Monday, May 26, 2014

Mental preparation for competition: building realistic confidence

We humans tend to have pretty high opinions of ourselves. In studies of social psychology, most individuals rate themselves as above average in just about every realm. Likewise, we rate ourselves higher than others rate us. It is mathematically impossible for so many of us to actually be above average in just about everything that we do, but that doesn't stop us from believing it. Most of us think we are smarter, better looking, more successful, and even better drivers than the average joe.

This isn't a bad thing. Believing we are better than we are is adaptive. Positive self-illusions preserve our self-esteem and give us the confidence we need to succeed. Notably, there is one population that is not prone to this self-aggrandizing way of thinking  - the clinically depressed. Studies show that those who are depressed actually rate themselves more realistically than the rest of us do. Overconfidence, it turns out, is normal and psychologically healthy.

It is likely that I believe that I am a better at my job than I actually am, that my baked goods taste better than they actually do, and that my blog is more influential than it actually is. I may also think I am better looking than I actually am (I am really, really good-looking, so I don't know about this one).  And so what? No one challenges these illusions for me, so I might as well keep believing them if doing so keeps me mentally well-adjusted.

The thing is, we can't so easily maintain illusions about our jiu jitsu. Nothing keeps things real like constantly testing yourself against others. If you train to challenge yourself and to get better, you probably get your ass beaten on a regular basis. I know I do. I get taken down, swept, guard passed, pinned, and tapped just about every time I step on the mat. I  don't go into tournaments with a "no one can beat me" mindset, because it simply isn't true. People beat me every single day. 

When I am mentally preparing for a tournament, I try to build what I call "realistic confidence." I'm not good at lying to myself, so I don't try to pump myself up by thinking that I am too good to be beaten. Rather, I train in such a way that convinces me that winning is likely.

When I think back on my most successful past tournaments, I notice a common trend. In these tournaments, I absolutely believed 2 things before hearing the ref's combate: 
  • that every single person in my division is a person that I could beat
  • that every single person in my division is a person that could beat me
Let's take a look at these separately:

"Every single person in my division is a person that I could beat." If you don't believe this, then winning really is not possible. I'm not saying that if you were to roll with every person 10 times, you would expect to win every match. There may even be people in your division that are objectively better than you. But you have to believe that, on the particular day of the tournament, you can beat any given person of your skill, size, and gender, because that's what you have been training to do.

"Every single person in my division is a person that could beat me." I'm not saying to believe that they WILL beat you...just acknowledge that the possibility is there. Giving my opponents this respect pushes ME to work harder and longer. The possibility of losing is what drives me to stick to my diet, push through my cardio, and stay on the mats to roll a few extra rounds. Otherwise, I wouldn't have to work so hard.

I have underestimated opponents and subsequently lost matches. I remember identifying a "person to beat" in a major tournament, only to be eliminated from the bracket before even facing her, by someone who was not on my radar.  Treat everyone in your bracket as a "person to beat" or you might get caught off guard.

Exaggerated self-confidence is normal, adaptive, and rarely confronted in most areas of our lives. In jiu jitsu, however, we get daily reminders of exactly where we stand. To succeed in tournaments, we walk a delicate line between under-confidence and over-confidence, since both are harmful.

I'm curious: What do you tell yourself when you are gearing up to win?  


  1. Hello Madam,
    I am a 21 year old girl and want to take up a martial art primarily for self-defence and also to build stamina, strength and for fitness. There are two options in my area .. judo and taekwondo-karate. Which would you suggest I begin with (considering I have no prior experience in any martial art)?

  2. I would try them both and take up whichever you enjoy more, since ultimately that's what you're going to stick to. But if I personally had to choose between the 2, I'm biased toward Judo