By Dr Rebecca Hill
What is the single biggest factor in your BJJ performance? Quality teaching? Fitness? Diet? Sure, all of these are important, but without one vital element there is nothing else. That element is motivation.
Motivation provides the impetus for doing jiu jitsu in the first place. Without it, there is no mat time, no will to develop your skills, no drive to compete. You could have access to world-class instructors but without motivation, you wouldn’t even be in the dojo to benefit from their expertise. You could have the very best strength and conditioning programme but without motivation you won’t bother to follow it. Motivation has a massive effect on the choices we make about our jiu jitsu practice.
Inspirational quotes that appear in social media would have you believe that it’s all about how motivated you are, that it’s all about quantity. But more important than that is the quality of motivation. If we really want to reap the benefits, we need to pay attention to what motivates us – why are we doing what we’re doing?
One of the key driving forces behind motivation is competence. We want to be good at what we do. We want to be successful. Why else would we put so much energy into getting better? But what does it mean to be successful? And how do we decide whether we are competent?
While we all want to do well in jiu jitsu, we can define achievement in different ways. Sometimes we feel successful when we win. Sometimes we feel successful when we learn something new or make personal progress. Psychologist Andrew Elliot used the term performance goal to describe a focus on how we do compared to others, while an emphasis on self-improvement is a mastery goal.
When we have a performance goal, and we do better than others, we feel competent. We enjoy our sport, continue to put in effort and perform well in the short term. And you probably don’t become a world champion without wanting to be on top of the podium. However, with a performance goal, confidence and self-esteem can be fragile, mainly because of the limited opportunities to feel competent.
Take the World Championships as an example. Each year, there are a total of 17 opportunities for elite level competitors to demonstrate that they are the best. Beyond a shadow of a doubt, these champions can rightly feel competent in BJJ. Unfortunately, if we only define competence as ‘winning’, this must mean that the remaining 336 black belt men and women in the Worlds 2012 are by definition not ‘competent’ despite putting on amazing displays of jiu jitsu. Maybe this is just the nature of the game, and initially falling short of your target can be what’s needed to give you that extra motivation to work just that little bit harder. But even the most mentally tough athlete is bound to question him or herself in the face of such apparent ‘failure’.
We need to pay attention to the long-term effects of a strong performance goal. Sport psychology research shows that performance goals are associated with negative consequences such as competitive anxiety, fear of failure, low self-esteem, a willingness to cheat, withdrawal of effort in the face of failure, and ultimately a dropout from sport. In short, a sole focus on how we are doing compared to others can be problematic. Mastery goals, on the other hand, usually lead to positive outcomes: Effort, persistence, enjoyment, confidence, pro-social behaviour and, over the long term, better performance. Mastery goals are also linked with the belief that success is the result of hard work and effort. This growth mindset in turn encourages the dedicated practice necessary for great performance, and evidence shows that the most successful athletes have both performance and mastery goals. We can use their approach to help us to move beyond a single (and somewhat uncontrollable) end outcome, and make the most of the daily events that form the majority of our jiu jitsu practice.
When we also define success as improvement and personal progress, we can better enjoy the process of learning, consider mistakes as part of the journey, view competition as a challenge rather than a threat, and understand the massive role of effort in developing talent. There’s no need to forget the gold medal but next time you step on the mat, take a leaf out of the expert’s book, and ask yourself: “What is my win for today?” Ironically, you might just find that centering on the process means the results take care of themselves. In the words of Kenny Johnson, All-American wrestler and IBJJF World Championships gold medallist: “You’ve got to be able to stop and smell the roses. If you can’t, there’s absolutely no point in doing it.”
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 a black belt competitor under Professor Victor Estima and is a current European champion. Rebecca blogs about sport psychology and BJJ at