A lot of the reading online with regard to BJJ training is about technique, strategy, and supplemental lifting. A complete martial artist trains all of the necessary components, including his mind. We’ve all been white belts and we all know what it’s like to be crushed, smashed, submitted, and defeated. As Joe Rogan puts it, “it’s good to get your ass kicked.” And maybe you’re still that white belt getting your ass kicked. If you’ve progressed to the upper belts, those ass kicking’s may not come as frequently. But when they do, they’re humbling and always teach a powerful lesson.
The following strategies can be used to endure those tough moments on the mat; when you’re tired, out of gas, nearly submitted, but still holding on. Mental toughness is the strength that prevents you from admitting defeat, tapping out, and ideally, brings you out on top late in the match. As a BJJ hobbyist, the mentally tough grappler is the one who earns everyone’s respect on the mat, even if his technique is sub par. As a competitor, mental strength keeps you fighting until the horn, regardless of the score, and preserves your focus late into the tournament during those crucial semi-final and final matches.
1. GET COMFORTABLE WITH BEING UNCOMFORTABLE
None of us like to be submitted. It hurts physically and it hurts our ego. To prevent this, we put our best moves forward, repeat our favorite sweep or pass with authority every chance we get. It’s great to have a set of “go-to” moves to call on but this can leave you as a one-dimensional grappler.
Instead of using your go-to, experiment with positions you’re not comfortable with. For a lot of Jiu Jitsu players it’s starting from the feet. There is only one way to get better, and that’s to put yourself there. If you’re a strong passer but hate the guard, force yourself to pull guard, especially with people who are better than you. Like Rogan said, “It’s good to get you ass kicked” and training is the time to do it.
If you’re a higher belt training with a lower belt, allow them to pass, take your back, get mount, etc. Learn to get comfortable with being uncomfortable and you will become a better grappler for it. Sometimes as we advance we rarely find ourselves in bad positions and our escapes and counters get rusty. Keep your game sharp and intentionally get uncomfortable at every class.
If you’re a lower belt, force yourself to roll with upper belts. You will likely get smashed, but you’ll gain respect and understanding each and every time you do so. If you’re a lightweight, roll with a heavyweight. If you’re a hobbyist, roll with a competitor. If you’re a black belt, compete in the absolute. Remember, “without struggle there is no progress.”
2. WORK ON YOUR BREATHING
If you ask any high-pressure law enforcement officer, military sniper, or adrenaline junky, the trick to staying calm is to control your breathing. Slow, deep, nasal breaths calm the nervous system, oxygenate the brain and muscles, and allow for sharp, collected thinking. The next time you’re in a bad spot, or even just in a tough roll, notice your breathing. Observe how deep or shallow it is, how fast or slow it is, and how loud or quiet it is. Being aware of your breath is the first step to controlling it.
To develop breath control, do breathing exercises. Many are familiar with the intense breathing techniques Rickson Gracie did in the documentary “Choke.” That is called the “breath of fire” in the practice of Yoga and involves developing the diaphragm, which is critically important for breath control. You can research the Breath Of Fire online, or find a local yoga school that teaches it.
Two breath exercises that help to relax the body and develop breath control are box breathing and 1:4:3 breathing. These are best used before competition to relax the nerves and mind.
Box breathing involves using the same tempo for the inhale, the hold in, the exhale, and the hold out. Hold one nostril closed with your finger and take a slow breath in for a count of five, hold the breath in for five seconds, close the other nostril and exhale out of the opposite nostril over five seconds, then hold the breath out for five seconds. Repeat for five to ten sets, switching which nostril you close on the inhale each time. Try to build your tempo as long as possible; i.e. 10 in, 10 hold, 10 out, 10 hold.
The other relaxing breath exercise – 1:4:3 breathing – is similar to box breathing, however your tempo is different for each aspect of the breath. You can do this exercise alternating nostrils again or just breathe deeply through both. To begin, breath as slowly and deeply as possible through your nose and count how long it takes to completely fill your lungs. Next, multiply that number by four and hold your breath for that amount of time. For example if it took you four seconds to fill your lungs, hold the breath for 16 seconds. Then exhale for three times as long as your inhale. In this case it would be 4 x 3 or 12 seconds. Repeat this for five to ten sets, trying to get your inhale to elongate for as long as possible, in turn making each successive part of the breath longer.
