Words: Matt Jardine Picture: Daniel Briseno
In life there are certain ‘unshakeable truths’: In science – ‘what goes up must come down’, in relationships – you will, at some point, say the ‘wrong thing’ to your partner. In BJJ – if you compete regularly, you will, sooner or later, lose.
It is said that we learn more from our losses than we do from our wins and whilst this may be true, for many it is not inevitable. Losing can be a deeply problematic and negative experience; just sit in the crowd of any tournament and witness the disappointment, anger, tears and grief from many leaving the mat after a loss.
Effort is required if we are to use our losses as a positive learning experience.
Why does losing make us feel so uncomfortable?
Although there may seem to be many and varied reasons for ‘losing badly’, the key causes are much more fundamental. Humans, in evolutionary terms, are designed to survive. This may take the ‘romance’ out of life a little but it is ultimately what we are all about- trying to survive long enough to pass on our genes and prolong our legacy.
Our brains are ‘hardwired’ to keep us alive by warning us of danger and to either fight (if annihilation of the threat is almost 100% certain) or run and hide (if you are way out of your depth and need to exit fast!). This process is governed by the Threat and self-protection system (the sympathetic nervous system) of our brains and involves the amygdala (feel free to use these terms on the mat during academy trivia chat!).
The sympathetic nervous system is designed to pick up on threats and gives us signals; bursts of feelings such as anxiety, anger or disgust. These are very often the same sort of emotions you will see from ‘losers’ at tournaments. Fundamentally then, when we lose we are feeling threatened, in danger and as if our very existence is ‘on the line’. Being the ‘worst’ in a group sets off alarm bells. There is an old joke in regard to survival that says, ‘you don’t have to run faster than the wolf. You just have to run faster than your friend!’ Funny, but not if you are the one at the back!
This process has been in place since the beginning of human kind in a time when life was fraught with genuine risk. Thankfully, most of us reading this do not live lives of such threat (I bow and nod acknowledgement to those who do live such lives.) For the most part, the ‘dangers’ have changed as our modern lives have become socialised.
Meeting Mr. Maslow
Abraham Harold Maslow was an American psychologist best known for his ‘Hierarchy of Needs’ model. In short he said that humans need, and sequentially work toward, a number of achievements in order to thrive.
According to Maslow, there are five levels, ranging from the first; biological and physiological needs – air, food, drink, shelter, warmth, sex, and sleep; to the fifth, self-actualisation needs – realising personal potential, self-fulfillment, seeking personal growth and peak experience. Nestled in between, at number three, are the needs that concern us as potential losing competitors: social needs – belongingness, affection and love from work group, family, friends, and romantic relationships.
One of our greatest fears and dangers in modern times is of ‘letting the side down’. Watch those who have lost; very often they will hang their heads in the chests of their coaches or look toward friends and family in the crowd with a look of ‘shame’. It is sad to see but all too familiar. Our self-protection system responds to these social threats in the same way it responds to physical ones. Being ousted from the social circle and losing love, warmth and affection is as dangerous to survival as being hunted by a lion.
Moving Beyond ‘Survival Systems’
Knowing that our reactions to loss may be a very natural protection process is all well and good, but how can we move forward and ‘learn to lose’ well?
Tip one: BJJ and Hemingway
The first step is best explained by a quote from the great Earnest Hemingway: “If something is wrong, fix it if you can. But train yourself not to worry. Worry never fixes anything”.
This first tip on the path of ‘learning to lose’ is a vitally important one. Competitors are by nature competitive. Many are perfectionists and, for whatever reason, are relentlessly hard on themselves. The voice of our inner critic will not fail to rebuke mistakes whilst being more than slow coming with self-praise. This is a habit we must try and break for our own peace of mind.
The simple truth is this: you are who you are at this moment in time. If you could be different (fitter, faster, stronger longer), you would be. That fact that you aren’t means, at the moment, you can’t!
So relax. Accept it. Stop fighting it. Be kind to yourself.
This isn’t to say that we shouldn’t strive to be better – of course we should; this is why we show up at the academy every week, but it is healthier to learn to accept our weaknesses and work with them positively rather than routinely chastising ourselves for not yet being ‘something’ or ‘someone’ we would rather be.
