According to researchers, mental toughness in BJJ is a natural or developed psychological advantage that allows you to cope better with different situations (competition, training, lifestyle, etc.). A mentally tough person is more consistent and better than their opponents when it comes to staying determined, confident, focused, and controlled under pressure.
In other words, mental toughness in BJJ is the capacity to resist, manage, and overcome doubts, concerns, and worries. In general, all the elements that prevent you from succeeding or excelling at any task or towards an objective or a performance outcome that you set out to achieve on your BJJ journey.
A mentally tough person can cope with difficult circumstances in training and competition, and emerge from it without losing self-confidence.
Mental Toughness In BJJ
There are a number of determinants of why a positive mentality or mental toughness is an aid to success in BJJ. An elite BJJ competitor must be able to withstand pressure, have self-belief and avoid lifestyle disturbances. They must have that instinct to win and know that they have every opportunity to achieve anything they desire.
How To Become Mentally Tough?
Being mentally tough is not an easy task, and it takes work and effort. How does one become mentally tough? You have to be willing to make that effort and put in the necessary work to develop it. Some people are mentally tough naturally. There is a phrase used by sports psychologists called “intrinsic motivation”. Individuals who possess this quality are self-motivators. Goals are easy to set for them, they can push themselves internally rather than needing it to come from others. Not everyone falls into this category and that’s okay! For most people, achieving mental strength is hard work – also in the sport of BJJ. They need that extra push or motivation to keep them going.
So, if you are in a group that naturally does not have that ability of self-motivation, first of all, you have to be willing to make an effort. And be prepared to invest the necessary work to develop it and become mentally tough. It must be a strong resolution without turning back.
Here are two general guidelines that can help you to start developing your mental toughness:
First, Get rid of any negative connotations that you find you are using, whether it’s about your training or life in general. Replace all “I can’t,” “I’m not good enough,” “I’ll lose anyway” with positive statements like “I can / will do it,” etc. In general, replace negative thoughts and words with positive ones, and you’ll be surprised at how much more you can achieve. The right attitude is key here.
Second, Don’t stop at words and thoughts, but also connect them with deeper beliefs about yourself as well. Get rid of self-doubt and replace it with positive affirmations, while also practicing positive visualizations of yourself. Also, understand that the mind controls the body. Next time you train or practice and you’ve reached that point where all you can think is “I can’t keep going,” that’s exactly when you NEED to keep going no matter what. At that point, you need to train your mind to push your body even through the pain and struggle. The body, by its very nature, is conditioned to do whatever the mind (conscious or subconscious) tells it to do. It’s not the other way around.
Surround yourself with others who are also mentally tough people. Build each other up so that no matter what you’re facing, whether it’s on the mats or off, you can stand tall. Don’t set boundaries upon yourself, when your abilities are limitless.
Thanks to such exercises and attitudes, your body will do what its mind tells it to do. By doing this you will achieve an almost perfect balance of body and mind and you will be close to unstoppable. It’s also good information that practicing BJJ helps with all of the above, and it’s just a huge help in achieving mental toughness.
Practicing martial arts can automatically lead you towards developing the mental skills that make you a mentally stronger person.
The Key Components Of Mental Toughness In BJJ
According to psychologists, the seven most essential ingredients of mental toughness are:
- Attention control
- Negative energy
- Managing adversity under pressure
- Positive energy
- The power of visualisation
Believing in your abilities is one of the most important factors for a successful life on and off the mats. Unwavering faith in one’s own abilities can be a pendulum that decides the outcome of many highly stressful situations. It is the difference between a positive thinker and a person who begins to question whether he will remember what to do once he enters a relevant situation. While self-belief is not immutable, it is not an easy feat.
Self-confidence mainly comes from a lifelong trial and error process. Trying is a very important aspect of it. Most people who have blatant problems with self-confidence have trouble trying anything new, dealing with new situations and new people.
Gaining self-confidence comes with the realization that failure in something is not the final result or the end of the world, it is just a side step on the path to your goal.
All athletes at the elite level have self-confidence.
Self-confidence helps you deal with all the obstacles that you encounter along the way. When you put in enough time in the gym and expose yourself to all potentially dangerous situations a fighter may encounter, you will become able to handle them both physically and psychologically when you encounter them in a fight.
If you’ve set goals and remained disciplined enough to follow them, you owe it to yourself to remain composed and let your skills shine on the mat through a top-notch grappling display.
