You hear about a tournament that piques your interest. You train for weeks using the best new methods you can find. You drill more, roll harder, and work on your cardio with supplemental training. You game plan and focus on the task at hand up until the day of the tournament. You feel good. Then, competition day comes and you notice you feel a little different. On the way to the venue, your heart rate increases. You get fidgety. You get restless leg syndrome. Your mind races a million miles a second. You get to the tournament and the feelings increase as you look around amongst the sea of jiu-jitsu players. You look for potential opponents matching your belt rank and relative size. The nervousness intensifies as you get your gi checked and you weigh in. Then, seemingly all of a sudden, your mat coordinator calls you up and it’s your turn to fight. You bow in to the mats. You bow to the referee. You bow to the opponent. The referee exclaims, “COMBATE!”
Then, as fast as this all started, the match is over. You walk to your instructor almost throwing up, due to the dryness in your throat, to go over what just happened; you realize you don’t remember many of the details of the match. As you take a moment to collect yourself, you wonder, “What happened to me?” You did not fight the way you train in your academy. Your cardio conditioning paled in comparison to what you perceive your abilities to be. And, to cap things off, you did not express your techniques the way you usually do in training. You just experienced your first adrenaline dump brought on by the nerves of competing, or, otherwise known as by professional athletes and entertainers, performance anxiety.
The two tenets of all anxiety
Somatic anxiety is the physiological response to a situation: heart rate increase, uncomfortably dry mouth, muscle tension, sweaty palms, intense fidgeting, and/or breathing becomes increasingly shallow. All of the aforementioned symptoms are tangible effects of somatic anxiety. If you’re experiencing these symptoms, it means that anxiety has crossed a threshold and it can no longer be contained in the mind. These symptoms are natural mechanisms that the body employs to release some of this tension. The nervous system is hard at work as it anticipates a “fight or flight” situation.
However, this isn’t a true fight or flight situation. Nobody’s life is at risk. You will not have to fight for literal survival or have to run as fast as your body can go in order to save your life. We are merely about to engage in sport. Jiu-Jitsu is a combative sport, but a sport nonetheless.
Cognitive Anxiety is the mental and emotional response to a situation. This may include: doubting your abilities, worrying that the techniques aren’t adequate, crippling apprehension, worrying about facing someone who’s much better, fear, thoughts of losing and planning to deal with the loss, feeling panicked, visualizing the loss, losing focus on the task at hand, and/or forgetting parts of the game plan.
Cognitive anxiety typically comes from two places: fear of failure or inappropriate focus. It’s important to know that you are in control of your thinking. While the brain may be wired to worry, you still have the ability to logically think through these worries and refocus the mind more appropriately. It’s not always as easy as it sounds, but with practice one can create more effective mental habits. Consider this: the chemical reaction that occurs in the brain when excited is exactly the same as the chemical reaction that occurs when anxious. It’s all about perception!
Common Fears & Inappropriate Focal Points of Jiu-Jitsu Players:
1. Lack of confidence in set game plan, techniques, or cardio
2. Too much emphasis on the outcome of your match
3. Focus on emotions related to failure rather than success
4. High self-expectations (Double Gold!) and self-imposed pressure
5. Being un-tapered or physically tired
6. Lack of trust in instructor/coach
7. Returning from injury or illness
“Why does all this matter?”
“Know your enemy and know yourself and you can fight a hundred battles without disaster.” – Sun Tzu
Ah, the old art of war adage. It serves us in many respects, and, here, it rings true as ever. By understanding the different tenets of anxiety, it is easy to identify which symptoms you’re experiencing. Having distinguished between somatic and/or cognitive anxiety symptoms, a strategic plan of attack may be employed. Of course, the two tenets are interrelated, so it is important to understand that you can’t just address one of them and expect your performance anxiety to be quelled.
Training to Deal with Competition Anxiety
Given that anxiety can affect performance in three different ways, it’s best to have a plan of attack that’s threefold, as well as a good idea of how to deal with the entire spectrum of effects that may be encountered in competition.
Don’t make the mistake of simply focusing on being completely calm. It may prove to be futile. Instead, embrace the nervousness and learn to develop a useful response to the performance anxiety in order to reframe the energy from anxiety to excitement. Spend more time training what you’ll actually encounter in a competition rather than just training to train. What does this look like?
