After spectators watch me in my crazed state before a match, pacing down and back and jumping around often I have them ask me, “What’s going on in your head before a match?” For a long time in my Jiu-Jitsu career it could have been many different things, but now after working on my mental preparation seriously for the last nine months I do have an answer to that question. I’m just focusing on myself and on my goal. Although on the outside there appears to be chaos as I hype myself up for a match, whats going on in between the two ears is actually quite simple and surprisingly calm.
In those moments I forget about everything. I forget about those around me and who is watching. I forget about the other matches going on at the time. I even forget about the opponent that I’m about to go up against. I only focus on myself, and on doing everything to the best of my ability to achieve my goal. What I’ve learned is that properly training mentally for a tournament or a match can be a whole lot easier by focusing solely on only the things you can control. So knowing that I can’t control how my opponent is training, I can’t control the referee’s decisions and I can’t control what others say about me, what does that leave me with to control? Myself.
When I say that I only focus on myself, I mean that I am only focusing on my game and what works for me. I do not allow myself to get caught up in thinking too much about my opponents strengths and what he might try to do. If I do start over thinking my opponents strength, I will already be conceding too much respect towards him and not enough towards my abilities and my technique. When I visualize myself in a match, I see myself playing my game against a faceless opponent, because I believe as long as I do everything right on my part everything will work out in the end. Now, by only focusing on the things that I can control and not getting worked up over my opponent and his skills I believe that I’ve been able to make big strides over the last few months as I’ve never felt more comfortable competing.
But the mental game wasn’t always a strength for me and fighting with a proper focus didn’t always come easy. I think as a blue belt I was too naive to worry about anyone, but during my time as a purple belt and brown belt I struggled with simplifying my mental attitude. Too often I would go into a tournament worried about my opponent and what his strengths were. I would get too caught up with an opponent if I saw that they did a good job at playing against my style or that they beat someone I had once lost to. To counter it, I would write down notes upon notes of each opponent so that I felt like I covered all of my bases and no matter how worried I was about them I would have a strategy written down to win the match. Now, although that may not be the worst plan at times, this also meant that I was neglecting my own skills and not giving myself enough respect and in turn, showing too much respect to my opponent. So sure, a good amount of the time I would come out with the win, maybe because I was simply better technique wise or my will to win was just greater, but the mental confidence was lacking for a period of time.
I didn’t address my mental block until after a disappointing bronze medal at the 2013 No-Gi Worlds. In each match I fought timid, maybe it was because I fought too much with the expectation that I had to win or maybe it was because I fought with too much respect for my opponents. While I was too concerned about my opponents skills, I allowed myself to completely disregard all the things I drilled constantly everyday leading up to the tournament. Then by the time I stepped onto the mat and got the match underway, it was like I had never done a rep in my life and now I was being reactive only to what my opponents were doing.
From there I finally addressed my issue and began talking to a sports psychologist and I can say with his guidance, I feel as though my mental approach has improved steadily and is still constantly improving. I’ve learned from him to not concern myself about the things that I cannot control and that by simply focusing on what I can do and what my strengths are, it will make the build up to the tournament much easier and more enjoyable. I have also learned that it is much easier to go into a tournament feeling like I have already been there before. For example, this years Pans was unique for me as I competed at black belt for the first time, so to counter being among this new field of competitors I did a lot of visualization leading up to the day of the tournament. I visualized myself being calm before each match, I visualized myself gradually improving my positions against all of my opponents. I visualized how I would react when in a tough situation and what I would do to get out and then get the match to where I wanted it to be. I went over everything in my head so that when the day would come where I would step onto those mats as a black belt for the first time, I’ll feel like I’ve already been there before.
Everyone is different and everyone can have their own mental approach that can work for them. Just look at my teammate Dillon Danis, all he does is talk about how good this guy is and how scary that guy is but in the end he’s won just about everything there is to win including a brown belt middleweight world title, his approach works for him. But what I’ve learned works for me and now I just want to keep building upon that and keep focusing on that goal ahead.