Hiding in the shadow of one’s own self-doubt is a trait that separates those who win from those who don’t.
Attention (Focus) Control
When experts mention attention control, they are thinking about the ability to maintain an optimal level of focus, while blocking irrelevant thoughts and adhering to information relevant to the task. In Brazilian jiu-jitsu, it is much harder to be not “in the moment”.
In a tournament atmosphere, there are many distractions you need to deal with, such as crowd noise, opposition coaching, photographers and announcers. It’s all on top of the nerves and adrenaline that are a natural part of organized fighting.
High-profile athletes need to adjust to the increased attention and scrutiny they receive because of their “celebrity status”. Those who can’t handle the pressure never move on to greatness. Despite their natural physical talents, many players in numerous sports have fallen victim to the psychological pressures involved and eventually “choked” at some of the most important moments of their lives.
Being able to switch off all distractions and remain focused on one goal, execute the game plan and strategy while focusing on one single voice (your coach), is an essential trait a BJJ fighter must possess if he wants to be successful in the competition scene. BJJ is a mental battle more than a physical one, so as fighters we need to condition our minds to focus on the tasks at hand.
How do you look at threatening or frustrating problems? Allowing yourself to become angry, nervous, frustrated, or scared can be harmful. We say allowing because these are all elements under your control. We would suggest a lot of competing, as a way to train this aspect of mental toughness.
Feelings of anxiety and nervousness are something that happens to everyone, but it does not overwhelm or control everyone. Assess how quickly you would like to deal with this, then propose a plan of action and follow-through. If you follow the steps, you will gain self-confidence as well as the ability to calm nervous voices in your mind.
This is another case where breathing techniques might be helpful. Ujjayi breathing technique is a breathing technique used by many yoga practitioners as well as Rickson Gracie. Sometimes called the “The ocean breath”. This type of diaphragmatic breath first fills the lower abdomen, rises to the lower rib cage, and eventually moves into the upper chest and throat. The length and speed of the breath are controlled by the diaphragm and in turn, these exercises strengthen it. Ujjayi breathing touches the midsection transverse abdominals. Unique muscles result from the fact that they are not tied to the bones. They lie under normal abs and behave similarly to a weight belt. Having strong transverse abdominal muscles is a good indicator of a healthy stable lower back.
The diaphragm usually goes mostly unnoticed, even though we use it every minute of the day. When the diaphragm contracts, along with the intercostal muscles, it reduces the pressure in the chest cavity. Anyone who has ever tried BJJ can tell you – the first thing you pull is the intercostal muscle. These often neglected muscles are incredibly important. The diaphragm stabilizes the core and is a crucial muscle to maintain control and not getting too winded.
Motivation is at the top of the list of qualities an athlete needs to be successful. Without the motivation to train and the drive to stay disciplined, an athlete can never reach his full potential.
Maintaining a high level of motivation over a long period of time is key to accomplishing any type of long-term goal. The root of mental toughness rests on motivation. Mentally tough people usually exhibit intrinsic motivation. People who are intrinsically motivated are willing to push themselves to the edge for the love of the sport they train, or anything they do.
Elite athletes do not allow minor setbacks and failures along the way to distract them from their long-term goals.
They use mistakes and failures as an opportunity to learn and improve, not as an excuse to quit.
Managing Adversity Under Pressure
Managing adversity under pressure is another trait that defines mental toughness. When your match is not going well, how will you react? If you have fewer points, will you simply give up or will you push forward? It’s very easy for people to give up when the chips are down and they feel like the match is over.
Pivotal importance for the development of mental strength relies on the capability to solve problems and take personal responsibility. Competitors need to gradually expose themselves to a challenging situation in order to be able to learn in a challenging but supportive environment.
It’s probably harder to keep competing in sports when the outcome is certain, like in basketball when a team falls by 30 points with a minute left and there’s no way such a deficit can be made up. Many teams play the last seconds in an awkward, unspoken truce where they let the clock run out.
However, in BJJ we are offered a unique opportunity to whatever the score; the fight can easily be won or lost by submission as long as the time remains in the match. That’s why the ability to face adversity and withstand the pressure of competition for a Jiu-Jitsu fighter is so important – the fight is never over until it’s over.
In many matches, you can observe how the fighters beat people who were physically bigger, stronger and faster. If you look closely, you may be able to see in their opponent’s eyes and physical demeanor that they are mentally exhausted from previous fights and have already agreed to lose the match before the fight even begins. In these cases, simple aggression of their opponent is often enough to complete the task.
