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Words: Rebecca Hill || Picture: Daniel Briseno

Imagine this familiar scenario: Your instructor introduces a new technique to the class. Almost immediately you start to interpret what this means for you (probably without even realising that you’re engaging in this interpretation). You recognise that this new sweep builds on the open guard you’ve already been developing. You say to yourself: ‘OK, I get this. It’s fine. I can see how it fits with my game. It looks pretty easy.’ And so, as you go off to drill the technique, you feel confident about your ability to grasp the skill. You put in effort and by the end of the practice period you can execute it more-or-less effectively.

The stories we tell ourselves, like the one above, are important for our BJJ. What we say to ourselves, either out loud or as the small voice in our head, impacts on our motivation, our ability to manage anxiety, maintain confidence and focus, and how we cope with stressful situations. This self-talk is an internal dialogue. It’s a sort of conversation with ourselves where we interpret our experiences. From a cognitive-behavioural perspective, it shows that the outcomes we experience result from our actions, which are in turn influenced by how we think and feel.

The problem is that most of the time we aren’t consciously aware of our self-talk, let alone how massively influential it is. Our thoughts seem to arise out of nowhere. They are so automatic that it seems we have no control over them. To make the most of self-talk we need to make a deliberate effort to develop it as a psychological skill. We first need to become aware of our existing thought patterns. Say you make an error in sparring. Do you typically criticize yourself for making a stupid mistake? Or do you say, ‘Never mind. Let’s move on and figure out how to recover’?

Recognising our self-talk can be a tricky business, however, especially in the moment. A useful starting point is reflection. Think back to a particularly good or bad performance and recall the self-talk that accompanied it. You could even watch video of your previous competitions to jog your memory. Mental imagery is another way to review situations and identify the inner dialogue that prompts emotions and actions. Another suggestion is to keep a log or diary of your thoughts about training and competition. The benefit of this last idea is that you can track your mental patterns as you go along instead of relying on memory.

Sometimes negative self-talk can have a positive effect. Thinking that the referee is not on your side may give you motivation to dig in and fight a little harder. But for the most part, negative self-talk leads to unhelpful emotions and damages performance, while positive self-talk facilitates positive feelings and better performance. So it pays to identify negative thoughts, question whether they are serving any useful purpose and if not, stop them in their tracks.

Let’s be clear. Self-talk isn’t about positive affirmations. It’s not about about convincing yourself that things are different than they really are. Instead, the answer is to reframe negative self-talk so it gives you a different perspective. Take a look at the table. You’ll see that the positive statements don’t deny the situation; they just approach the issue from a different angle. Another thing you’ll notice is that the re-framed self-talk emphasizes things within personal control. A focus on ‘controlling the controllables’ and on ‘process over outcome’ leads to a much more stable sense of confidence, motivation, and concentration.

Negative self-talk

Positive statements

I’m so unfit.

Just take each session at a time and do what you can.

This girl is a monster. She has awesome judo.

I know she’ll go for a throw or takedown. I need to take the initiative and pull guard first.

I feel weak.

Trust the training. Jiu jitsu is all about efficiency.

Why didn’t I get the points for the sweep?

Relax. You have time. Re-focus on your plan.

I want to finish this fight with a submission.

Patience. Stay calm. Be technical.

I wish he’d stop shouting at me. It’s so distracting.

Zone it out. Play your own game.

Clearly, one bold statement isn’t going to change your BJJ world overnight. Our self-talk is so habitual. But through small incremental changes we can gain control of our thoughts and develop good mental habits. Bruce Lee once said: “It's not the daily increase but daily decrease. Hack away at the unessential.” This goes for our thoughts too. What limiting beliefs are you holding on to, that if relinquished, would liberate you to take a more positive and fulfilling approach to your jiu jitsu?

November 08, 2018 — Jiu Jitsu Style