Snap Out of It! Games to Help You Focus

Published on by Samantha Faulhaber

Photo Credit: Jeff Chu @jeffreyschu
A great benefit and stress-relieving quality of Jiu Jitsu is its power to put you in the NOW. Most people have never had anyone try to choke them before they stepped on the mats. But what happens when you find your mind wandering and become a less present individual during training? 
This type of plateau is different than one where you don't even like going to class. If this doesn't resonate with you then that's great, but when I posted a short blurb about this lack of involvement in my own training I found several sympathetic others right away. 
'Attacking' and being 'attacked' brings a sense of immediacy that allows you to block out a lot of noise and stress you may be thinking about in your daily life. You pay very close attention to everything and learn quickly as a result. Eventually, though, you figure out that your partners aren't ACTUALLY trying to kill you and you're in very little real danger. The longer you train the fewer surprises you're faced with. Passivity starts to creep in. I would describe it almost as an out of body experience. Watching my own training and wondering why I'm not doing more to win, but seemingly unable to engage the right gear to do so. When your mind drifts, you learn less efficiently, and your plateau is prolonged. In "The Brain That Changes Itself", author Norman Doidge describes some findings on the study of learning - "Finally, [neuroscientist Michael] Merzenich discovered that paying close attention is essential to long term plastic change. In numerous experiments he found that lasting changes occurred only when his monkeys paid close attention. When the animals performed tasks automatically without paying attention, they changed their brain maps but the changes did not last. We often praise the ability to multitask. While you can learn when you divide your attention, divided attention doesn't lead to abiding change in your brain maps."
You have to pay close attention or you'll stay in your rut. Easier said than done when the problem is a drifting mind in the first place. I've come up with a few strategies to break through the wall, and like most of my strategies, I call them games.
Game #1: ONE THING (Zombie Brains) 
Choose one thing that you want. Don't think too hard. The first one that pops in your head is your selection for the night. I've done this with most successfully with d'arce chokes and kimuras for reasons I'll go over in #2. I've also done this with positions, chanting "thebackthebackthebackthebackthebacktheback" in my head similar to the classic SNL skit "dabearsdabearsdabears". Choosing a single goal focuses your attention in one place and means you have to be more aggressive because you're not doing anything else, so to speak. Tunnel vision all the way. You do whatever you can to reach that goal, strategy bedamned. Even when you get put in a bad position, stay focused on whatever it takes to get to that one thing. You could also call this ZOMBIE BRAINS because you're completely stuck on your one motivation no matter if your arms or legs get chopped off or you're in guard or side control or mounted. Please don't forget to tap before your arms or legs fall off, though. 
Game #2: Hands or Feet
I'm a foot-forward Jiu Jitsu fighter. I love passing guard but I'm also way too comfortable on my back with my legs in the air. (Hi awkward Jiu Jitsu sentences). Guard is the easiest place to feel passive. You're practically in a lounge chair at the pool. With someone trying aggressively to throw your legs side to side. That image is pretty funny. I digress. Since I know I'm very comfortable and sometimes passive with my legs, I chose grip-focused targets for Zombie Brains/One Thing above. It literally puts my head in a different place, and is just enough out of my comfort zone that it reminds me of what Jiu Jitsu was like at the start - fresh, inspiring, and a bit confusing. Research shows relationships do best when you share new things and surprises together. This is about your relationship with BJJ. 
Game #3: All in the Hips
This could really be game 2a. It's one of the first things I use to snap myself out of a training funk mid-class. Feeling unmotivated? Go for the legs, your own legs. This game is an answer to those who decide they are grip-focused and could use more guard work to change the game. Lie on your back/choose bottom and don't let the other person pass. The trick: no grips allowed. You will get an amazing sense of your hips and foot placement, or you'll get your guard passed. If your training partner knows about the game, just start over every time you're passed. If you insert this into a regular roll, just do everything you can to get back to guard - a good bottom strategy regardless. Again, we're focusing on one specific idea and blocking out others so that we can just have fun. There's no room for worry about what happened two seconds ago, you have to get your legs back in. 
Game #4: The Ground is Lava (and your back is covered in lighter fluid)
Don't let your back touch the floor. Wrestlers everywhere rejoice. Whatever you do, don't let your back touch the floor. You'll find this makes you better at guard recovery, escapes, and insisting on sweeps while avoiding being swept. All great side effects to just keeping your back off the floor. Bridging, standing up in base, coming up, arm drags - these are your friends and allies here. This has helped me as well as kids in my kids' class. 
Game #5: NO!
It's pretty safe to say that whatever your opponent wants is something you don't want them to have. The game of NO! is all about denying your partner everything they like. Think grip-fighting, sweeping, submissions. There is a point in nearly every move in which you have a choice to let it happen or not. It takes up fractions of a second all over the place. In every sweep there's a moment where you could have fought just a little harder to stay on top. When you really channel this successfully you'll feel some training partners begin to lose their vigor after being continuously denied no matter how close they were to something. You'll both grow and learn. 
If none of these work for you, try sitting out and watching (if your school allows) a couple of rounds to see what other people are doing. It's like hitting a reset button to breathe and zoom out for a moment. Look to your instructor for ideas to work on by taking a private lesson. Sign up for a competition to get your adrenaline mojo back. This is all about creating a new experience that doesn't put a lot of pressure on you. The rules of every game are simple and singleminded. If you find yourself getting frustrated and judging, you're playing the wrong game or you need to listen to happier music before stepping on the mat. Embrace the power of now and have a good time. Let me know if you have any games that have worked for you by commenting below or writing