The ability to push through physical barriers of pain and not accepting defeat will often prevent defeat.
A mentally tough fighter won’t allow negative thoughts to enter their mind: the ones that tell them they’re tired and it’s okay to lose or give up.
It’s an all-or-nothing mentality. A mentally tough fighter doesn’t want to go into a fight with the goal of “not losing TOO badly”. And when they sometimes do, the outcome is already certain and they will be defeated.
Understand that you will be nervous and this is completely normal, but don’t allow that feeling of anxiety to cast doubt on your own abilities.
An individual with positive energy is generally able to analyze his or her performance and learn to adapt to whatever caused the mistakes, rather than being hung up on a previous failure. It is the ability to use your knowledge for future performances. It is equally important to know when to celebrate your success, and then when to stop and focus on the next challenge.
It is useful to know that the high task/moderate ego goal profile has much greater mental strength in positive energy. The results suggest the possibility that athletes with a high task, moderate ego goal profile are likely to benefit during adversity in competition due to good self-control and greater mental toughness.
The Power Of Visualisation
It is also very important to be able to manage the flow of mental pictures and images in a positive and constructive direction. Many have said that the biggest challenge is to mentally defeat your opponents. Athletes’ ability to focus attention, control performance imagery, and their total commitment to the pursuit of excellence have been identified as critical psychological attributes. Success in any sport starts in the mind.
Can Visualization Make You Physically Stronger?
Sometime in 2007, a group of American scientists wrote a study called “Mind over Matter.” During this research, they assigned 30 male university athletes (in various sports) to groups that had mental training, physical training, and a control group. Their discoveries came as a bit of a surprise. Namely, they found that physical strength was increased by 24% with mental exercise and 28% with actual physical exercise. Both workouts led to a similar decrease in heart rate, and both reduced systolic blood pressure. This is not the first time that mental practice has shown its value (Ranganathan et al., 2004).
So what exactly was that mental training that brought up the results? Over two weeks, each participant (in the mental training group) received ten 15-minute training sessions. During each session, the participant was instructed to mentally conceive himself using a hip flexor machine in four sets of eight repetitions. Each subsequent session increased the imagined lifting weight by five pounds. This is what is called visualization-guided brain activation training.
While there is no indication that mental exercise alone can be effective in stimulating increased strength or optimizing training effects, it seems quite likely that some cognitive strategies increase strength and muscle resistance by improving performance during dynamic tasks.
And this is something you can definitely apply to your Brazilian jiu-jitsu journey. We often hear fighters visualize the flow of their fights in advance. The truth is that these particular visualizations may not produce great strength gains, but they greatly affect strategy, anxiety, and heart rate during competition. If you have enough self-confidence and determination to apply it to your mind, all of these techniques can provide a psychological advantage that will make you victorious.
Three Ways How BJJ Develops Your Mental Toughness
Jiu-Jitsu Sharpens Your Focus And Concentration
Hardly anyone immediately understands exactly how the technique that the coach just demonstrated works and can repeat it right away. Most of us have to focus, process it in our head, and only then more or less know what is going on. Also, rolling requires constant concentration. You have to be constantly careful and constantly analyze the situation to avoid the attacks of your opponent, and then attack yourself. If you have to act like this all the time, just by doing so your skills are constantly improving. You are generally becoming more focused. This, in turn, means that you can also focus on achieving your goals, and eventually your mental toughness increases.
The capability to focus and concentrate on a particular task is a skill – just like any BJJ skill that you learn in a class. Since it is a skill, it means that it can be improved. If your attention seems to wander all over the place when you’re trying to focus on something in class, you’re not alone. But the more you work on bringing your awareness back to your practice, the more your focus will improve. The more you are able to stay focused and prevent unimportant thoughts from invading you.
Jiu-Jitsu Improves Self-Discipline
Jiu-Jitsu can be amusing and rewarding. But there will be days or times when you’re not so excited to go train. The days in which you remain committed to your practice and continue to show up are the days that improve your self-discipline. The journey of martial arts is not about going from the white belt to the black belt overnight. You have to keep showing up to put in the work, especially on days when your mind is trying to talk you out of it.
