The Competitor's Mindset
Regardless of what it is a person chooses to compete in, there will always only ever be two predetermined outcomes for that competition.
There will be a winner, and there will be a loser(s).
For some, this is a harsher reality than it is for others, as their unwavering belief in themselves can cause their reaction to the latter outcome to not only impact their mental state, but also their ability to progress competitively in their chosen sport.
A lot of the time, a person’s reaction to winning or losing will be instinctual, and especially early in a competitive career, it’s likely that those instincts will be difficult to fight, even more so if they’re trying to get into a sport later in life.
**Well, later as in, past the age of about 7. That’s when “The Fear” tends to start creeping into a person’s social development. Usually, if someone starts training on or before this age, they don’t develop this same fear, as it’s just something they’ve grown up around and are accustomed to. This is most evident in grapplers, boxers, or any other type of competitive physical martial art.**
It is for this reason that it is my firm belief that before a person starts to compete in their chosen sport, they must first figure out why it is they want to compete.
Some important questions need to be asked, such as:
- What is it that you’re looking to achieve from this endeavour?
- How realistic are the goals you’re looking to achieve?
- What does success look like for you?
- And what support do you have around you to give the best possible chance at being successful?
If you’re able to answer each of these questions honestly, and still wish to compete, you will be well on your way to achieving the goals you set out for yourself.
So, you have your Why.
Now, let’s look at how to best approach competition.
Competition is quite possibly the longest standing human tradition in the modern world. Throughout the ages, through competition, a person has been able to learn a great deal about not just themselves, but the people around them also.
Josh Waitzkin is a chess prodigy, and a martial artist, who discusses at length the interesting concept of “entity” versus “incremental” forms of learning, when teaching chess to children in his book “The Art of Learning”.
The children who are classified as “Entity” learners, believe that their skill in chess is a natural and innate ability, pure talent, whilst the “Incremental” children believe that their skill has been acquired incrementally, step-by-step, through hard work and perseverance.
When Josh would teach, often he would give his students a seemingly impossible problem to solve, well beyond the skill level of any child, which nobody in their class could solve.
So all of the students would fail.
Then he would give them another, more manageable, problem after the impossible task. He would then observe the “Entity” classified children would struggle with this simpler problem. Through being posed a problem far above their current ability, they had been mentally broken, and had subsequently became unsure of themselves.
The incremental children, however, simply went back to work, slogging away at the newly posed task as they would any other, unencumbered by their inability to solve the previous complicated problem.
The Entity kids were frail, fragile, delicate.
When they lost, their faith in not just their ability, but in themselves, was shaken. The incremental kids, on the other hand, believed in the power of their labour, and just kept digging, even in the face of an insurmountable problem.
So, how do you overcome this reaction?
How is it that a you’re able to ensure that you don’t fall into the trappings of the “Entity” classification?
The answer is 3 very simple statements, but the practice is an accumulative lifelong lesson:
- Keep your Ego in check
- Invest in loss
- Remain a student
KEEP YOUR EGO IN CHECK
The most difficult fight a person is likely to face in their chosen sport, is the constant and insidious battle against themselves.
Confidence is an important tool for a fighter. Without it, they would have no drive to push themselves, or belief that they’re able to achieve what they have set out to do.
And humility is the only proven and guaranteed way for a person to build a real, lasting, and earned confidence in their chosen sport, especially so when it comes to fighting.
Ego, however, is the toxic mix of confidence and success. Ego is a dangerous personality trait to have, as with ego, you’re not building on a positive foundation, you’re simply feeding into a false idea of both yourself and your ability.
Unfortunately, when a person wins, it only serves to boost their ego further, as do other members of a sport’s community when that person wins. In fact, the supporters / fans of your chosen sport will likely give you the hardest time when you win, and if you continue to win, as they’re so heavily invested in the currency of ego themselves.
So, it’s highly likely that a person’s internal conflict with ego won’t just be against themselves, it will also be against their fans and their supporters.
Let’s face it, anyone is capable of competing, it’s an innate ability within us all. All it takes is a little skill, some luck, and an opportunity. But to sustain the willingness to fight, to remain consistent in training and competition, to be able to stay calm, normal, and relaxed when faced with the temptations of ego and success, that’s where the challenge really is.
