If you want to drive the plane,
you have to master the cockpit.unknown
During a fight — be it casual or competitive — everything from the muscles, circulation, joint conditions, stamina and the central processor (the brain) is a weapon used to secure us a winning position. But from all of these, the brain is the single strongest weapon one can have. That’s because all our techniques, game plan, motivation, emotional resilience and even muscle memory are in our brains.
At the core of every preparation is the fact that the body does what the brain tells it to do.
At the beginning of one’s martial art journey, it makes sense to focus on technique as well as improving the body. But as one progresses further, having some tournament experience, there will be a roller coaster of outcomes, where the main question becomes how to win more and hurt less.
Higher belts especially face a more and more competent crowd, where winning is no longer a question of knowing more tricks. The strict graduation system almost guarantees that the opponents have very similar technical knowledge. To win there, one will need to use their entire fighting arsenal.
Everything you take on the mat — including thoughts, feelings, beliefs, in whatever state — will have an impact on your performance.
At this point in your competition journey, you will need to strategically manage your brain alongside your body to see success. Otherwise winning will continue to be the question of waiting for a good mood and a weak opponent.
Born to win or grown to win?
Regardless of all the similar looking legends within the community, there is not one single personality type that is born to be a champion. Behind every winner, there is a great skill match with the martial art chosen — be it a conscious or an unconscious choice — and a smart workaround to cover the skills that are missing.
Winning is a strategy.
Now, this is especially good news if you have ever been told that you need to be “bigger, stronger, more persistent, more confident,” basically someone else, to win. These are all clichés in the world of martial arts, doing more harm than good by implying that other types are inherently inadequate.
Anyone who has ever won a round of poker with a pair of 3 knows well that it’s not the cards you have, but how you play those cards.
Note: To introduce the main components of a winning strategy for grappling art, such as Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu, we use the Tournament Preparation Model for Grappling Arts® (Ydus, 2022).
What are those cards?
Cards, in this context, refer to our personality, mental skills and the capabilities of the brain. We are mainly born with these cards, while they manifest is usually depends on environmental impacts. As unorthodox as it sounds, physical cards are less relevant in tournament performance, especially with weight divisions where you’re matched with similar body mass. Technical readiness is of course a topic and will be mentioned where relevant, but that’s not why we’re here.
We’re here because to win with our natural cards, we have to know what game they are most suited to and how they compare to others’ in that game. Most importantly, we need to learn how to work around them when they’re less than ideal for our chosen martial art. That’s the goal: to build an appropriate and efficient mental training practice to improve our tournament win rate. The chapters of this series present an educated, well-researched program on how the human brain works during combat, how it drives the body into certain directions and how we can fine-tune the body-brain relationship for success.
The nature of mental training
You’ll learn from the chapters of this series that tournaments have their own very specific psychology. This psychology is often referred to as “performing under pressure”, most commonly mentioned and/or researched in the context of first responders, elite athletes, or trauma survivors.
What is common in those areas is the fact that, for the brain, being attacked on the street or on a mat is the same. There is no technical difference to them other than the intention of the opponent. But regardless of the intention, the brain knows that clashing bodies can result in injuries, which is why treating on-mat and off-mat situations the same is absolutely correct. Accordingly, the mental state and its physical implications, which define the performance and the outcome of the combat, show the very same dynamics on-mat and off-mat.
The brain’s going to tell the body what to do, and it’s going to do so without our conscious will having a say in it. Tournaments are a playground for the deeper layers of the brain and the personality cards that you might have no understanding of just yet.
Note: We’re using the Big Five Aspects Scale — available on understandmyself.com) — to communicate the concept of personality cards. If you haven’t completed the assessment yet, you’ll be prompted to do so during Chapter 1. The cost will be refunded.
is meditation a topic?
Nope. Meditation, the most commonly used tool for mental training, comes with terms and conditions. Its results often rely on having a pre-existing, well-formed habit of meditation from childhood. This is often seen in eastern cultures, in which meditation is a great tool for pre-combat preparation to improve tournament performance.
