Mind Games – Mental Toughness and BJJ [Part 1]


Mind Games – Mental Toughness and BJJ Part 1


Why Winners Win??

How do we predict who will win a match?  If BJJ was a purely physical sport, then Caio Terra and Marcelo Garcia would never win in the Absolute division, yet they do.   If winning in BJJ was purely down to knowledge, then players who knew every move under the sun would win every time, yet they don’t.  If it was just down to luck then why do we see the same people on the podium time and time again?  Nobody can be lucky every time they step on the mat!


So there must be something else that separates the winners from the losers.  We focus so much on cardio, strength, and flexibility or trying to gain an encyclopedic knowledge of the myriad techniques available to in seminars, books, and videos that we often fail to place any emphasis on the dimension of combat sports that might actually be the missing piece to many a championship puzzle:  mental toughness.


The question is … are you tough enough?


Defining Mental Toughness


“Don’t tap, bro!”
~ Everyone at every grappling event ever


You hear this time and time again from the sidelines at competitions across the world.  Some people call this fighting with “heart” or “spirit”.  And like some people, you may believe that resisting tapping out to submissions is the be all and end all of being mentally tough, but there’s more to it than that.


Much more.


Graham Jones, a prominent sports psychologist, defines mental toughness as the ability to be more consistent and better than your opponents in remaining determined, focused, confident, resilient, and in control under pressure.

He lists some of the key psychological characteristics that a mentally tough athlete must have:

    • an unshakable belief in their ability to achieve competition objectives

    • an insatiable desire and an internal motivation to succeed as well as an ability to rebound from setbacks with an increased level of determination

    • the ability to remain focused in the face of distractions and disregard those internal and external distractions

    • the ability to regain composure after something unexpected happens

    • the ability to accept and cope with the inevitable anxiety that competition brings


David Yukelson of Penn State’s Morgan Academic Support Centre for Student-Athletes states that it is key to condition your mind to think confidently to be able to overcome any self-critical negativity and to prevent your focus from being undermined by frustration.


From a behavioral standpoint, being mentally tough is having the psychological tools to identify an objective and the neurological skills to execute your plan to achieve your preferred outcome with focused determination and tenacity.  In this definition, you can think of an objective to be one stop along a trip to somewhere.  The outcome, however, is not the final destination itself – it is the result you are looking for.  They are similar to a point, but different enough that it requires you to work your brain in two different ways.


Objectives vs. Outcomes – Know The Difference


“I know what I have to do, and I’m going to do whatever it takes. If I do it, I’ll come out a winner, and it doesn’t matter what anyone else does.”
~ Florence Griffith Joyner


Having an outcome in mind is not a bad thing in and of itself.  For most of BJJ competitors, the outcome they desire is winning.  The problems arise when you are so focused on winning that you are not mentally flexible enough to divert from your original course of action when roadblocks appear.  To be so caught up with winning or losing that you let emotions take over and fail to be calculating and objective during competition can be the difference between achieving your preferred outcome and not.  It is the equivalent to going on “tilt” when playing poker – you are making decisions from an emotional place rather than from a rational standpoint.


To be mentally tough, you must be able to separate your immediate tactical objectives from your long-term preferred outcomes.  It’s how you deal with any unexpected twists and turns along the way that highlights what mental toughness is all about.


Flexibility is Strength


“Notice that the stiffest tree is most easily cracked, while the bamboo or willow survives by bending with the wind.”
~ Bruce Lee


David Diggle, a behaviour consultant in athletics, states that competitors will often crack under pressure when they feel that they have no options left to them.  This is, in fact, one of the major goals in sport Jiu jitsu – to close off all options for your opponents and dominate them so completely that they lack the will or ability to fight back.   People often compare BJJ to chess.  To win in BJJ is to check, or stop, your opponent’s escape routes at every turn.





Thus, being mentally tough involves being confident enough in your own abilities that you allow yourself to be flexible.  This gives you a neurological  “Get Out of Jail Free” card, allowing you to change up your game plan midway when your original one is stymied.  Just because your original route to your planned outcome has been blocked, doesn’t mean you stop.  It means you need to regroup, recalculate, and re-plan quickly and confidently – to take a detour, if you will – and still be confident that you will progress towards your desired outcome.


Always leave yourself an out.


What’s Your Plan B?


“The most successful people are those who are good at Plan B.”
~ James Yorke


Let’s face it:  90% of the time, Plan A doesn’t pan out exactly how you envisioned it would.  Examine your own game plan.  When your opponent is blocking your triangle attempt, do you continue to try to force the submission or do you perhaps switch to an armbar or an omoplata?  Or do you trap a leg and attempt to get a top mounted triangle?  If you can remain composed and trust in your training, you will remember that you have other options.


If Plan A fails, you need to come up with Plans B and C.  While it’s advised to have some plans developed prior to a match, you also need to be able to change up your game on a millisecond’s notice.   Your level of “grace under fire” is a direct testament to how you train.  Do you flail wildly or do you deal with each problem effectively and efficiently?


Be Prepared


 “Success depends upon previous preparation, and without such preparation there is sure to be failure.”

~ Confucius


Drilling will build both the quick recognition of positions you can exploit and give you the confidence to go through with the technique in a technically correct manner.  Rolling will give you the mat experience to know whether the technique works for you in a live situation against a resisting opponent.  Increase your available options by drilling a few similar techniques – a simple way to instantly double your options is to drill a technique to both sides.  Then work on flows or series of technique that either link together based on specific positions and grips or share similar movement patterns.  Learn your skills progressively so you can answer those “what if?” questions that often arise.


By doing this, you can add techniques to your arsenal that you can pick and choose from at a moment’s notice with the confidence that they will serve you well.  Take only the techniques that are “high percentage” with you into battle – all the rest will more than likely fail you if push comes to shove.  And remember:  if you build your game on fundamentals, your foundation will be solid.  Knowing that you are well prepared coupled with an unshakable belief in your own ability to face unexpected change will allow you to go into any match with confidence and composure.


Remember the 5 Ps:


Proper> Preparation> Prevents> Poor> Performance


Where Do You Call Home?


“A man travels the world over in search of what he needs and returns home to find it. “
~George Moore


Another concept that you may benefit from if you are prone to floundering is figuring out your “Home Base”.  Your home base is that position where you can adequately defend yourself, calmly reassess the situation, and launch your best attacks from – it’s where you stockpile a vast majority of your techniques.  Your home base should be your ‘go-to’ position in times of trouble.


You should know how to get to home base from any situation.  Know where your hands and feet need to be in order to establish your home base.  Your hands and feet give you focal points and keep your head in the game.  Use them like anchor points to mentally ground yourself and eliminate any guessing games you might be playing executing techniques you know to be effective.


An example of a very simple home base plan would be “Get back to guard; Put hand in deep cross collar.”  You can build this into a drill by having your opponent put you in varying threat positions with the challenge of getting back to your home base position as quickly as you can. From this home base, you should develop your strongest submissions and sweeps.   You can add resistance, time limits, etc. to challenge yourself to be improving constantly.


Having the knowledge that you can get back to a safe and secure position can help reduce anxiety when you find yourself in trouble on the mat.  And then your coach knows what to call out when he sees you’re in trouble:  “HOME BASE!”




By: Sen-Foong Lim





A graduate of McMaster University’s School of Rehabilitation Science, Sen has a very scientific mindset to both his game and his instructional style.  His unique slant on BJJ stems from his understanding of biomechanics, human function, and therapeutic exercise.

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