With an appropriate training partner, agree on going a full round as hard as possible with the goal of working yourself into exhaustion. Then, the following round, do not take a break. Rather, with a new fresh partner, try to enact your game plan and techniques while in a state of physical exhaustion and breathing hard. Can you still pull off your sweeps? Are you thinking clear? Are your submissions as effortless as they usually are? One day, wear the gi you are planning on wearing to the competition. Ask your instructor if he could have everyone circle around the mat to watch you roll with someone of the appropriate rank with regular competition guidelines. Does having people watch affect your performance?
Which muscles get tight under pressure? What happens to your breathing and grips? Do you forget to breathe? Do you hold on too tight and blow out your grip strength? What happens to your sense of timing? Do you rush or wait too long? Is there a propensity to bail on your game plan?
Tips & Techniques for Dealing with Somatic Anxiety
There are numerous methods for using deep breathing to reduce anxious energy to appropriate levels. Try breathing in through the nose and out through the mouth as slowly and deeply as possible. It should never feel like you’re holding your breath or forcing it out. Try to imagine breathing through the heart; it can better help to decrease your heart rate. Focusing on breathing and counting each breath as you exhale has the added bonus of distracting the mind from worried thoughts.
One tip I received from both Daniel Faggela and Justin Rader is to create a routine before training every day. This routine is to only be used before training as a means to prepare to get to work. Before their first match, Justin and Daniel both go through the same routine that they use before training at their academy. The effect is twofold: their body receives a signal that it’s time to perform again, and the familiarity of routine helps mitigate the stressors of the present situation. This routine can include: music (anything from hiphop to classical orchestra), visualization of initiating the match, executing the first technique, positive focus, and self-talk. Remember, there is a fine line between excitement and anxiety. Self-talk goes a long way in reframing your energy to your advantage!
Finally, another trick I have been using lately is napping in the bullpen. After my warm up routine and in between matches, I find a spot to lie down. I tell the mat coordinator where I will be, and I do my best to take a nap. If I can’t sleep, I use this time to practice more deep breathing and positive focus. I picked this up from my instructor; it has worked very well for me.
Tips and Techniques for Dealing with Cognitive Anxiety
Don’t dwell on potential outcomes prior to or during a competition; focus on exacting a game plan. Focus on success related emotions and imagery (how good will it feel having your hand raised by the referee?). Consider that it is much more likely for you to demonstrate your true abilities rather than have a match that is completely uncharacteristic of them. Set realistic expectations, especially if the training was un-tapered or you’re returning from injury or illness. Work on communication with your coach; get him/her to explain their training philosophy and why your game plan will work.
Make sure the focus is completely appropriate. Do not focus on things you cannot control. You cannot control who your opponent will be, who will be watching you, if there will be an injury, or how prestigious the tournament will be. The focus should not be on past matches, or thoughts of a negative future (i.e. what will people think if I lose?).
If you can’t control it, let it go. Make a list of all your worries and cross off anything you can’t directly impact. If there are things you can control, make a plan to manipulate the situation to your favor. Focus on what is needed to compete well (be first, stick to your game plan, execute without being tentative, etc.). Focus on the task (competing) rather than the situation (this is my first match ever!). Live in the moment. Consider how you will make this a great showing of your art. Trust that if you roll like you’ve trained to, the outcome will take care of itself.
Remember, having these feelings is normal. It means you’re alive. You’re not alone. Everyone has them, and it’s how we deal with them that makes the difference. I’ll end this with a quote from a new black belt who has used these strategies to grow into super stardom:
“Competing is one of the most nerve racking and scary things for me. At Worlds last year I threw up between every match. I feel my stomach drop every time I see the guy who I will fight next. My hands get clammy. My heart pounds and I can hear it in my ears every time I think about when I will be up. I feel nauseous when I see my friends and family watching me. I don’t want to disappoint them. But then when I step on the mat I have the same thought every time. ‘All you have to do is fight your hardest’ and I remember I’m here to test myself and that all those other thoughts and feelings exist only in my own head. They aren’t real or tangible. The only thing that’s real is the moment. The instinct. The fight.”
– Keenan Cornelius