It is highly uncommon in western cultures, however. For a western fighter learning to meditate from scratch as an adult, it would take 10 to 20 years to master the art. This path can be as long as the path to mastering one’s chosen martial art. Basically, the natural self-development that occurs during training would get one to the same place in the same time.
In some European cultures, there is a practice called active imagination, which is similar to meditation. It also requires years to master, so is not a mainstream tool for honing self-awareness. What western cultures can offer for mental training, though, is brain science. Performing under pressure is a well-studied area. This series gathers all the most relevant parts that help build a successful competition journey.
Note: The number of clichés this series will bust will be something to deal with in and of itself, but the self-awareness you’re leaving with will make it all worthwhile.
who is it for?
This series is most relevant for grappling art, especially Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu fighters, and regular competitors who plan to build up their competition profile and improve their tournament win rate. Those who already have a couple of tournaments in their pocket — and so have experienced performance fluctuation — can benefit from this series the most, due to already having an idea that there is a stronger force beyond the body.
It’s fair to say that there is not one single article, practice, or piece of advice that can change everything in one day. There are, however, milestone pieces that push you further down that road to gold than most of what you’ve done before. That’s what this series, The Brain and Combat: Brain Science in Grappling Competition, is aimed to be.
what’s in this series?
The Brain and Combat: Brain Science in Grappling Competition series consist of 7 meticulously crafted chapters, each containing a selection of information needed to understand and act on the given topic. All of the chapters include exercises, take-home tasks, or further readings. While most parts of this series will introduce some theoretical background, the chapters overall are designed to be practical and to create change in your thought processes, your combat responses, and your tournament win rate.
Format: text, illustrations, downloadable sheets and links to corresponding sources.
The chapters are best read chronologically, as they build upon one another. However, advanced readers, who are familiar with brain science models and mental training concepts, can jump into a single chapter and will be able to gain relevant insight.
Chapter 1. – WINNING CARDS VS. WINNING STRATEGY in martial arts
- The concept of winning
- Winning cards: What makes someone a winner in a certain martial art
- Your cards: Get your numbers and compare
- The how to win strategy: The Tournament Preparation Model for Grappling Arts® (Ydus, 2022)
chapter 2. – understanding and developing confidence for winning
- What confidence is, and what it is not
- How the brain builds confidence with ‘proof of done’
- The impact of the cognitive layer – your thoughts, creativity
- The impact of the limbic layer – your emotions, beliefs, behavioral patterns
- The impact of the basal layer – your basic functions, instincts
Chapter 3. – at THE grappling competition – changes in the brain and the body
- What you have on the map in a grappling competition
- Stage 1: Opponent evaluation
- Stage 2: Consequent body changes
- Stage 3: Aftermath rationalisation
- Example fight scenarios: tournament performance with different personality cards
Chapter 4. – long term mental PREPARatIon techniques for tournaments
- Performance training for recollection and responsiveness
- Early warning system (freeze and flight reaction) regulation
- General emotion regulation
- Motivation, belief system adjustment
Chapter 5. – short term mental PREPARatIon techniques for tournaments
- Performance training days (weeks) before the tournament
- At the tournament, managing the competition environment
Chapter 6. stuck on the silver plateau – mental training to get the gold
- Introducing the ‘saturation graph of life’
- Differences in competing in ‘competent crowd’
- Possible roads from the plateau
- Revisiting motivation and mental training for progressing
Chapter 7. GROWING AFTER FALLING – building mental toughness after setbacks
- The martial art runway
- The biology of loosing
- Mental resilience strategy
- Support network formation
- Reappraisal practice
The chapters of The Brain and Combat: Brain Science in Grappling Competition series contain the information a fighter needs to know about mental preparation for grappling competitions — from what happens inside to making it manifest as a gold outside.
Author’s note: The chapters are kept relatively concise, and are accordingly dense in terms of content. You might revisit them from time to time and find new values in between the lines. Good luck and hats off to you all who step in the arena! You are heroes! Take all that you learned here with you!
The information and the resources available for download are meant to help you identify the areas in your life and in your thinking that may be preventing you from achieving your goals. It is not a substitute for professional mental health care or medical advice, diagnoses, or treatment. For more details, please read the full Disclaimer.