False ideas about yourself can destroy you, as once that stack of Jenga blocks is toppled, if the foundation on which your confidence needs to be rebuilt isn’t reset, and solidified, its highly likely that you will struggle to rebuild that tower.
One of the oldest truisms in boxing is “Frustrate a puncher and he’ll fall apart.” A “puncher” in this instance being someone who simply hits hard. They have a big punch.
For them, this is a natural gift that coaching has very little impact on, as you can’t teach power. The puncher relies heavily on their powerful fists, they punch a person, that person goes down.
As the puncher progresses upward through the rankings, this reality is further and further reinforced. I hit them, they disappear. To the puncher, this is the law of the land. It’s set in stone.
Now this puncher gets their first title fight, their first real ‘big’ fight, and they hit their opponent, POW, but they’re still there. The champ is able to not just handle the punch, but they keep coming. The puncher hits them again, BOOM, but again, the champ is still there.
Now comes the puncher’s ordeal.
Do they go to pieces? Or do they double down and keep fighting on? Do they change up their game, and find another way to win, or simply fold under the pressure of their more seasoned opponent?
A good example of this is Francis Ngannou.
In only four years, he had not only joined the biggest MMA promotion on the planet, but the Cameroonian-born Frenchman had also finished all six of his UFC bouts leading up to his title fight, including producing one of the most terrifying one-punch knockouts in UFC history, when he sent the decorated veteran Dutch striker, Alistair Overeem, flying to the mat with a vicious uppercut in the second minute of their No. 1 contender bout at UFC 218 in December of 2017.
Ngannou’s hype train was at full speed in the press run up to UFC 220, where he had been billed as “the most feared man in mixed martial arts” due to his devastating punch power.
Then, what many had billed as the dethroning of quite possibly the greatest UFC Champion of all time, by one of the company’s biggest up-and-coming prospects, became quite the opposite. Miocic took the punches, all of them, he ate them up, and held the challenger to a unanimous decision Win.
Obviously, the fight was more complicated than this reductive telling, but those are essentially the CliffsNotes.
This loss had a very clear and present effect on Ngannou in his next fight also, which he also went on to lose, again by unanimous decision, to Derrick Lewis.
His loss to Miocic no doubt affected him, and it showed. He wasn’t who he thought he was. He was an “Entity”. He has since been able to get a further win under his belt, and looks as though both is strategy in the Octagon, and his mind set in general has improved greatly since his loss, and there’s no doubt that his trajectory was initially stunted from it, however now he’s using that loss to make adjustments, and improve.
Another great example of this is Ronda Rousey.
Rousey began her professional MMA career in 2010, after becoming the first American woman to medal in the judo event at the Olympics, taking bronze at the 2008 Olympic games.
A number of successful fights in both King of the Cage and Strikeforce, including a reign as the last ever Women's Bantamweight Champion in the promotion, Rousey signed with the UFC in 2012.
In the UFC, Ronda garnered a two-and-a-half-year undefeated streak, during which time she became the first ever female champion in UFC history, and still (at the time of writing) holds the record as the longest ever reigning Women's Bantamweight Champion in the UFC.
She became known for her explosive and dominant fighting style, typically characterised by first-round knockouts and her trademark armbar submission, and her aggressive, and egotistical, character outside of the octagon.
Over her two-and-a-half-year undefeated streak, and her six title defences, the world watched as everyone around her got better, but she remained mostly the same as a fighter. Since entering the UFC, her striking had improved somewhat, becoming semi-proficient with her jabs and knees, but only really enough to enable her judo.
However, by the time her seventh title defence came around, in November of 2015, she was so overly confident in her ability, that she believed she could stand and strike with her opponent, Holly Holm.
Holly is a multiple-time world champion in boxing, defending her titles 18 times in three weight classes, and a two-time Ring magazine fighter of the year (2005, 2006).
She's ranked by BoxRec as the third-best female professional boxer of all time. Yet, Rousey had become so complacent in her MMA career, and so falsely confident in her own ability, she believed herself Holly’s striking equal.
