By Dr Rebecca Hill
9:00 a.m., Friday 27th January 2012. I’m about to step on the mats at the European Championships. This is my very first international competition. And the thoughts running through my head go something along the lines of: “Oh no, I’ll be the first person on the mats…everyone will be watching me…it’s really quiet in here…I wasn’t expecting that…I should have gotten here earlier…I’m not warmed up properly…my hands are really cold.” My opponent and I tap hands, we grip up and my mind jumps to: “She’s loads stronger than she looks…ooh, it feels weird to grip the gi wearing nail polish…why did I paint my nails? I never do that for training…” and so it continues until I end up in her side control and say to myself: “Get me out of here…I need a drink, and I don’t mean water!” Needless to say, this wasn’t my finest performance. It was, however, a massive opportunity to learn about focus before and during competition.
Just one slip in attention can be enough to give your opponent an opening and change the momentum of a fight. We perform best when we are in the here and now, when we are immersed in the present moment (what sports psychologists call a state of ‘flow’). When we are sparring, the time for thinking is over; it is time to just do. But this is easier said than done.
What we focus on becomes a reality. This sounds a bit ‘Zen’ but in the case of attention, it is quite true. In my powerlifting days, my coach’s well-meaning encouragement before each lift would be, “c’mon Bec, concentrate!” But it was never clear exactly what I should have been concentrating on. Almost all of my thoughts at the Europeans were related to the situation but none of them were actually helpful to the challenge I was facing. For optimal focus, I first needed to recognise what was relevant to the task at hand and what wasn’t.
Just take a moment to replay a previous jiu jitsu experience in your mind. Pay particular attention to where your focus was, and what you were distracted by. Distractions can be external (e.g., a loud, unexpected noise) but more often than not they come from within. This is why it is so important to be aware of your internal monologue. Self-talk plays a crucial role in directing our attention. So often we don’t even realise the stories we create about ourselves and others, and how they reinforce our emotions and our behaviours. Take my belief that I hadn’t warmed up properly, for example. To me, this was a negative thing which meant that I wasn’t ready to fight. Of course, I went out there and tried my best but subconsciously I probably didn’t give my full effort. I lost that fight before I had even stepped on the mats.
Instead, I could have reframed the self-talk and put a different spin on it. Positive affirmations need to be used with care, mind you. It’s not enough just to ‘think positively’. The statements need to be believable. Telling myself ‘I’ve done the best warm up ever and I’m 100% ready to go’ just wouldn’t have been true. But on reflection, there are times in training where I’ve felt unprepared for sparring but still performed close to my potential. It would have been useful to remind myself of that.
Recognise that dealing with distractions doesn’t mean blocking them out. That takes too much energy. It helps to understand the reasons why we let ourselves be pulled away from the present moment. Often we are distracted by events in the past – by a disagreement among team mates, a poor refereeing decision, problems passing the gi check, dwelling on mistakes. And sometimes we are living in the future, focusing on the possible outcomes of an event, either the negative consequences of failure or the positive possibility of success (which is why celebrating a win before the end of a fight is seldom a good idea). Whatever the cause, as soon as you’re aware that you’ve become distracted, gently bring your attention back to the task. The most alert fighter isn’t the one who avoids distractions; it’s the one who can re-focus most quickly.
Perhaps you’re starting to realise that there’s a bit more to this than meets the eye. We know now that attention involves focusing on task-relevant cues, and regaining focus after a distraction. It is also about maintaining the attention on a particular cue for the appropriate amount of time. We need to know when to switch on and when to switch off. Not switching off when you have the chance means you use more energy than necessary. You don’t have to keep a singular focus for the whole competition. Use the rest periods when you can to recuperate mentally, as well as physically.
One memory of that first visit to Lisbon was seeing my instructor, Victor Estima, in action. I was surprised that he seemed happy to engage in conversation with fellow competitors waiting in the bullpen. At the time, I thought he would do better to ignore his contemporaries and pay more attention to his upcoming fights. Taking a relaxed approach certainly didn’t do him any harm though. He walked away from the event as European champion. In retrospect, it was a perfect example of how to shift focus.
While we may aspire to have the honed psychological skills of a jiu jitsu champion, bear in mind that these things take practise. Every time you put yourself in a performance environment, it’s an opportunity to refine your focus. And you can learn by trial and error. But if you want to accelerate your mental performance, it helps if you are intentional about it and work on it every time you train. Remember, awareness is half of the battle!
Dr Rebecca Hill is a Sport and Exercise Psychologist chartered by the British Psychological Society, and an Education Adviser at the University of Exeter. She is also a BJJ black belt competitor under Professor Victor Estima.