Building on our first strategy – get comfortable with being uncomfortable – cross training is a great way to kill two birds with one stone. Things like intense exercise, hot yoga, hill sprints, and kundalini yoga can make you seriously uncomfortable while improving your fitness levels in the process.
Intense exercise can come in the form of high rep sets, limited or no rest between sets, circuit training, hill sprints, sled pushes, battle ropes, Bulgarian Bags, Kettlebells, Sandbags, and Crossfit type timed challenges. Granted you don’t injure yourself or perform too many of these workouts successively, intense exercise will test your mettle and develop your mental toughness over time. A good way to test your progress is to time workouts and/or record reps/distance performed in a certain time. Try to beat your time and/or reps/distance each successive workout. Not only will your toughness be pushed, but your fitness will also improve.
Certain forms of yoga can also be used to challenge the mind and body. If you’re new to yoga, just getting through an entire class might be enough of a challenge. If you want to really test yourself, attempt a heated class like Bikram Yoga. With the temperature over 100 degrees, your focus and endurance will be tested as you try to hold poses and endure the 90 minute sweat session. Kundalini Yoga is another style that is unlike many other styles. Poses are often held for longer than five minutes and vigorous breathing techniques are sustained throughout the duration of the class. Be prepared to meet your breaking threshold.
All too often athletes and coaches turn to physical conditioning for mental toughness training. However, when the mind is strong and resolute, it can overcome the physical limitations of the body. Meditation can be used as a practice to develop focus and mental discipline. If you’ve never attempted to meditate, you will be extremely surprise how difficult it is to focus on just one thought or phrase. The mind is like a monkey swinging from thought to thought. Meditation aims to calm the mind, bringing clarity, relaxation, and quickness of thought.
There are many styles of meditation to choose from, however, the more popular methods include Mantra and Transcendental Meditation. Find a quiet place to sit with no distractions, close your eyes, and focus on one thought. The thought could have no meaning like the word “Om” or could be a positive thought like “I am successful.” Repeat this word or phrase repetitively, continually coming back to this word when other thoughts arise. Don’t get frustrated or mad, and start slow with five-minute sessions. As you build mental discipline add time to your sessions working up to two 20-minute sessions a day.
5. TEMPERATURE TRAINING
The final strategy is temperature training. This means subjecting yourself to extreme temperatures on either side of the spectrum. Aside from the mental challenge, temperature shock training, as I’ve labeled it, has some powerful physiological benefits that are worth working for.
Cold temperature training includes ice baths and cryotherapy and both have powerful anti-inflammatory effects on the body. The first involves filling a tube with cold water and ice, and submerging your body for a period of time. At first, start with only your feet then work your way up until you can submerge completely. Also, start for short time periods of thirty seconds to a minute, then build up to sessions of fifteen minutes if possible. Slow, deep breathing is the trick to staying relaxed in cold water. Cryotherapy has you stand in a capsule filled with nitrogen cooled air set to 220 degrees below zero. Inevitably, one can only withstand a short time at this temp before risking serious medical issues. However, short sets subject to this environment will force you to relax and aid in overall recovery.
Subjecting yourself to the other end of the spectrum, extreme heat, also has its uses for mental toughness. Although it may be “easier” to withstand high temperatures like that of an infrared sauna as compared to freezing cold, high heat exposure can actually increase the body’s capacity for stress tolerance. In other words, when you are exposed to high temperatures your body activates heat shock proteins, which help you better handle the stress you’re undergoing. Frequently using an infrared sauna can trigger these proteins to activate, as well as working out in hot temperatures like in Bikram Yoga. Both of these things have benefits for you beyond building mental toughness, so they’re a smart idea to add to your routine.
Champions have all the tools in the toolkit: skill, ability, athleticism, work ethic, and mental toughness. Many times, it’s that final factor that separates them from their competition. Even if your goal is not to become a champion we can all improve from disciplining our minds. Try to adapt some, if not all, of these strategies to round out your training and take your performance to the next level.