The result of this is widely regarded as one of the UFC’s biggest upset wins of all time, with Ronda receiving a head-kick early in the second round, knocking her to the ground, and TKO'ing her.
Ronda took this loss hard, spending over a year away from the UFC, before returning to challenge the new Bantamweight Champion, Amanda Nunes.
Having been out of the spotlight for so long, the UFC billed the fight as her triumphant return to the Octagon, with almost all promotional materials about the fight focusing on her, Nunes was largely dismissed in Rousey’s shadow. However, once the bell rang, it took only 48 seconds for the world to see what happens when the unrealistic expectations of an adoring fan base, meet the false confidence of a fighter.
Rousey was TKO’d, leaving the star in no uncertain terms about her future within the company, choosing to retire from the UFC shortly after to start a largely successful career in the WWE.
Martin Rogers summed up the loss when he said, “Even with all that time to recuperate and prepare, Rousey did not learn an effective jab, the first and most basic tenet of boxing, one of MMA’s core disciplines."
Despite her loss, she was unwilling to concede that she lacked in ability, that she would need to surround herself with people who pushed her to improve, not talk up the strengths she already had.
It was a tragic loss for MMA fans, and the UFC, as Rousey had been such a dominant competitor, all we’re able to do is speculate how great she could have been with a better team around her.
Ultimately, she had the personality of an “Entity”.
Her ability had been built on her talent, and with her team doing nothing to address the holes in her game, there was no way she could grow into a better competitor.
There is no substitute for time on the mat.
This was one of the first statements that stuck with me when I started training Brazilian Jiu Jitsu. It wouldn’t matter how many videos I watch, how many articles I read, how many outcomes I imagined, there is no substitute for actually practicing what it is you’re going to compete in.
That’s not to say that the other things don’t have an impact, because they do. But one proven remedy to an inflated ego is relatively simple, spending more time training, more time practicing with others, getting beaten by your team mates.
Not to mention, a solid remedy to competition anxiety, and not being present in the moment, is spending more time on the mats, forcing yourself to get comfortable with being uncomfortable. Developing your game. Honing your craft.
INVEST IN LOSS
Successful fighters are those who can find something that works incredibly well for them, but the great ones, true champions, are the those who can accept, understand, and rationalise their defeats, without allowing themselves be owned or defined by them.
Further into Josh’s book, “The Art of Learning”, he introduces the concept of being “present”.
In chess, the only sure-fire way for a person to win a game at the highest level is to maintain and increase the tension of the situation.
- Josh WaitzkinThe person who makes the first break, who releases the tension, it’s going to go against them, partly because they’ve broken the tension and now the other guy has the first move to exploit the new play dynamic.
This play style is aptly named “cat and mouse”, as the relationship between cat and mouse is analogous to any sport where one person is pitted against another.
When a cat stalks a mouse, the tension between the two begins to mount as the mouse sees the cat coming. They are frozen, each fixed in place by the stare of the other, but the cat is comfortable, the cat is relaxed in this tension, the cat is “present”.
The mouse is not, and it will leap first when the tension becomes unbearable. Therefore, the cat reacts with the advantage of seeing the direction the mouse opts to run, and is then able to capitalise on this advantage accordingly.
- Josh WaitzkinIf I have a slightly better position, and I’m improving my position, then all available tactics are hovering in the air like potential energy. I’m increasing the tension. And so are you. The tension mounts and there will come an inevitable explosion point, when the character of the game shifts. From abstract plans to precise calculations … usually whoever is in the worst position has to make that shift happen.
There is innate tension in any situation wherein one person finds themselves at odds with another individual. Be it a confrontation in a bar, a disagreement in a meeting with a colleague, or at the highest levels of competition.
This tension is what dictates the flow of an encounter, and a person’s ability to navigate the pitfalls presented as they traverse each slight change, every subtle move, and each of the challenges brought forth, will dictate who will ultimately be the cat (present), and who will subsequently be the mouse, in the exchange.
- Josh WaitzkinThe tension is mounting on your brain, and on mine, the complexities and wildness. In a big game against a world-class player it feels like your brain is in a vice. The stronger player is better able to maintain and be at peace with the tension … they convert it into peace.
