Tuesday, October 11, 2011


This weekend, one of my training partners, Chris Boyd, won his first amateur MMA fight. The battle didn't last long, and it was great to see Chris use his jiu jitsu to so quickly submit his opponent (rear naked choke in the 1st round).  

My team has been doing well in competition lately, from the cage, to the Pan Ams, to local tournaments. I was just having a discussion with my running buddy on what it takes to be successful in competition. I'm no expert in the area, but I have competed in sports all my life. I've gone through phases where I worked my ass off in practice but seemed to choke in races. And I've gone through phases when I'm not that into a sport anymore, don't train that much, but still dominate in competitions. In my limited experience, along with what I remember from a sports psychology class in college, these are some tools to bring out your A game when you need it:

1) Find your peak arousal level. That's what she said, right? No, you pervert - it's nothing dirty. But find that point where your heart is pumping but not pounding. Your pulse is elevated but not racing. You feel increased adrenaline but it's not making you stupid. You're ready to go from 0 to 60 at a moment's notice but are cognizant enough to use your energy wisely. You are not going to make dumb moves or blow your wad in 10 seconds.

There's nothing quite like your first jiu jitsu tournament. I told myself that it was a lot like a swimming or running race...except, or course, my competition was trying to break my arm or choke me out. I was such a nervous wreck that I was unable to eat my breakfast - which, trust me, does not happen often. So like a teenager on prom night, I was over-aroused.  I had to fill my head with relaxing thoughts and take deep breaths in order to chill out.

These days I tend to have the opposite problem. Pre-competition, I have the arousal level of a 90-year-old who ran out of little blue candy. I'm not naturally an aggressive person, so I have to take measures to get my blood pumping. I listen to angry music, jump around a little, and take some quick, shallow breaths. I do what I can to tune out distractions and put my game face on.

2. Develop unshakeable self-confidence. Sure, this is easier said than done. But belief in yourself is something that can develop over time. Before a competition, whether you believe you will succeed or whether you believe you will fail, chances are, you are right. If you see yourself winning and train accordingly, this creates a self-fulfilling prophecy. On the other hand, if you truly believe that someone is better than you, what chance do you have at beating them? You're already setting yourself up for failure.

Of course, you need a reason to be self-confident or your brain won't buy it. Train smart and train hard, which, I've heard, can be helpful in its own right.

3. Find your flow.
Have you ever been so engrossed in an activity that time passes on a speed of its own? Maybe a 3 hour marathon flies by at an insane pace or maybe a 10 second sprint stretches out indefinitely. You  feel so in control of what you are doing that all other thoughts and emotions vanish. In the wise words of Metallica, "nothing else matters." It is just you and your opponent, you and the water, you and your piano, or you and your computer. As far as you're concerned, the task at hand is all that exists.

If this sounds familiar, then you are no stranger to flow - a state of mind that focuses one's abilities, often leading to peak performances. I remember being in a state of flow when I took my SATs, when I wrote my grad school application essay, and, most recently, in the last few miles of the Tobacco Road half marathon. When I look back on all three of these tasks, I feel that I was "in the zone," was able to utilize all of my abilities, and that I performed the best that I possibly could.

In the interest of full disclosure, I must admit that I can be a little ADD at jiu jitsu practice. I might run through my work to-do list, plan what I am going to do that weekend, or wonder if I look fat in my new rashguard. These are not focused thoughts, just my mind wandering. I don't do this at tournaments, however. During tournament matches, I am 100% present. For 5 minutes, it is me, the mat, and my opponent...everything else can wait.

4. Visualize
This is a skill that I under-utilize.  Sure, if we learn a complicated move in practice, I might run through the steps in my mind before bed so that I cement them in my memory. But I am not one to visualize tournament outcomes - often in a conscious effort to avoid a "game plan" so that I can instead take what my opponent gives me. My fear is that if I visualize myself rear naked choking an opponent, this might backfire and I might miss the armbars that she gives me instead.

But folks who know more about jiu jitsu than I do say this is the wrong way to look at it. I should visualize myself rear naked choking an opponent and armbarring her too...as well as wristlocking, guillotining, and winning by all means at my disposal. I still don't need a game plan -this is not the jiu jitsu way - but I should visualize myself succeeding through multiple avenues. You should  too!

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