Chapter 5 – Short term mental preparation techniques for tournaments


This chapter focuses on the most effective medium and short-term mental preparation techniques to handle the tournament environment. Although these methods can be used separately from long-term strategies, they are more effective when combined. The methods are grouped in the following manner:

  1. Days (weeks) before the tournament
  2. Right at the tournament

1. Days (weeks) before the tournament

1.1 Train with mental rehearsal

The most challenging aspect of tournament preparation is simulating the impact of the event itself. While practicing your tournament-specific technique set can be done at the club, the familiar environment and low stakes bouts are unlikely to induce the same physiological conditions as a tournament will. In order to have a working solution developed, you need to step into that state more frequently than every 2-3 months, what is the typical frequency of competition events one enrols to when in competition stream. That is when mental rehearsal can be useful.

Vividly rehearsing an event can activate the same pathways in the brain, triggering the same physiological changes in the body as the live event. This knowledge is already actively employed in phobia treatment using AR/VR. But until a digital solution is built for competition scenarios, you’ll need to use your imagination. A bit more demanding process, but the picture is sharper, the scenarios are richer, and you can jump in and out of the scenes just by blinking your eye.

The aim is to replicate the physiological conditions of a tournament so that you can employ your self-scanning and soothing techniques to stay within fight mode. Active emotional involvement (associated rehearsal) is required, as opposed to watching yourself like on a recording (disassociated rehearsal), which won’t provide you with self-regulation training opportunities. Emotional involvement is evident based on how reluctant you are to do it, as it’s just as uncomfortable and daunting as the actual competition day is.

Feel free to use the following guideline. Imagine:

  • You arrive at the building, you can hear the muffled noise of the crowd and it becomes more distinct as you get closer. Do you feel the changes in your chest, fist, legs, face, etc.?

  • You change your clothes, locate your first bout and check if your schedule is on track. You’ll be on in about an hour. How has your condition changed knowing that compared to when you walked in?

  • Your bout is coming up. You will be called in for weighting, ID checks, etc. Check your fist for changes in physical condition. Do you find the grip to be stronger, weaker, stiffer, or the same?

  • As you walk towards your bout, messages start to come from deeper. What are they saying? Are they supportive or doubtful? Are they anything similar to this:
    ‘I coulda been a fisherman. Fishermen, they get up, they fish, they sell fish, they smelt fish. Reminds me of this girl I used to go with, Yvonne, she smelled like fish. ‘ – Ford Fairlane. Anyway, take notes on them for the thought process practices (Chapter 4,6), they’re likely part of a more complex belief system you’ll try to uncover.

  • When you arrive at your bout, your opponent is there, and you both take a glance, perhaps even a nod. Now you have their physical size, and your Amygdala takes the initial measure for their assertiveness, immediately sending the physiological response based on the danger score it calculated. Whatever it is, you have an estimated 30 seconds to 5 minutes until you’re called onto the mat. This is your window to adjust.

  • Test your physical power by clenching your fist, test your agility by jumping. Try to identify the type of stress response you deal with and the scores that led to it. That keeps your head above the water and confirms to your brain that you are aware and in control. If you need, you can add breathing techniques (link can be found in the Further reading section), or muscle relaxation techniques (discussed later in this chapter). This last minute window on the live competition is what often mistakenly associated with the entirety of competition preparation. It might be clear by now that the techniques employed here are only effective if they are part of a comprehensive preparation plan.

For those who have a social or stage anxiety to deal with on the top of the challenges of the combat stress itself, the practice can be started by watching competition recordings (disassociated rehearsal), possibly from the same location as the upcoming tournament. This will help become familiar with the crowd, the location layout, the pace of the events etc., and decrease the anxiety derived from the circumstances themselves.

Note: The risk of mental rehearsal is to slip into daydreaming because that requires much less mental effort. The brain tends to lean towards it or escape to it for a break. For example, if you rehearse walking toward your bracket and start high-fiving everyone you walk past, you likely daydream, as in reality, that’s not the most likely thing that would happen.

