The Psychology of Exhaustion in BJJ

Four Simple Yet Powerful Steps to Avoid Gassing Out on the Mat

Imagine your opponent is crushing you under side control, cross-facing your jaw hard and shutting down your lungs. You are in a competition match, or maybe you are completing a training session. Either way, your body is fighting an opposing force. Suddenly the negativity sneaks in. I am tired. I am exhausted. Your stress levels rise, you gas out, mistakes are made, and battles are lost.

You did not lose because of exhaustion—you lost because of the fear of exhaustion. Many athletes, even incredibly fit players, hold onto this fear. Exhaustion implies we are helpless and out of control, and that is what we are really afraid of. However, the fear of exhaustion actually promotes the exhaustion itself.

Hear me out here. If I am afraid of getting exhausted, my stress response increases. Consequently, my breath quickens, and my heart rate goes up. I fear the shortness of breath, which causes the problem to worsen. Just as asthma is caused by psychological components to some extent, our physical capabilities are influenced by our mental game.

So how do you change your mentality? You have to act. Do not expect things to change by just sitting in a lotus position. Be ready to make the changes in your body, in your mind, and in your nervous system by pushing yourself outside the comfort zone. Do not shy away from fear and a little pain. That is where growth and success lies. During strength training, I must increase the load and add a little more physical distress each time to see progress. The same idea applies to your mental training.

Check out this four-step process to deal with the fear of gassing out.

Step 1: Pre-Frame

First, define the situation before you begin. What are your goals? How do you want to perform? For example, if you are about to do randori, you can approach it as a competition, as an opportunity to learn, or as something else. Knowing what you want will help you accomplish that goal.

Step 2: Visualize

Look toward success and perseverance. Visualize yourself feeling great in a tough spot and fighting through it. If you are preparing for competition, do not fear getting stuck under mount. Instead, visualize yourself feeling strong and fit enough to complete that escape.

Step 3: Self-Talk

Let me start this explanation with a story. Years ago, I was forced to take a break from the mats for several months. After so much time away, my fitness level dropped and when I finally started training again, I just felt exhausted. People would ask me, “How are you feeling?” I would say, “I’m exhausted. I am completely out of shape.”

I kept coming back to training day after day, pushing myself as hard as I could, and I kept feeling exhausted. I continued to tell people, and more importantly myself, this. I feel exhausted. I’m out of shape. This is no good. I cannot take it.

Probably three weeks after I returned, I realized my self-talk was actually making me feel worse. I was talking myself into feeling out of shape. So the next day, someone asked me how I was feeling. “I feel great. I am in great shape.” I felt way better, noticeably better. I felt much stronger, and I felt much more energetic. Maybe it was a placebo effect but, boy, I will take it.

Are You Really “Tired”?

Athletes who are feeling physically distressed will say they are tired, but they do not need to sleep for eight hours. They just need to catch their breath. They need to take in some oxygen, maybe some water, and they will be ready to go.

Do not use words that are inaccurate, especially if they are negative. When you are training in the gym, never say you are tired. Tired implies you need to get a good night’s sleep. Instead, say you feel great and you are in great shape. If you absolutely must refer to physical distress, say you need to catch your breath or you are winded.

I am not telling you to over train and crush yourself, but rather help yourself. Your perception of pain and distress is going to be influenced by the words that you use.

Step 4: Breathe

Lastly, to perform your best, you need to maintain relaxed, natural breathing. Occasionally, athletes will mirror their partner’s breathing, causing them to breathe unnaturally or even stop breathing completely. When you do an explosive movement, you may want to hold your breath to stabilize your core; however, when the movement is over, return to relaxed breathing by performing one long exhale or several short ones. This causes your body to instinctively inhale and triggers your parasympathetic nervous system to slow your heart rate.

When you are breathing correctly, not only will your body function optimally but your stress response lowers. You will think more clearly, you will learn more, and you will enjoy jiu-jitsu without the fear of exhaustion.

As you apply these four steps, don’t forget to record your progress for great insight. What self-talk worked for you? What did not? Are you able to push through more discomfort than before? Email me and let me know how you did. I believe this will make a big difference in your conditioning as well as the way you feel during training and competing.

Just remember, your performance is going to conform to your expectations. Expect yourself to feel great, and you will.


Coach John Connors


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