What You Can Control in Jiu-Jitsu: Focus Internally and Stay the Course

One of the biggest challenges to learning the Gentle Art is the inability to control most things jiu-jitsu throws our way.  In jiu-jitsu, just as in life, there are many situations beyond our control. Events come up that keep us off the mats, we train with partners that throw technical curveballs, and we even experience unexpected injuries. Regardless of what gets thrown our way, we must continue to find solutions and stay on track. Missing mat time, enduring harsh training, and experiencing injuries are stressful, and many times we believe that there might have been something we could have done differently or better. Sometimes, we think it is all out of our hands and completely abdicate responsibility for where we are at. This lack of personal accountability, regardless of the circumstances, can be detrimental to our progress.

Attribution Theory:

The Perception of What We Can Control

A huge part of the learning process is cause and effect. People learn via observation and practice, and the tendency is to attribute various causes to observed or practiced outcomes. If, for example, you drank too much the night before a loss in competition, you might attribute your loss to drinking as opposed to any other factors that might have influenced or hindered your performance. Drinking, in this case, may not have necessarily been the reason for your loss (your opponent might have actually been much, much better than you), but nevertheless, you will learn that drinking the night before a competition is a bad thing. This attribution will influence your belief and guide your decisions the next time. You will either choose to drink next time if you have an unhealthy attribution, or you will choose to avoid booze before a fight if you have an adaptive attribution.


Internal Versus External Locus of Control

There are two ways we can attribute our ability to control outcomes: internally and externally. Internal locus of control means that our behaviors are directly related to the situations we find ourselves in whereas external locus of control means that things just happen and we otherwise have nothing to do with them. For example, for eachoutcome, if you have a solid internal locus of control, you will believe that your effort and your abilities are responsible for your success or failure. If you have an external locus of control, you will blame external factors like bad luck and believe that these events are beyond your control. In other words, you will believe that your poor competition performance has more to do with your opponent being better than you instead of drinking the night before a match. This belief will increase the possibility that you will drink before the next competition because you cannot do anything about fighting a person that is more skillful. This belief is maladaptive and does not inspire change.

In jiu-jitsu, if we understand that our failures and successes are related to how much work we put in, we will be much more motivated to put in the work. Or, even if we do not want to put in more work, we will understand that we are where we are as the result of our more recreational approach. On the other hand, if we have an external locus of control, we will find ourselves making more excuses for not achieving what we seek to achieve. If you never show up for training, you will still find ways to externalize the blame. For example, rather than make the time to train more, you will blame your lack of training time on a demanding job or having too many social outings where your attendance was required. On the mats, for example, if you get caught in a submission, you will not attribute it to not putting the effort to learn a submission escape, but rather you will say something like “Well, training partner X is just so good that there was nothing I could do”. This kind of belief will be detrimental to your progress.

Focus on What You Can Control

Research has shown people with a high internal locus of control perform better and have much better outlooks than people with external locus of control. The idea is that if you can accept responsibility for where you are at, you will hold yourself more accountable and stay motivated to accomplish your goals. If, however, you attribute your circumstances to external causes, you will never be motivated to change anything within yourself. You cannot understand the need for change if you just have bum luck for example. In jiu-jitsu, it is easy to say you are not where you want to be because of work or family or that you are out of shape. It is also easy to suggest that other people are just better than you are, and therefore you will never be as good because you have other things going on. For the most part, there is a lot beyond your control but there are some ways to work around these obstacles.

Things You Can and Cannot Control


You cannot control random catastrophes and emergencies. In life, things just happen. If, for example, you are attempting to make a 6:30 pm class but you find out that your toilet is overflowing and you need to go home as soon as possible to take care of the problem, you cannot beat yourself up for it. You cannot control these types of situations, but what you can control is making time to attend another class. Wake up an hour earlier the next day in order to make the morning class at your school. Cancel a happy hour or dinner plans the following day to make up for missed time. If possible, take an extended lunch break and hit the noon class. If you miss a class due to events beyond your control, you can always try and make another session so that you do not fall behind.

Harsh Training Sessions

The road in jiu-jitsu is filled with good and bad days. You cannot control being paired up with the toughest guys in the room, but you can control your attitude about it. If you focus too much on the external (“those guys are so much better than me”), you will find your negative emotions snowballing into something much worse. If, however, you change your attitude and attribute the rough training session to your lack of experience, you will be motivated to continue showing up and gaining that valuable experience that only harsh training sessions can provide. Of course, there is some degree of luck and task difficulty that you cannot control, but you can always control your efforts and influence your beliefs that if you keep practicing, eventually you will have more good days.


Very often, adjusting your training intensity can mitigate the risk of injury. Jiu-jitsu translates as “the gentle art”. Theoretically, the practice should be smooth and gentle. Ironically, because of training intensity, practice can be ruthless and unrelenting on your physical capacities. This overexertion can lead to minor injuries as well as freak accidents that can pull you from practice for an extended period of time. Immediately after experiencing an injury, the tendency will be to evaluate the session in hindsight. “I should have stayed home”, “I knew I should not have sparred with that person”, and “I should have toned it down” are statements you will likely make after the fact. While there is nothing you can do about the past, you can still focus on the present. As an athlete, once an injury is sustained, your job must shift from training to rehabilitation. While you are unable to make many strides on the mats, you can still focus on getting back to the mats as soon as possible by beginning an aggressive rehabilitation program and sticking to it, not allowing external factors to get the best of you.


On and off the mats, we are going to face many challenges that frustrate us, hinder our progress, and even derail us completely. Learning involves plenty of cause and effect relationships, and our ability to stay motivated and stick with jiu-jitsu long-term is often related to how we attribute our successes and failures. If you find yourself constantly attributing events to external factors such as luck or the difficulty of your task, you will have a much harder time staying the course. Instead, begin to believe that your efforts and your abilities have much more to do with your outcomes.  Having a sound internal locus of control will empower you to make the changes you seek to make and be the practitioner you seek to be. Accept that there is much beyond your control, focus on what you can control, and always figure out a way to get back on track.


Leave a Reply