Training Mental Toughness

I think every workout on and off the mat has or should have a goal. Whenever I drill or train jiu jitsu / judo, my goal is rarely “go so hard that you test the limits of your cardio”. I’m a big believer in the power of technique, and so my goal for a training session usually revolves around improving some specific aspect of my game through drilling or positional sparring.

But I like to test myself in competition, and the experiences I’ve had recently have been very sobering. It’s not about winning or losing, I won most of my blue belt matches. It’s about what was going on in my mind. And that’s where I feel I’ve been failing myself, or at least failing the big overarching goal of my martial arts journey of becoming a strong-willed human being.

I won’t go into the psychological aspects of my weaknesses on and off the mats. I will summarize it in the following simplistic way that I’m too often the gazelle in the following picture and not often enough the lion:

I know exactly how to overcome these weaknesses, it’s to push myself to the limit in training (on the track or on the mat) and then not quit. But there’s more, I can’t allow the voice that tells me to quit even begin to take hold. It’s hard for me to admit this crap, but I’m very aware that I have something like panic attacks on the mat when the going gets real tough. They are rare, but they arise during the toughest matches, when I believe for whatever reason that I absolutely have to win, and it seems that there is no way I can win.

Training mental toughness is the most difficult part of preparing for competition because there is simply no way around going through hell. I can drill techniques all day, have fun with it, and improve dramatically without ever truly stressing myself mentally. But I can’t do that when the goal is to improve mental toughness. That requires something like suffering, controlled and incremental but suffering nevertheless. There’s no way around that.

I believe that I’m very tough in terms of long term pressure. So you can drop me in the middle of a desert and I will find my way back. But I’m not nearly as good with short term pressure. So with something like waterboarding I probably wouldn’t last very long. Those are just extreme examples, but I’m trying to make a point about what I need to improve.

That’s the biggest hole in my game right now, and as always, acknowledging it is the first step to getting rid of it.

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