Very often, it’s only when tournament results repeatedly bring disappointment in spite of rigorous training, that mental blocks start to reveal themselves. At this stage, it’s not necessarily clear what the nature of the block is. The only thing that is certain is that it’s not related to the fighter’s technical knowledge or physical condition, nor their dedication to the sport.
This is all part of the natural progress in combative arts and the first advices for mental training soon start to come, likely being meditation or a spiritual practice. It becomes a true issue when these fail, as in most cases they do, and no further advice is given. The danger here is that a fighter who finds themselves in a cycle of tournament failure and unsolvable mental blocks is likely to give up the sport entirely, never reaching their tournament potential.
As with most things in life, the solution for mental blocks will be different for everybody, as the root cause of it is very personal. The depth of the cause is also differ from person to person: some people are luckier to have a quite shallow issue that can be overcome strategically, while others will need to dig deep into their core. To demystify the topic, find below a simplified model on the different depths that the performance block might stem from.
#1 – Skin deep – strategic level
In this case the block comes from merely a lack of personalised practice. Most clubs teach general techniques for people to cherry pick their favourites from and build up their game. Not only do you have to select the suitable techniques and transition variations yourself, but you then need to adapt these to your particular body type. For example, a weak ankle is no use in closed guards and so going for that control during tournament as a ‘basic move’ will bring poor result. The same approach applies to mental preparation. The sweeping advice to meditate will do nothing but annoy a person with high assertiveness. For one with high neuroticism, meditation will deliver constant disappointment due to their highly active thought processes.
Realising the specialties one is born with can lead to a smarter selection of techniques, the development of a more efficient game plan, and a more tailored mental preparation routine. This may involve research on your part, during which you will have to wade through hundreds of articles offering the same one-size-fits-all solutions before you find the gold you seek.
Note: Chapter 1 of the tournament preparation series is strongly focused on the ability of personalisation. If that chapter has already changed your approach to your learning, you’re probably good to go and jump ahead to Chapter 5.
#2 – Flesh deep – moderate self-work level
When you have a personalised game strategy in place, yet you keep losing your edge in critical situations, you likely have an unsupportive belief or thought pattern working behind the scenes. A surprisingly large number of fighters do realise these disruptive patterns, and may try to change or suppress them. The main misunderstanding here is that these thought patterns are just that – thoughts – when in reality they are verbalised feelings that come from much deeper than our comparatively surface-level thoughts. Because of this, trying to change these messages by simply thinking different things is not tackling the issue at the source.
This is a somewhat harder nut to crack than strategic level blocks. They usually require active self-improvement, either with the help of a therapeutic or coaching professional or alone with the help of structured guidance. In any case, reflecting inwards is required, so it’s accordingly demanding work. You will need a notable amount of emotional resource available, so you’ll have to find a way to fit the work into your life circumstances quite strategically.
Note: For self-motivated individuals, Chapter 2 of the tournament preparation series contains very relevant introduction to get a grip on the relevant mental processes, while Chapter 4 will deliver the practical advices.
#3 – Bone deep – serious self-work level
In some cases, the lack of tournament success is the tip of the iceberg. Rather, it is practically a symptom of an ongoing internal disturbance. This can be a discrepancy between the unconscious and the ego, or can be a reflection of long-term unmet needs, or the lack of adequate nurturing in your formative years. These are all very deep-running issues that require serious investments to tackle.
During competition, going out with this baggage is like walking against 100km/hour wind. It will slow you down, make you tired, and just stepping out to fight will likely cost you more than the fight itself.
In these cases, martial arts is not simply a side-hustle, but the main facilitator for connecting to the deeper levels of your person to change your life dramatically. These issues are fundamentally tackled with a combination of personal efforts (on and off the mat) and with some form of therapeutic help, which requires high dedication and good availability of emotional resources.
While you tackle these issues, competition life doesn’t have to be put on hold. It can, in fact, act as a mirror for your self-improvement and the fuel to keep you going. In order to increase your success in tournaments, and the rewards you gain from competing, the first step is to figure out the quintessence of human dynamics in the competition environment; the understanding will grow from there to other aspects of life. That is why I’m a big fan of martial arts: they’re a rich soil to grow in, even for the smallest of seeds.
This simplified model of the potential depth of mental blocks aims to demystify the required self-work and the nature of the mental training required. In summary, wining can be achieved by any dedicated student who takes the time to approach martial arts with curiosity, and look beyond the one-size-fits-all advices repeated all too often in dojos and online.