This is what Josh means by “presence”.
- Josh WaitzkinIn the mounting tension, eventually it has to explode, and in that moment, everything hangs, you can be incredibly close to winning but also losing. Just a slight miscalculation or over-confidence can lose in that moment.
This goes for all types of competition.
It doesn’t matter if you’re competing in darts, if you’re wrestling with a guy, or even just playing a board-game like Settlers of Catan, the situation will remain the same.
Both / all players will either build or maintain the tension of the situation until someone is forced to break it.
Much like the “Entity” and “Incremental” learners, this isn’t something that can just be done, it needs to be developed, and the only real way of training your ability to be “present”, is to not just allow yourself to lose, but also be comfortable doing so.
Waitzkin’s Tai Chi teacher, the renowned William C. C. Chen, called this “investing in loss”, which essentially means that a person should be able to study their defeats without ego; To actively let defeats happen in practice and when trying new things, without reverting to old habits, and to then allow themselves to grow from it.
This is an essential skill for a fighter especially, as during a fight, they need to be able to understand and accept when they are losing, and change their game plan up accordingly, in order to win.
The reason that Francis Ngannou was able to get a win after his two previous defeats is in large part due to his re-evaluation of his fighting style, which he likely wouldn’t have invested in without the defeat suffered under Miocic.
Regardless of the sport, if you’re in the “Entity” category of learners, you’re going to be affected by loss. This could be a temporary setback, as it was for Ngannou, or it could prevent you from even training going forward.
It’s always worth taking stock before a competition, do your best, and if you lose, allow yourself to react, but also make time to evaluate the loss. To discuss it with a team mate, and ultimately learn from it.
With regards to fighting, the only place you’re always going to win is in the gym, when you’re training, because that’s where you get to define your criteria for success, which can be anything from improving an escape, firming up a control, or hitting variations of submissions, etc.
Essentially, when it comes to competition, if you don’t win, you should at least, in some respect, feel like you did.
REMAIN A STUDENT
"The only true wisdom is knowing you know nothing." - Socrates
It doesn’t matter how many titles you win, how many taps you get in a session, how many amateur or pro fights you have, you should always remain open to the opportunity of learning.
In Jiu Jitsu, there is a common trope in that you either get humble, or you get lost, which is borne from the disproportionate level of skill between those who are just starting their practice of the sport, and those who have done it for a considerable time.
If you aren’t humble enough to accept that you don’t know everything, that there are smaller people who are better than you, and that you will spend at least a year being the nail to someone else’s hammer, you simply won’t last in the sport.
That’s not to say that the sport is without ego, let’s face it, black belts can be dick heads too. But it should go without saying that if you’re able to make it through the initial gauntlet of the sport, you will have a much better appreciation for those around you, the level of skill that they have achieved, what they’re capable of, and where your weaknesses lie.
It is for this reason, that I would recommend having at least three people in mind when you approach training a chosen sport for competition.
- Someone more skilled than yourself.
- Someone at your skill level.
- Someone you’re more skilled than.
With this trifecta of training partners, you will be able to balance your training in such a way that you’re able to:
Have someone that can push you hard, who you have to work your ass off to simply defend against, someone that makes it difficult to survive the round.
This person should be the challenge you need to spot the holes in your game, your areas of weakness that need improvement, and the areas that should be focused on as a competition nears.
This person is your forge.
It’s their responsibility to break you down so that you can be built back up, stronger.
If your opponent has tape of you, or has seen you compete in the past, you can bet that they’ve no doubt seen these weaknesses, and they will likely be looking to exploit them when you face off.
I’m not saying that it would be wholly possible to close off these weaknesses relatively close to a competition, but having an awareness of them will likely take away their advantage over you, as you will be able to better spot attacks against this weakness, and possibly defend their attempts at exposing them.
Next up, have someone on hand that has a similar skill and ability level to you, someone to make you work, but the back and forth is more even.
This person is crucial to the development of your attack and defence at your own level, and should be utilised to help hone these skills, to tighten up your attacks, and to really test yourself under fire of a similar opponent.
