4 Tools to Manage Anxiety and Mental Health in Your Jiu-Jitsu Life

Any competitive sport brings on strong emotions. In jiu-jitsu, those emotions are compounded by the intense physicality of the sport and the fact that it creates positions that are uncomfortable, if not painful. Training in this sport can be extreme and difficult and requires a certain mental toughness, which means training while dealing with a mental illness can be even more taxing. A mental illness adds a level of stress to the experience.

That being said, one does not need to experience mental illness to deal with a certain level of anxiety and stress when it comes to training. Nor does one need to be diagnosed to deal with more depressed moods and lack of motivation.

In both cases, whether someone deals with mental illness or simply the ups and downs of life, training can help and exacerbate these symptoms.There are, however, ways to manage them and ways to make training more effective and less mentally taxing.


Number 1

Realistic Goal Setting

An exercise that has personally benefitted me in training is setting realistic goals. Goals can be so important to keeping up morale, to feel worthy and accomplished, to diminish nerves and anxiety and to progressing in our sport in general. The trick is to set realistic goals.

If you’d like to train regularly, maybe make a goal of 2 or 3 times a week (or really whatever is realistic for you); the point is don’t overdo it. If you set a high standard that’s difficult to reach, you’re more likely to fail and be hard on yourself, which will cause anxiety. Set a goal that’s reachable and if you exceed it, awesome! Cause for celebration!

Smaller goals can be very helpful as well. Think of them as stepping-stones or building blocks. Something I do is set a smaller goal per class or training session, especially on an anxious day. Set the goal to do three rolls today for the rolling portion of class. Three good rolls where you are present, focus and engaged. Anything more is a bonus and you can be proud of yourself for that. Try to be assertive and tell your coach or professor after three that you’re done. “No, I’m not feeling great so I think it’s best I sit out for the rest.” Explain why if you’re comfortable with him or her.


Number 2

Choosing your Focus

Another concern for those dealing with anxiety might be panicking in the moment and not being able to focus or function. If you’re anxious and starting to panic in the moment, choosing rolling partners you trust is key. Hopefully you have a few in your circle that you train with who can help. The next step is being very mindful during your rolls. It can be very helpful to focus on positions instead of winning or submitting, honing in on maybe one technique you want to improve. Choosing small things to focus on can help alleviate the feeling of being overwhelmed when thinking of excelling at everything at once.


Number 3

Grounding Technique

Another tool that can be useful when dealing with anxiety at training, which I learned from a nurse, is a grounding technique. It entails using your senses to ground yourself in the environment and in the moment and to become more mindful. The process is essentially to use each sense and list something for each sense. You would start with sight and name five things you can see, different shapes, different colours, anything in sight that jumps out at you. It could be the mats, the gi of your partner, the colour of your nails, anything nearby. Next you would notice four things you can touch or feel; the feel of the grip you have, the bead of sweat on your forehead, the hair in your mouth from your partner (eww). Next are three things you can hear, then two things you can smell, and one thing you can taste if possible; your mouth guard maybe. The trick is to focus on doing your countdown and making it your raison d’être for the length of time it takes to get through the list. It may take some practice to do while you roll since your rolling has to go on autopilot. It may be helpful to practice while you’re sitting out or taking a break.


Number 4

Learning you are Not Alone

Something else that can help is finding a community of people with similar experiences who can share what you’re going through. Submit The Stigma is a charity founded by Erin Herle, which I help manage, that aims at reducing stigma surrounding mental illness and creating a community of support. We are on Instagram under @SubmitTheStigma, as well as on Facebook. I post a lot of mental health related information on the Facebook page, and the Instagram account is solely personal stories of mental health and recovery from people in our jiu-jitsu community. You may find stories you relate to and potential people to connect with. The support we see in the comments section is unbelievable as people share their strength and resilience.

Jiu-jitsu is a supportive community and provides us with social benefits other sports may not. There is however a focus on mental toughness and a competitive attitude that can lead to mental illness or feelings in general being perceived as a sign of weakness. This can be said of many combat sports. The goal is to defeat an opponent; to best them in terms of strength, skill, preparedness and perseverance. Difficulty to achieve any of these can be seen as a failure to live up to the expectations of the sport. In my educated opinion, competing with a mental illness or any mental health concern displays strength. What it truly shows is resilience and fortitude. Training with anxiety or other mental health concerns can be challenging but we can find skills and tools that help alleviate our symptoms and help us be more effective and healthier.

I hope the following tips have been helpful and if I can leave you with anything it would be to find the people who are open, supportive and compassionate and never hesitate to reach out to them for support. We are all in this together.

Submitted and written by Valéry Brosseau

Valéry has been training and volunteering in mental health for 8 years, and is a purple belt under Fernando Zulick.

Photo by Joey Simoes