Calming the nerves before my first Jiu Jitsu match 

5 ‘inner game’ techniques that helped me stay calm, relaxed and focused in the lead up to my first BJJ match.

I don’t usually get nervous before an event.

It’s more a sense of anticipation for the adventure ahead than anything else, and when it comes to running, the longer the event the longer you have before the challenging stuff really begins.

Yesterday was different though, as I was taking part in my first Brazilian Jiu Jitsu competition where things get very real very quickly!

I’ve been training a couple of times a week for about 6 months now, and thoroughly enjoying the journey so far.

The Beginner’s Mind

In particular I’ve loved being a beginner, where everything is new and I have no expectations or preconceptions.

In Zen Buddhism, ’beginner’s mind’ is the concept of applying the same relentless curiosity, openness and readiness to learn, even when we’re at a more advanced level.

This is something I’ve taken away from my time in BJJ so far.

Yesterday, right up to about an hour before my first match I felt completely calm and wasn’t even really thinking about what might be ahead.

Just enjoying the atmosphere of this new environment.

Fear and doubt

That all changed as soon as I started watching some of the other matches, with everybody sitting around the outside of the mat cheering their guy / girl on.

I quickly realised how important my inner game was going to be.

Questioning my readiness, worrying about making a fool out of myself, flailing around like a six year old, the fear of getting hurt…

(A couple of matches before mine one of the other guys from my club broke his wrist, which didn’t help that particular story!)

As I noticed these thoughts flooding into my mind I centred myself by refocusing on my intention for the day.

All I wanted was the experience

It didn’t matter if I won or lost, if it went to the full 5 minutes or was over in seconds.

I just needed to show up, step on the mat and enjoy whatever followed.

Winning would be awesome, but I wasn’t relying on that particular outcome to take away a positive experience.

The guy I was up against could have been far more experienced and skilled than me, stronger, faster, fitter, more mobile…

I couldn’t control any of these things.

All I control was how I showed up.

As it turned out, the guy was a little heavier than me but at the end of the 5 minutes the judges deemed that I had the better of him so I won!

I won my next match as well (see video) – the guy started out at a fierce rate and had me in all sorts of trouble but he seemed to burn himself out and I ended up on top with him tapping to stop.

I lost my 3rd match on the judges decision, which I didn’t disagree with as I’d spent a fair chunk of the the 5 minutes squashed into his sweaty beard!

5 focuses for the inner game 

Afterwards I thought about some of the specific things I did to stay calm and focused.

1) Breathe

A really simple one that any of us can do in times of stress or pressure: breathe deeply.

Stress activates the fight or flight part of our nervous system, and whilst I didn’t want to entirely disarm this I also didn’t want it to create unwanted tension give negative thoughts more energy.

One of the physical responses to stress is to hold tension in the belly and make the breathing more shallow.

By consciously relaxing and taking a number of deeper breaths right into the belly, it has an incredible calming effect.

2) Anticipate and Acknowledge

When I did the 100 mile ultra last year I knew that there were going to be tough times where I would question what on earth I was doing.

But I also knew that it was these moments of questioning that I was looking for in the challenge.

I wanted to know what kind of answers I could come up with when I was asked those questions.

Even without expectations or preconceptions, I knew that at some point yesterday I would experience negative doubts and worries.

So when the questions started I acknowledged them as part of the process and was able to move beyond.

So often we get thrown off balance by worries, doubts and anxiety.

But they can also provide the resistance to push against that helps us grow.

3) Reaffirm intent

I knew that my ideal state to be in was to be relaxed, confident and calm.

As I noticed the stress building up in my body as the moment got closer, I reminded myself of who and how I wanted to be.

I think I even said the words ‘change state’ to myself which was like flicking a switch.

Decide in advance how you want to show up, and have a clear definition of what those things look and feel like.

4) Routine

One thing I noticed with many of the other competitors was the lack of warm up routine going into their matches.

Injury potential aside, for me the routine of physically preparing my body is also a great way to prepare my mind.

It takes me away from negative thoughts and into my body.

Paying attention to my movement, feeling the strength in some areas of my body, tightnesses in others.

This was the basis of the ‘movement and mindfulness’ session I delivered at a school recently.

Although it’s not intuitive to most of us having it as an intention is the start point for progress.

5) Focus on what you CAN do and not what you can’t

The mind has a bias towards negativity.

When I noticed myself doubting my ability, how unready I was or how I didn’t know enough, I drew my focus back to my areas of competence.

I couldn’t consciously tell you how to get into a side control position.

By we have practiced it enough times in training that I trust my brain knows how to communicate that information to my body, should the opportunity arise.

I grounded myself with the belief that I didn’t need to know everything in order to step on the mat and compete.

I was already enough.

The Experience

Winning my first match was a fantastic experience.

But the biggest thing I took away from it was solidifying my inner game.

I’ve never broken it down like this before, and even just by writing it down like this I can see how applicable it is to so many other areas of life.