On Performance Issues

Photo courtesy of my team-mate Dan Dwyer. Follow him on Instagram @dandwyerbjj
Photo courtesy of my team-mate Dan Dwyer. Follow him on Instagram @dandwyerbjj

Yesterday I competed in the Synergy Typhoon Haiyan NoGi Competition. For those of you who don’t know, it was a no-gi Brazilian Jiu Jitsu competition organised by Synergy Fight Shop to raise funds for those affected by Typhoon Haiyan in the Philippines. It wasn’t a prestigious comp – no medals, no prize-money, no chance to qualify for anything – but it was a great chance for everyone in Adelaide to test their skills and help some less fortunate people by doing something we all love.

For me, the comp had some personal significance as well, and I thought I’d share it because it involves an aspect of performance that not many people seem to want to talk about. I have to swallow my pride a little bit to discuss this openly, but here goes…

For the last couple of month’s something’s been wrong. I was very unhappy with myself in the aftermath of my last MMA fight (which I lost by ground and pound stoppage in the fourth minute of round one.) Losing is never fun – losing by stoppage in front of your home town even less so. But it wasn’t the loss itself that bothered me so much as my own performance. I felt that I had failed to perform mentally. There were all kinds of things on my mind that probably shouldn’t have been there – fight-related things, like proving people wrong – but still things that created clutter, that took my mindfulness away from what what happening in the moment and created an emotional investment in the situation that generated fear. It wasn’t fear of my opponent, but fear of all of the perceived emotional consequences of failure. The result was that, although I thought I was completely focused on the fight, I wasn’t. Mentally, I wasn’t even at the fight. What I was really focusing on were all of the consequences of the fight. Notice too that I say “consequences” and not “reward.” I was seeing the threat in the situation, and not the opportunity.

Not that I realised any of this at the time, of course, or even for months afterwards. All I was aware of was that I had “wanted it” more than ever, but failed to perform.

This failure to perform mentally really shook my confidence in myself, not just as a fighter but as a human being. My ability to overcome psychological challenge and to apply my mind to getting what I want has always been something that I have perceived as one of my defining strengths in all areas of my life. It’s what makes me who I am. Without this, who am I? And what am I capable of achieving?

So began a period of introspection for me. While applying myself to working on my grappling skills – which have been somewhat lacklustre up to this point – I spent a lot of time looking at myself. Many would have told me to move on, get over it, but this is the way my mind works. I’ll obsess over something until I understand it. I can’t let anything go until I’ve found the lesson in it that allows me to move on with more understanding and an extra edge to take into my next experience. Is this the best way? I don’t know – but it’s my way.

So this little Radelaide charity tournament was significant for me because it was my opportunity to come up against myself. It was my opportunity to see if I could implement the lessons that I’d learned from my last fight about the mental aspects of my performance.

I removed all emotional investment from the situation – which was hard. There was a big, insecure, emotional, irrational part of me that wanted to “redeem” myself through this tournament, to “prove” that I had potential, to “validate” all of the time that I had spent working on my grappling in recent months and even the choices and sacrifices that I’ve made in life in order to have the time and energy needed to do this. It would have been ridiculous to go into the competition with this mindset. A failed takedown attempt or a sweep would literally have meant the difference between my lifestyle being valid or a waste of time. No one can perform with that kind of internal pressure, and it would just have been another distraction taking my awareness away from the fight and creating a “lag” in my reaction times.

So, I got rid of all of that. I practised training with an empty mind. I stopped focusing on emotion or on rewards or consequences and allowed my attention to rest on what I was doing. It meant that I was no longer influenced by my perceptions of the past or my fears or desires regarding the future. All that existed was what I was doing right now. Can you imagine all of the attention that is normally scattered across thoughts of what we have to do later or what we have done before or what we wish to have happen all focused instead on where your weight is, how you’re breathing, the movements of your opponent, the placement of your grips? Sounds silly, but it’s incredibly powerful. Sounds easy, but it’s not easy to achieve.

Obviously I wanted to win this competition. I had a gameplan that I wanted to execute. But my number one goal was to take that mindset from training into competition and perform well mentally. And… I did it! I maintained a clear mind all day. I took my attention away from all the emotional baggage. I felt physically nervous – sweaty palms, elevated heart rate – but mentally calm, and went onto the mats trusting myself and my training. I fought twice and won both of my matches, doing everything that was in my gameplan plus some extra things (like using rubber guard, and a sweep that I had been taught in my first fortnight of BJJ in Singapore but had never done perfectly until yesterday.)

I finally feel like I’ve extracted the lesson from my most recent MMA fight, done the study and passed the test. Now I’ll move – not on, but up.

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