1.2 Decrease the weight of the fight

As the date of the tournament closes in, the pressure of the fights, especially the first bout, increases; and the fighters tend to cling on the potential result as if their entire future depends on it. Understandable but counterproductive. The unnecessary stress this tendency produces likely pushes the one’s condition toward the inhibited state and the performance suffers badly.

By zooming out and seeing the end goal of the entire competition journey, the upcoming fight takes on a new perspective. Be mindful of your original objectives, why you started competing, where you are now, and where you want to go. Putting the upcoming fight in the context of the full journey helps to evaluate its importance. In essence, each bout is only one step in your journey towards where you want to be, whether it’s increasing your win rate, improving your resilience, or polishing your combat persona. A stumble now will not defeat you. In the game of personal growth, there is no such thing as ‘now or never’; it’s a continuous journey of small upcoming steps with an open end.

That includes the World Championship as well, as objectives there are several WC events, several years to attend, and several medals given at these events. So looking beyond your competition carrier toward your entire growth journey, the questions are as follows:

  • Is this next fight really that exceptional compared to all the other ones I had?
  • Is this fight going to transform my life and begin a new chapter next Monday morning?
  • Will I remember it at all 5 years later?

1.3 Spar with lighter people

To understand how your options change when your physical resources start to deplete, it’s crucial to practice fighting with reduced power. Due to the high fight/rest ratio in grappling arts (in Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu, it is 3-5 times even higher than in Judo or Wrestling), most fighters start to burn out after the first couple of minutes. To keep your chances high, you need to be trained to switch positions when a fruitless pushing/hugging starts. Switching positions means losing fluidity in the fight, though, so the brain needs to adapt to the sudden context change via regular practice.

Sparring with lighter people is a good way to practice transitioning from technique to technique. Instead of staying passive to avoid causing injuries (which is the choice of many fighters with small training partners), when you notice resistance from the partner, rather than trying to push it through, switch to a different technique. Your brain will pick up with the challenge and your game becomes more agile and diverse.

1.4 Visit another club for sparring

The different between sparring with strangers and sparring with friends cannot be understated. Your friends’ game is already familiar to your brain, which results in a significantly lower stress response. Especially if they are regular training buddies with a well-established practice routine between you. While in the case of a stranger, you fight with someone whom you don’t have any preconceptions about and who doesn’t care about your well-being.

Your opponent in the tournament does not have a social responsibility towards you since they are not members of your club (there is no social inhibition on their behaviour). They are not liable if your bone breaks accidentally (or ‘accidentally’). If the tournament is the first time you fight a stranger, you will be in for a shock. To get a feel of what you will deal with at the competition, visit another club for a couple of sessions and spar with people who are new to you.

Having the full experience of fighting with strangers upfront also helps to familiarise yourself with who you are when under attack. It’s about getting to know your combat persona (whatever shape it is at that stage), to see what you can expect from your unconscious under pressure. It can be quite distressing seeing yourself becoming violent, shady or paralysed for the first time. You need to be aware of your shadow before you step into the arena, because they go with you.

1.5 put off social pressure

Due to the tribal nature of martial arts clubs, people often attempt to achieve more than just winning for themselves. They might shift their focus to serving the community, the club, the coach, and the sport itself. The amount of social pressure this adds to the game is massive. Depending on the level of one’s own natural neuroticism, it can be a complete performance killer.

To avoid that, keep in mind that this is your own self-development journey, a process of your own self-actualization. Your goal was to grow, become more, and stand out from the crowd. You started it for your own future, not for others, not for the club, not for sport. While gratitude is the most powerful positive emotion, and is usually well-deserved by the people who help you train, it should not be confused with emotional debt. You don’t owe your coach or the community.

You paid for the space with money, with respect and trust for the teaching, and with favours and care for the community. The gold is exclusively for you.

Next: Preparation right at the competition environment

About the author

What Is Truth (WIT)

What Is Truth is a creative collective of writers, martial artists and mentors with a progressive view on combative arts and personal growth.