When we think about training better, we think about the obvious things first: drilling more, focusing on technique, and maybe improving our conditioning and nutrition. But those are all physical things. The mental aspect of the game can be just as important, yet it's often overlooked.
To show you just what I mean, here are five common psychological mistakes we often make that hurt our training.
Mistake #1: Being Passive
In BJJ we put a lot of value on the idea of "flowing" and "not forcing moves". And this is great, but taken to the extreme it can lead to being passive and never taking the initiative.
If you're always reacting to what your opponent does, it's a lot harder to take the fight where you want. The result is that you end up defending their game, rather than improving yours.
We've all spent the whole roll stuck in someone's guard. Sure, you'll have improved your guard defense, and that's sometimes a necessary step. But on the other hand, your partner just spent 5 minutes sharpening their best weapon, and now they're ready to reuse it on their next unsuspecting victim.
Instead, try to make an effort to move first, be offensive, and make them react. You can still be just as smooth and technical as before, except now you're the one in the driver's seat.
Solution: before every roll, make a mental gameplan of where you want to take the fight.
Mistake #2: Doubting Yourself
Another side-effect of the "flowing" mindset is that you can sometimes start doubting yourself when a move isn't immediately successful, and give up rather than force the technique.
This is especially common among more experienced white belts. Paradoxically, that often makes them easier to roll with than complete beginners, who are still too inexperienced to know that “forcing a move” is bad.
I can often "jedi mind trick" lower belts into giving up on a perfectly good position, just by remaining stone-faced and pretending everything's fine. And in turn, when facing higher belts I often manage to convince myself that there's no way I can tap them out, before I even try!
Now I'm not saying you should force moves and risk injuring yourself or your partner. But internalizing failure leads to a vicious cycle: you think you're going to fail, so you give up, which it turn reinforces the belief that you can't succeed.
So try to find a good balance, and remember that we're all humans: no matter the color on our belt, we all tap to a good armbar.
Solution: try to adjust or improve positions rather than give up on them.
Mistake #3: Looking For Easy Wins
Flying armbars, jumping guillotines, rolling leglocks: they look cool, but they can also be signs of mental weakpoints.
What I mean by that is that once you start doubting yourself, it's easy to fall into an all-or-nothing mindset. If you think you can't beat your opponent the hard way (by controlling them, tiring them out, and finally submitting them) you start looking for an easy way out.
There's a reason why leglocks were frowned upon by BJJ traditionalists: we've all been in a situation where, frustrated with our opponents' impassable guard, we drop back for a leglock of last resort and end up getting swept and passed as a result.
Don't get me wrong though, there's nothing wrong with leglocks themselves. The problem is not about the specific technique you use, it's about why you're using it. Is it part of a coherent, well-rehearsed strategy, or is it a sign that your opponent has pushed you to the edge?
Solution: when in danger, reset to a neutral position instead of going for a risky all-or-nothing move.
Mistake #4: Overlooking Your Errors
Finally conceding the tap after fighting a submission for a minute is certainly frustrating. And it's easy to conclude that you need to improve your armbar or triangle defense.
But that's often the wrong conclusion to draw. Instead, you need to pay attention to what happened before the submission. How did you get passed? How did you end up in their guard?
Put another way, you don't beat Roger Gracie (assuming such a thing is even possible!) just by training to defend his cross choke from under mount. You train to not let him get mount in the first place!
Yet too often, we focus on the end result (the tap) instead of the process that led there. But as Kurt Osiander would say, "you f'ed up a long time ago!", and that's the part that needs our full attention.
Solution: tap early to submissions, and try to identify the mistakes that led to them.
Mistake #5: Ignoring Your Psychological State
This all leads me to my final point. The biggest psychological mistake we can make while training is to not pay attention to what's going on inside our mind.
By the time the end-of-roll bell rings, it often seems like the last 5 minutes just went by in a flash, without much conscious thought at all.
After a particularly intense roll, I'll often be unable to remember the specifics of what happened. To me, this means that I wasn't mindful enough: I let myself get carried away into reacting to the roll, instead of deliberately establishing a strategy and trying to shape the flow of the fight.
Solution: after each roll, try to remember the sequence of the positions you went through.
You often hear that thinking during a fight slows you down, so great athletes instead act instinctively. But while that's a great way to fight, it's not always a good way to train.
Just like you need to train with weights to get stronger without them, you also need to think more first, to be able to think less later!
So if you can, try to implement these five principles, and let me know if it helps your training.