Tim Bruce is a Brazilian Jiu Jitsu black belt and coach at RMBJJ Academy in Delray Beach, Florida. He is an active competitor in all the major tournament circuits.

When people talk about mental toughness, they’re usually talking about the ability to overcome physical pain and psychological pressure, and how to deal with these demands more effectively. Two fighter’s who make the finals in a competition may both be exhausted, and when there is a close match or overtime, it’s not always skill or condition that determines the outcome. It’s usually the fighter who has the most “heart” who goes on to win.

But what exactly is heart? Heart seems to be synonymous with the term mental toughness when described in terms of performance, tenacity and character. How one develops the ability to remain consistent in competition and training through the huge demands that are placed upon them depends on several factors. These factors are largely psychological but can be developed over time.

In BJJ we develop these traits over time with training on the mat in our schools and in tournaments. This is similar in some regards to what happens in the armed forces. One of the main goals in a military boot camp is to break down the psyche of the recruit to rebuild them better and stronger with more confidence. Over a short period of time, a soldier can be trained to be physically and mentally tougher than they were when they began their basic training.

We are all probably much tougher, both physically and mentally than we were when we first began BJJ. How often do new students tap to a little forearm pressure across the front of the neck, or panic when someone mounts them? A fighter will begin to show marked improvement with each day after they begin to learn some basic techniques and no longer fear certain scenarios. This will begin to build their confidence and this confidence in a fighter is perhaps one of the single most important traits that they can possess. Confidence in their own ability to perform under pressure, to continue fighting and training through exhaustion and ultimately to win against all obstacles placed before them will be the foundation and benchmark for determining their mental toughness.

The Journal of Applied Sport Psychology published an article outlining the psychological traits common to elite athletes. Motivation tops the list of qualities an athlete needs in order to be successful. Without the motivation to train and the drive to remain disciplined, an athlete can never reach their full potential.

Motivation needs to come from within for it to be truly powerful, and maintaining that motivation over a long time frame is essential for reaching your goals. Elite athletes don’t allow the minor setbacks and failures along the way to deter them from their long term goals. They use mistakes and failures as opportunities to learn and improve, not as excuses to quit.

Focus is another quality shared by elite athletes. In a tournament setting, there are many distractions to deal with like crowd noise, opposition coaching, photographers and announcers. That’s all on top of the nerves and adrenaline that are a natural part of organized combat.

It’s somewhat awe inspiring when you watch a figure like Roger Gracie zeroed in before a competition with a steely glare and indelible focus on the task before him. High profile athletes have to adjust to the increased scrutiny and attention they receive due to their “celebrity status”. The ones who can’t handle the pressure never move on to greatness. Despite natural physical talent, many players in many sports have fallen victim to the psychological pressures involved and ultimately “choked” in some of the most important moments of their lives.

Being able to tune out all distractions and remained focused towards one goal, execute a game plan and strategy while focusing solely on a single voice (your coaches), is an essential trait for a BJJ fighter to possess if they want to be successful on the competition scene. BJJ is a mental battle more, than a physical one, so as fighters we need to train our minds to focus on the tasks at hand.

Managing adversity under pressure is another quality that defines mental toughness. When the match isn’t going your way, how will you react? If you are down on points are you going to just give up or will you press forward? It’s very easy for people to quit when the chips are down and they feel as if the match is over.

It’s probably more difficult to continue competing in a sport when the outcome is certain, like basketball when a team is down by 30 points with a minute left and there is no chance that such a deficit can be made up. Many teams play out the final seconds in an uneasy, unspoken truce where they let the clock run out.

However in BJJ we are offered the unique possibility that no matter what the score; the fight can be easily won or lost with a submission as long as time remains in the match. This is why being able to cope with adversity and handle the pressure of competing for a Jiu Jitsu fighter is so important - a fight is never over until it’s over.

In many matches I’ve coached I’ve seen fighters win over people who were physically bigger, stronger and faster. If you watch carefully, you might be able to see in the opponent’s eyes and physical demeanor that they are mentally spent from previous battles and have already acquiesced to losing the match before the fight even begins. In those cases, simple aggression from their opponent is often enough to finish the task.

Being able to push through the physical barriers of pain and not accept defeat will often prevent defeat. A mentally tough fighter will not allow the thoughts to enter their minds that tell them they are tired and its o.k. to lose or quit. Short of death, it’s an all or nothing mentality. A mentally tough fighter wouldn’t want to go into a match with the goal of “not losing TOO badly.” When they do, the outcome is already certain and they will be defeated.

Realistically we all know that a white belt going up against their instructor normally doesn’t stand a chance. I’m talking in terms of tournaments where equal weight and skill levels shape the brackets. Stay within your “head” and ignore the external surroundings that are probably inconsequential with regards to your fight and don’t let the anxiety of a match confuse you as to what your plans should be.

Understand that you will be nervous and that is normal, but don’t allow that feeling of anxiety to create doubt as to what your own abilities are. All elite level athletes have self confidence. Some will profess it more than others, but deep down they believe that their training and conditioning puts them at an advantage over anyone who steps in front of them on the mat.

Confidence helps you cope with any roadblocks that you encounter along your journey. When you put in enough time in the gym, and expose yourself to all potentially hazardous situations a fighter may encounter, you will be able to handle them both physically and psychologically when you experience them in a fight.

If you have set goals and remained disciplined enough to follow them through, you owe it to yourself to remain composed and let your skills manifest themselves on the mat through a superior grappling display. To hide within the shadows of your own self doubt is a trait that separates those who win from those who won’t.
 - Tim Bruce