Tip two: Hunt the Silver Lining
In the face of a loss it is easy to get swept away in negative emotion where nothing feels positive. Friends, family and coaches may suggest you ‘look on the bright side’ but, right now, it is almost impossible to take this advice – certainly whilst you are still smarting from your loss. These are the steps to successfully following tip two:
· Be on your own for a little while – get away from the crowds.
· Grab a coffee, water, listen to music- whatever makes you feel a little calmer.
· After five minutes, with pen and paper, force yourself to find three positive things from your match and write these down.
Now, your inner critic may resist this effort at being positive. Don’t let it. As a competitor you are used to adversity, so stop whining and force yourself to find three positive things from your match. This gets easier with practise, but you must practise.
Tip three: Tipping the Table
The first two tips have hopefully helped you to be a little easier on yourself and move you out of a ‘negative funk’ into a more amicable state of mind. This next tip deals with the learning experience of losing; after all, this is what we are after, learning from our losses.
At the start of this article we spoke of the fundamental fears surrounding a loss: the fears that create stress and, ultimately and perversely, cause us to under perform! Let’s review:
· Fear that we are in ‘real danger’ (Maslow’s first level of needs).
· Fear that we will lose our ‘social bonds’ (Maslow’s third level of needs).
These beliefs lie at the heart of our stress and resistance to loss and it is helpful to change these beliefs. Beliefs are like a table. Held up by ‘legs of evidence’ that help us to confirm their validity. Unfortunately, many of our beliefs are held up with legs of evidence that may not be true or, at least, are distorted.
For example, as a child without developed levels of discernment, if you are regularly told that you are ‘clumsy’ when learning physical skills you may well grow up to believe this as truth. This belief could then determine your skill level – a self-fulfilling prophecy. As an adult, with developed levels of discernment, you may well observe that, although you struggle with a new skill on the first few turns, this physical experimentation always leads to mastery a little further on. You may also realise that this teacher’s ‘insults’ are incorrect and unhelpful and treat him to an RNC!
In short: our beliefs may not be correct. Now that you are an adult, challenge them. Cut the ‘table legs’; those that are not helpful.
In regard to our fundamental fears then, ask yourself the following questions to get a more ‘realistic’ outlook on competition. Once you have the answers, spend time really considering them. The insights gained may well start to change your deep seated beliefs.
- Is your life really in danger from losing a BJJ match?
2. Will your coach, friends and family abandon you if you lose?
Tip four: ‘Tap’ Pollyanna
Pollyanna is a classic children’s novel where the central character (Pollyanna) is eternally optimistic. The name has latterly been borrowed for a term called the ‘Pollyanna principle’. It describes the tendency for people to remember the good, rather than the bad, in any given situation. Whilst tip two had us ‘hunting for the silver lining’, tip three, just as importantly, has us hunting for what we did badly!
As important as it is to be gentle with ourselves, understanding and positive, it does us no good to be a ‘Pollyanna’. Blind optimism is as dangerous to our progression as searing negativity. The recognition of our errors and subsequent efforts to improve on them is the keystone to development.
Recognising the weaknesses in our game does not have to be a self-criticising personal attack but an honest and mature assessment of where we are in relation to where we would like to be. Buy yourself a notebook and make a habit of regularly recording the positive and negatives of your matches. Remember, be objective rather than subjective.
Tip Five: Desensitisation
Our final tip of five brings us to a very effective technique in ‘learning to lose’. Desensitisation is the process of gradually submitting yourself to stresses so that you become accustomed to them and are no longer stressed by them! The great self development author, Susan Jeffers, explains it in the title of her book, ‘Feel the fear, and do it anyway!’
At London Zoo they have a program called the ‘friendly spider program ‘, for those with arachnophobia. At first, patients are shown photos of spiders, and then they see one in a box, then out of a box until the climax; the patient holding a fully mature Tarantula!
The lesson for us as BJJ competitors is to compete more! Compete regularly. Compete gi. Compete nogi. Compete at your academy comps. Compete at local comps. Compete at IBJJF’s. Just compete. A lot! Nothing will teach you to lose better than being in that situation again and again and again (obviously, do try and win if you can).
Of course, if after genuinely trying all of the above tried and tested tips you decide that you would rather find another way, there is one final option: train so hard, and get so good, that you never ever lose again!
Good luck with that…
Matt Jardine is a full time Martial arts teacher, writer and BJJ fanatic trying to learn to spell Berimblowo…