll talk about some advice a mentor gave me that totally changed my game.

Shift #1: The mental game starts long before class

You can have the most beast-mode state of mind at class, but what good is that if you never make it to the gym? To set ourselves up for success, we have to make it easy to train and that starts with the decision that we are going to train.

This cat knows. Be like this cat.

Let me illustrate some decision-making with a personal example.

When I started jiu jitsu, the decision to go a given class was made the day before the class. I knew I needed to pack my gi and take it to work, because I was going straight to the gym after. This was pretty easy because I was excited for my new hobby, and I didn’t mind showing up early. I was super keen.

Over time it became more routine, and some of the shine of a new hobby wore off (even though I still loved what I was doing, it just wasn’t new). Instead of showing up really early for class and being ok waiting around, I would head home after work to grab a quick snack. Or I would save a bit of time the night before and not pack up a bag, reasoning that I could pick things up after work. Besides, I didn’t really need to carry a gym bag on the subway to work, right?

Cutting these corners felt like a small thing, but it’s easy to see how it spiralled into missing classes. There is a psychological effect to coming home after work and taking a load off. It’s time to relax after a hard day. I would flop on the couch and not get back up.

I realized I needed to make the decision to train. I knew I liked jiu jitsu, but missing class means not doing jiu jitsu. I wanted to do jiu jitsu!

I also started identifying the excuses I would let myself use to stay home. Then I resolved to systematically smash them out of existence.

The big shift for me was to zoom out and plan earlier. Instead of just the night before, I would plan my week. This meant scheduling some basic tasks like gi laundry so I would never have the excuse of not having a clean gi for class. I started packing my bag for jiu jitsu earlier in the evening instead of leaving it until right before bed when I would inevitably be tired. I’d do it before eating dinner, and that became a routine.

I also started identifying the excuses I would let myself use to stay home. Then I resolved to systematically smash them out of existence. That meant paying attention to what was for lunch on a day when I’d have class. Nothing too heavy, nothing too spicy, nothing too hard to digest. You get the idea. Sometimes I would be able to shift my work hours by 30 or 60 minutes so I wouldn’t have a gap between work and class. It was easier to keep moving, and just go.

It all started with the mental shift from having an appointment-based hobby to adopting the identity of a person who does jiu jitsu. You can’t have that identity if you don’t actually do jiu jitsu!

Shift #2: Preparing for competition

Those of you who want to compete are going to face mental and emotional challenges. It could be that it’s your first time and the unknown is scary, or that you’ve competed a bunch already but you just got a new belt and are up against someone that’s been in this division for years (my first tournament match at blue belt was against someone who’d had theirs for 5 years).

Wherever you’re at, there are ways to prepare your mind for tournaments.

Let’s talk about the technique of visualization. I don’t mean vision boards and The Secret and all taht…I’m talking about literally closing your eyes and imagining the upcoming scenario. Like watching a movie where you control everything – or maybe a lucid dream. The goal is to play (and replay) the scenes in your mind so that they become familiar. Then then you’re actually there, the scariness of the unknown is lessened.

I break this down into a couple of phases. Entering the venue and changing into my gi; warming up and weighing in; the actual match itself. I suggest getting really granular within each scene. The goal is to make this feel mundane so that it calms your nerves.

In visualizing a tournament match, I’ll start with me beside the mats, waiting for my name to be called. Then I bow onto the mats, bow to the refs, bow to my opponent, and shake hands. The ref signals to begin, and then my game plan starts. I go all the way through it, to victory and having my hand raised.

Nothing magical here, but it works. The more advanced you are with BJJ, the deeper you can go with the game plan portion. (Stay tuned for a later post where I’ll talk more in depth about how to make your game plan for a fight!)

Shift #3: Your mindset while fighting

What goes through your head when you’re rolling?

For years, I would have a kind of inner monologue commenting on what moves should come next, or that would exclaim positively when I got a sweep (or curse when I was stuck in a submission). I suppose that was just my default. If there was music playing, I’d sometimes get caught up in that too.

This carried over from training in the gym to tournament matches. I’d almost have a live sports commentator going in the back of my mind. Except…one that doesn’t know more about jiu jitsu than me, doesn’t see more than my perspective, and didn’t really offer anything of value!

This all changed when a then-brown belt Ostap from whom I was taking private lessons gave me some advice. When rolling, he said, he repeats a mantra in his mind that helps him stay focused and motivated. He would repeat the phrases “All I need is within me now” to pump up his confidence in the moments before a fight, and “I am a non-stop sweeping and submitting machine,” during the match.

Repeating a mantra might seem a bit hokey – that was my first reaction, anyway! – but then I tried it and all the noise went away.

Repeating a mantra might seem a bit hokey – that was my first reaction, anyway! – but then I tried it and all the noise went away. During rolls, I wasn’t grooving to the beat of the funk track in the background while defending mount; I was a non-stop sweeping and submitting machine that was doing the mounting!

It was an easy mental shift to make, and the results were immediate.

I fell out of this habit for a while, and got a bit stuck in terms of motivation and ego. I talk about renewing my motivation in another blog post here. Reinstating this mindset during rolls has helped me push through the passivity.

Do you use a mantra like this? I’d love to know. If not, what are you going to try? What phrase would motivate you to get out from under that crushing side control, get on top, and secure a choke? Let me know in the comments!

Quick Recap:

Ok I know this was a bit of a long one. Thanks for bearing with me!

There are a lot of areas to pursue on the topic of the mental aspect of sports. I just chose to focus on three here because they are easy changes that anyone can make that will yield results. As you read more of my blog, you’ll notice I’m a big proponent of positive incremental changes that add up over time.

So why not take some easy steps to improve your BJJ?

  1. Be a person that does jiu jitsu. Remove the barriers that stop you from training.
  2. Use visualization to reduce the nervousness that comes with competing.
  3. Find your motivating mantra.

Looking for more? Check out the book Mind Gym by Gary Mack. Solid read.

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