Also – let us not fool ourselves – BJJ is one of the most demanding martial arts. It often takes more than 10 years to reach a black belt. Along the way you will spend many hours on the mat, you will have to work hard and you will shed a lot of blood, sweat and tears. No one will force you to do that. You have to force yourself to show up for training all the time, even if you don’t feel like it and have a bad day. This improves your self-discipline. You learn how you don’t need outside voices to act. This, in turn, transmutes into self-motivation, that is, the growth of your mental toughness through BJJ.
Jiu-Jitsu Helps You To Manage Negative Thoughts
If the above-mentioned replacing of negative thoughts and beliefs with positive ones seems too much for you, don’t worry, BJJ can help you with that. This is because at some point in your training your BJJ progress will slow down and you will begin to wonder what’s the point of your jiu-jitsu practice. If BJJ is your true passion, you will just grit your teeth and keep showing up in training despite those negative thoughts.
You just have to realize that it is impossible and futile to try to prevent those thoughts from popping into your head. Instead, you need to learn to manage negative thoughts when they arise. Dealing with negative thoughts is another skill you can improve by practicing. So, the more you are able to focus your attention on those critical voices and deal with what they say, the more your mental toughness in BJJ and beyond increases.
Impact Of Jiu-Jitsu On The Psyche
In BJJ, we develop these traits over time by training on mats in our schools and tournaments. This is similar in some respects to what is happening in the armed forces. One of the main goals in a military boot camp is to break down the psyche of the recruits in order to rebuild them better and stronger, with more confidence. Over a short period of time, a soldier can be trained to be physically and mentally stronger than he was when he began basic training.
We’re all probably much tougher, both physically and mentally, than we were when we first started BJJ. How often do new students tap out to a light forearm pressure across the front of the neck, or panic when someone mounts them? A fighter will start to show significant improvement with each day after they start learning some basic techniques, and are no longer afraid of certain scenarios. This will start to build their self-confidence, and the self-confidence of a fighter is perhaps one of the most important traits they can possess. Confidence in their own ability in BJJ to perform under pressure, to continue to fight and train through exhaustion, and ultimately to overcome all obstacles placed before them will be the foundation and benchmark for determining their mental toughness.
Check also what 5X BJJ World Champ Bernardo Faria of bjjfanatics.com has to say about mental toughness in BJJ:
The “Mental Block”
Sometimes, we can also experience something that can be described as The Mental Block.
Whether it’s in training during the rounds or in a competition, the body is moving, but the mind isn’t in sync with it. The mind is an amazing and complex asset we have. If you manage to train your mind in the right way, you will be able to overcome all the boundaries you may face.
We have all been there as competitors the night before the competition. You start to feel your nerves pounding; the competition anxiety sets in. All of this is created and generated in the brain. Everyone has their own ways of handling this situation, but depending on how you have trained your mind, it can make or break your performance time.
Psychological Benefits Of Training BJJ
When people first think of joining a Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu academy, they usually think of its physical benefits (improved strength, fitness, general physical fitness, and flexibility).
But it’s not just endorphins that make the “arte suave” so addictive. Mental gains and mental toughness that is acquired in the process, also have a huge impact on improving people’s lives.
Here are some of them:
Jiu-Jitsu Sharpens Your Problem-Solving Skills
Jiu-jitsu is a very calculated game. It’s sometimes called the human game of chess, which is true in a way. The calculations performed by effective jiu-jitsu fighters require a very high level of thinking. Jiu-jitsu practitioners often think a few steps ahead and therefore they develop a different way of thinking. You begin to see this way of thinking as you move forward on your BJJ journey.
Jiu-Jitsu Helps You To Relax
The power of exercise is that it encourages people to relax by releasing endorphins into the bloodstream, which reduce anxiety and also help you to sleep. When you practice jiu-jitsu, you exert a lot of energy that leaves your body exhausted. As you cross your own boundaries and reach your goals, rest and recovery become even more beneficial. And sometimes the feeling of a hard day’s work is relaxing enough.
Jiu-Jitsu Enhances Your Confidence
Jiu-jitsu provides students with a way to achieve self-confidence. You will not only gain confidence in your jiu-jitsu training, but also in other areas of your life. Self-confidence helps you to be successful in everything you do and makes your personality shine. Confidence means believing in yourself, which should not be confused with arrogance.
Jiu-Jitsu Improves Your Overall Mental Strength
Let’s face it – sometimes skills and techniques are not enough. The ability to persevere through submission and escape cannot be achieved without mental strength. The extra mental toughness achieved through BJJ training can help overcome any physical deficiencies present. This in turn is associated with self-confidence and faith in one’s own abilities.