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The Mental Game of My First Year Back in Brazilian Jiu Jitsu

Paul Herzog

On February 16th, 2011, I stepped back on the mat for a workout for the first time in 15 years. Most of that time away had been spent sitting in front of a computer or television, eating poorly, drinking beer and Mountain Dew. At least I quit smoking.

Needless to say, it's been 12 months full of changes, sweat, frustration, and triumph. On that first day, I could barely get through the first five minutes of the warm-up, and could do neither 20 pushups nor 20 situps. I'm in better shape than I was, to be sure. But I hope the more valuable growth has been in my mental discipline. Here's what I've learned:

1) The Competition Is With Yourself

In an individual sport, where you partake in physical combat to defeat someone else, this sounds strange. But since Brazilian Jiu Jitsu is a physical endeavor, I can only be as good as my body will let me. One year ago, I was much farther gone than anyone else in class when it comes to conditioning, and even though I've lost 35 pounds and gained strength, I still have a long way to go. There are a couple of students just slightly better off than I am; most of the class is still an Olympian compared to me.

Therefore, I'm not really competing against anyone else, because I'm starting from so far back in the pack. A white belt in good shape will be able to outlast, and eventually beat me. My competitive drive and improvement has to be against the last time I was on the mat. Am I better at keeping my breathing relaxed? Is my technique improving? Am I incorporating what I learned in the previous class? Am I more aware of what moves my opponents are doing to me, and successfully countering them? Did I do better against an opponent than I did the last time we sparred?

2) Everyone Else is Improving Too

I've been viewing my training as a race, in a way, between my body and everyone else's mind. I have a good head for the technical details of the sport, both from my training years ago, and how I see things in general (I'm an engineer at my day job). My tests are all good, and my instructors consistently comment that I'm doing things correctly. My problems mostly stem for my body not reacting how my brain is telling it to.

The guys who are in good shape may not see the sport the way I do. They don't remember names of techniques, and the details in the weeks and months after a move is taught. But they're learning with the same quality of instruction that I get. They care about the sport and want to improve, just as I do. It's easier for them to execute the technique as a good athlete, than for me to improve my athleticism after years of neglecting it. If I was a yellow belt losing to white belts stronger than me, why shouldn't I be a green belt losing to those same guys as yellow belts?

3) The Most Important Thing is to Keep Moving

When I'm tired, the natural reaction is to stay in one place and rest. During a Brazilian Jiu Jitsu sparring session, my resting positions are normally in bottom side mount (where my defense against submissions is good), and on the off-chance I can get an advantage, top side mount (where I can use my weight effectively). If I'm safe, I take advantage of the opportunity to catch my breath. But is that the best thing for my improvement?

I owe it to myself, and to my instructor taking the time to work with me, to use every second. I should be more willing to try something and fail at it than stay safe. If my escape from bottom side mount to guard means I leave space for my opponent to take the top mount... that's worse strategically, but better than staying where I was when it comes to my improvement as a Brazilian Jiu Jitsu fighter. Not only am I giving myself a chance to learn from mistakes, but I'm burning calories and building endurance.

I find myself getting frustrated more and more often at my progress...or what I believe to be my progress. My biggest enemy isn't the opponents who keep defeating me. It's my mind, giving me unrealistic expectations. Should I be as good as other people at my belt rank? Shouldn't I be able to beat other people at lower rank than I? What if I keep losing to everyone when I reach blue belt, purple belt, and beyond? What if everyone in the school thinks I'm some joke who keeps passing belt tests but can't do anything when the time for action comes?

What I've learned in the last 12 months is my most important lesson - the answer to each of those questions is, "Who cares?" It is not up to me to determine if I "deserve" my belt and am worthy of representing the school in that way. All I can do is work as hard as I can and do my best to improve. Keeping that positive attitude and the negative thoughts away is a difficult mental game, as least as tough as anyone I've sparred with.

Paul Herzog and his son Christopher have been taking judo and Brazilian Jiu Jitsu instruction at Petushin Martial Arts since the new Rosemount, Minnesota facility opened in 2010. In addition to receiving some of the best grappling instruction in the Midwest, Paul has lost over 35 pounds, and Chris has gained strength and self-confidence. If either of those sounds appealing, please contact the academy at 612-991-9116 or go to to arrange your first visit!

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