This person should be as close to a match for yourself as is available, with the objective being to attack as much as possible. To make your opponent uncomfortable, and to help you find comfort in the harshness of the conflict.
It’s here where you find and develop your presence.
This person is your whetstone.
It’s their responsibility to “sharpen the blade”.
Lastly, the less skilled person should be used to help you develop your transitions, for you to execute your technique as perfectly as you’re able against a less skilled individual, and forcing yourself to work the whole time.
The difficulty with this person is you need to find the balance between you steam rolling that person, meaning that they get nothing out of your encounter, and you challenging them to the point where they need to work as hard as you had to with your more skilled opponent.
I cannot state this clear enough.
Regardless of who it is you train with, you should always be learning, always be improving, always be adjusting. But this doesn’t just apply to you, but to your partner also.
If you’re more skilled than your partner, and you simply spend the whole session smashing them, you gain nothing from the experience, as they obviously don’t know how to defend, and you have essentially gained nothing but a wasted match.
Sparring should be a two-way street, if you’re the more skilled fighter, put yourself in a compromised position and allow your partner to work. If you’re the less skilled of the two, speak to your partner, let them know what you’re looking to work on, and ask them to attack those areas specifically.
By helping those around you, you’re not only increasing the base level of your whole team, but you’re contributing to their future success, just as they are contributing to yours.
When it comes to fighting, nobody ever became a champion on their own. Everyone around you was once a beginner, and whilst each person is at a different point on their journey now, it would serve us all well to remember this point.
When I was a naïve white belt in Brazilian Jiu Jitsu, I spent a year touring the UK, taking every opportunity to compete that I could.
Initially, I had started competing as a means of testing myself. Being a larger woman in the sport, it wasn’t very often that I was able to find other women my size and weight at my gym, so I wanted to know where I sat within the pecking order, and whether or not what I’d learned would hold up against other women my size.
However, what had started as curiosity about my ability, eventually morphed into a chase for medals after seeing what another competitor had achieved within a 12-month timeframe.
What was supposed to be a fun insight into how I look at training, and how I progress as a grappler, became tainted by a desire to outdo someone else.
Where my motivation had been so deeply altered, I found myself starting to fall out of love with the sport. By the end of this competitive tenure, I’d spent so much time preparing to fight, that I didn’t realise I wasn’t even enjoying the journey anymore.
I stopped competing so heavily last year, choosing instead to spend my time travelling the country to attend open mats at other gyms, and women’s only sessions, so that I could get to know more women in the sport, in a more relaxed setting, and to learn to enjoy myself again.
It’s taken a while, but I’m finally back in a place where I actually want to compete again, not for medals, not for glory, but because I miss how much fun I used to have.
I’m more conscious now of the pitfalls I stumbled into previously, and I know for a fact that the toll of competing on my body, and my psyche, to the extent that I was doing it was ultimately detrimental to both my enjoyment and my progress.
Ultimately, competing is a very personal thing, and there’s no one way to approach or handle it. All you as a competitor are able to do is ensure that you’re constantly growing within the sport, that you’re testing yourself regularly, and that you do as much as you can to build and maintain your enjoyment of your chosen sport.
If you find yourself starting to question your enjoyment, or you start to recognise the trappings of the “Entity” mind set in yourself, remember that tomorrow is another day, and who you are today doesn’t have to be who you are tomorrow.
You have a lot more control over how you treat your training, your wins, your losses, and every other aspect of your life. If there are people around you telling you that there’s something you don’t need to work on, or that your ability is already good enough, challenge them.
Do they have your best interests at heart? Do you?
There’s a reason why progression in a martial art is often labelled a journey, as by acknowledging this, we also acknowledge that progression is necessary. From my personal experience, the “Destination” of this journey is immaterial, almost non-existent, as it should constantly be changing as you learn, and improve, as a fighter.
If you’re struggling with losing, if you feel lost and adrift on your journey, speak to those around you, ask them where they feel you could improve, and make adjustments. Figure out why you’re looking to improve, and what it is that you’re looking to achieve from competition, and treat every match as a lesson.
If you take nothing else away from this essay, take this:
If you don’t win, you should at least feel like you did.