The Strange Challenge of Jiu-Jitsu Confidence

The Strange Challenge of Jiu-Jitsu Confidence

The fight community has talked for years about the importance of a fighter’s mind. Some commentators simply describe the resilient “never say die” attitude as heart, and writers like Sam Sheridan have tried to find a deeper articulation of what makes athletes like Dan Gable legendary for not only their work ethic but their seemingly superhuman ability to stare-down immense challenges.

The importance of this topic was solidified for me when Georges St. Pierre—perhaps one of the greatest mixed martial artists we have yet seen—talked about how he needed to see a sports psychologist after his loss to Matt Serra. St. Pierre had all of the gifts, the ability, and the resources to be a world champion, but top tier conditioning and the world’s best coaches were not enough. To get his career back on track after a devastating loss, he had to devote professional attention to his mind.

For all of the lip service we pay to the importance of the mind in combat sports, almost no jiu-jitsu schools are actively trying to train the mind. They offer words of inspiration and push their students through tough training sessions, but that’s usually where it stops. For students who naturally gravitate toward a survival of the fittest training environment, this can work just fine, but for students who don’t naturally have a deep well of self-confidence and mental fortitude, not easing a student into developing their combat mind is just as disastrous as dropping an out of shape individual into an advanced workout.

They fail in a big way, and they are likely to just give up rather than persevere.

I say all this because I was one of those students. I am not a naturally confident person in any area of my life (which is why I came to jiu-jitsu in the first place). I happened to survive the meat grinder of getting hopelessly demolished by upper belts almost solely because of my superhero kung fu fantasies. I simply believed that I would pop out the other hand a mythical martial arts god (I didn’t).

For the more reasonable people who don’t have comic book delusions but are otherwise just like me, I see them struggle. Intensely.

If you are like me or are, perhaps, teaching students like me, here is how I have gone about building my own jiu-jitsu self-confidence and how I have worked to build it in my students. I like to think we are making progress, but maybe one or two of them can chime in the comments to confirm whether or not I am totally full of nonsense.

My approach looks like this:

1) Do everything possible to be the best grappler you can be tomorrow. That means going to class regularly, exercising, cleaning up your diet, and doing some drilling outside of class. Here’s the trick: Not every student has the same possibilities. If you are a single parent working a full-time job and can only train three days a week, this still applies to you. No student will have the same resources, but when you can recognize that you literally did everything you reasonably could to be prepared for a tournament, losing is not as big of a deal. Doubt creeps in when you look back and realize that you skipped a few weeks of class and ate an absurd amount of Taco Bell.

2) To see the matrix, you have to immerse yourself in the matrix. Part of the high-level positional confidence that jiu-jiteiros develop comes from having spent so much time in one position that they have seen virtually every possible scenario. That’s why grapplers tend to specialize. That depth is a big advantage. In terms of confidence in your own ability, you need to recognize that developing this depth takes time. Eventually, you will be able to anticipate your opponent’s every move when you pull your favorite style of guard, but until then, don’t beat yourself up if something goes wrong or you encounter something new. That’s just another step toward that mastery, and it is not a sign that you are not skilled or are a bad grappler.

3) If you want home runs, you have to swing for them. No one gets a home run from a bunt. In application, techniques are less likely to work if you hesitate or commit to them halfheartedly. If you don’t believe a technique will work when you roll, then you need to go back and drill it more. If your mind says, “this will fail,” you will probably fail. If you believe it will work because you trust your coaches and you spent the time to learn the details in drilling, it can still fail. If you had the right mindset going in, you are more likely to learn from the failure (identifying where you went wrong instead of taking it personally).

I recognize that this article covers the most basic of the basic ideas around developing confidence in yourself. There is a great deal of depth and insight to be had by learning about the latest developments in coaching and sports psychology, but if you can at least recognize that you need to train your mind just as much as your body, you will be taking a valuable step toward improving yourself as a grappler.