Kristina Barlaan: Victory and defeat are never final

Published on by Kristina Barlaan

Photo courtesy of Nick Haloski

There’s a lot that goes into preparing for a competition, especially for one as prestigious as the Pans. There’s the obvious list of things to do: Jiu-Jitsu training which includes technique, drilling, rolling, strength and conditioning, strategic review, physical maintenance, and dieting (whether it be to go down in weight or to uphold strength). However, there is one major thing that many athletes neglect to do, either out of reluctance, lack of experience, or a combination of the two and that is honing your inner psyche in preparation for their upcoming battle.

Like many, in the past I depended solely on training harder and spending as much time in the gym and on the mat in order to feel confident in my skills to compete at a high level. Mat time is important, but training your body is only half of the job. I don’t care how hard you train, if you neglect or refuse to prepare your mind for the mental stresses and challenges that come with exhausting and pushing yourself physically to your limit, meeting your fullest potential will always be an uphill battle. It would be the equivalent of building a house on a faulty foundation.

Mental preparedness is more than just telling yourself to be confident. It is understanding the root of your fears and desires and then deciding which will be your driving force: your fear of failure or your desire to succeed. You have to know where you want to go if you have any hope of arriving at an ideal destination point.
While balancing my daily routine of , training, teaching, conditioning, and dieting, there are many times in the day where I question myself if what I am doing is worthwhile. This is particularly true the week right before competition. I am beat up, tired, exhausted, and I wonder if I will break and collapse under pressure or will I rise and overcome. It is not enough to prepare for my opponents attacks because I cannot control their actions. I must prepare for anything and everything that can happen and how I to react those situations.

Drilling a technique 1,000 times may improve my efficiency, but it will not help me recover if I were to make a mistake. My key to succeeding is found in my resilience against setbacks and road blocks, my refusal to give up when I feel I have nothing left to give, and knowing when to step back in order to see the bigger picture. This tenacity is what I feel helped me to win this past weekend at Pans.

When I first saw my bracket, I knew I was going to have many tough fights, and winning would be decided upon my determination to make my goals reality.

My first opponent was someone I respect because of the back and forth nature of our matches --- we are pretty much even across the board. Our matches are usually decided upon small margins within the last minute. I knew this was not going to be an easy fight.

Since our bracket was set up for 3 people, I had to prepare myself mentally for the possibility of fighting 3 matches. I had to accept the fact that I could lose in the first round and would have to fight my way back to the finals. If I had not prepared myself in this way, I don’t think achieving the gold would have been possible.

The day of competition finally arrived. My dieting proved successful as I woke up being a couple pounds lighter, giving me room to have a good breakfast. All the training and reviewing was done; there was nothing left to do except to focus my mind on the task for the day --- win the adult, female, brown belt, light feather division.

Being in this year's bullpen, I truly believe that this was the most centered -I have ever felt for any tournament. Every now and then, the little bubbles of doubt would come up, but my ability to brush those thoughts to the side has gotten stronger with practice. These introspections NEVER had a chance to undermine my confidence. I was ready to fight on all fronts and all I needed to do was enter the mat.

In my first match, there was a series of position exchanges. I really can’t remember much other than making some strategic mistakes and not trying more in certain positions. The fact that I can’t remember much other than some toehold exchanges and losing on advantages is a good example of losing focus and being trapped in my head. I did well, but I knew I could do better. It would have been easy to feel defeated and let it soil my mentality for the day, but I was prepared for a loss (of course, it wasn’t what I wanted). I accepted what happened, committed to improving the result, and moved on to get my head back on track.

My second match went how I imagined in my mind. Whether it was from my will to fight in the finals or having a fire ignited in my gut. I knew I had to keep my composure and put my training and experience into action. I knew I deserved to be in the finals, but I had to remind myself that I knew what I was doing.

In retrospect, it’s a funny statement to say because at my level, athletes should know what they’re doing. I remember talking to myself in my head during the match:

“I need to lock my legs here. Try to put her arm there. Break this grip. Grab that leg. Ok, let’s try to get some points on the board... Now, let’s try for a submission… etc."

The tome of calculated decisions in my head was much different than the blur of thoughts and commands I believe were swarming in my head in my previous match. I was able to control where I wanted to go and where I wanted to go was the finals.

The final match --- the moment I had spent weeks preparing to be. My inner voice moments prior stepping onto the mat were very clear:

“I don’t need to be fancy... Stick to my basics and trust my skills... Today is my day... This is my tournament... My time... My mat... MY WIN!”

To say I was determined would be an understatement. At the time, I was feeling something more than determination; my feelings were indescribable. All I can say is that there was a door in front of me and on the other side was somewhere I wanted to be. All I needed to do was to get the key and walk through.

I remember the moment when I was facing my opponent right before the referee called the match to start I was thinking to myself, “I’m going to get you this time.” Not in a cocky way, but in my mind, I believe I was taking a stand in defiance. It is in my refusal to give up which has shaped my inner self. If there is any one thing I can say for sure about myself, it is that I fight my hardest and most passionately when my back is against the wall or when I have been knocked down. Call it persistence, perseverance, or plain annoying, when the odds are against me and I have to make something happen, you can guarantee that I will. Win, lose, or draw, you can never say that I didn’t fight my heart out.

The match starts and pretty soon, my mind starts to slip into the mode it was in the first match. I was able to recognize this and after a reset from going out of bounds, I was able to change gears. The inner dialogue was clear:

“Fight to get to the position you want and make the points happen from there. Don’t stop until you do and when you get there, keep position...”Don’t stop! Keep going! Forward! Push, push, PUSH!”

I sweep her... She sweeps me back... We scramble for position... The time is counting down... I control her legs and pull myself up to sweep again... Less than a minute left... I work to maintain my base... She works hard to sweep me back again... I’m losing my balance, but I somehow stay on top. She tries to sweep again, but this time I am able to disengage and we go out of bounds. 5 seconds left and I’m leading 4-2. I don’t celebrate early... I stay on task... The match isn’t done yet... The referee restarts us in the middle. She tries to take me down, but I am able to defend her attacks. The buzzer rings. We are both out of breath. As we compose ourselves again, I look at the scoreboard. I did it... I won! I walked through the door!!

The swell of emotions I felt in that moment can’t be described in one word. Joy, exhilaration, fulfillment, satisfaction, pride, validation. It was like my heart exploded and all that I could do to express what I was feeling at that point in time was to beat my chest and roar. It is such a primal feeling to experience victory and I hope that never changes for me. Now that the tournament is over, I return to my weekly routine, but this time allowing myself some time to recover. I can sit and review what I did right, what needs to be improved, and what needs to be added, removed, or changed.

Victory and defeat are never final. It is only the next step along the journey. My next goal now is to gain my first World title at the 2015 IBJJF World Championship at the end of May. I will be a better version of myself by then and that drive will be powered by none other than my hard work, dedication, and commitment to excellence.