Don’t Fall Prey To The Injury Bug: Mental Factors (Part 2)

Part 1 of this series emphasized physical factors that contribute to injury. Black belt and physical therapist Mike Pellegrino (DPT) gave tips for how to prevent injuries via warm-ups and exercises outside of class.

The current post focuses on the types of mental states that lead to injury and techniques for addressing them. To learn more about the topic, I interviewed Andrew White, Ph.D., a sports psychologist who specializes in injury prevention.

Personality Matters

While anyone can get hurt in sports, White says, there are two types of personality traits that make a person especially vulnerable to injury: anxiety and perfectionism. Many of the behaviors that White talked to me about are more likely to occur when a person is worried (about losing, getting injured, looking dumb, or anything else) or when a person is super focused on doing everything perfectly (not just winning, but executing every step of the way to the win perfectly as well). If you find yourself regularly feeling anxious or perfectionistic while training, rolling, or competing, then this article is especially for you!

Manage Your Thoughts

Certain types of thoughts make you more likely to act in a way that puts you, or others, at risk for injuries. One key distinction, White explained, is whether you view a situation as a threat or a challenge. Most martial arts related experiences are both — that is, both good and bad things could happen to you in a roll or tournament match. However, mentally, we seem to choose one label or the other, and which label you choose sets the tone for that experience. So if you say “I don’t wanna lose,” you are going into a roll with the mentality that you’re facing a threat. You may be more wild, less focused, and more likely to accidentally elbow your partner in the head, leave your wrist somewhere dangerous, or tap too slowly. If you tell yourself of the same experience, “I’m excited to test my limits,” you are not only likely to get more out of the experience, you’re also less likely to be involved in an injury.

Another type of mental behavior that contributes to injury risk is negative self-talk. While self-criticism isn’t harmful in and of itself, it is distracting, and as we will discuss in more depth below, distraction is a leading cause of injury. One type of negative self-talk that is especially problematic is avoidance-type thinking — focusing on what you want not to do (e.g. not getting hurt, not getting submitted, not getting passed). White suggests that it takes less of your attention to focus on what you need to do than it does to focus on the same number of things not to do. So set goals of things to do. He further suggests that in high-pressure situations, it can be distracting to try and do too many things at once, so choose just a couple of goals.

Important caveat: White notes that even adaptive self-talk can be distracting, so if you’re going to set goals, give yourself simple trigger words that will remind you of the goal without having to spell it out completely. Better yet, rehearse your goals so thoroughly that you don’t even need to think about them consciously! Former professional golfer Annika Sorenstam once said in an interview that although she creates a plan before the plays, she doesn’t think at all while actually competing.

Manage Your Mood and Focus

I noted above that distraction is a leading risk factor for injury; if you’re not paying attention to your body and your surroundings, things go wrong. White says that, in addition to thoughts, athletes can also be distracted by their emotions. It’s important, he noted, to find a way of leaving your stress off the mats that works for you. That stress — be it about the tournament match you’re about to have, or the argument you had before class — is going to divide your attention, leaving you at risk to hurt or be hurt.

One important way to manage your mood is to examine your behavior. Here are some key behaviors that can pollute your mood right before rolling or competing:

    • Obsessing about whether you “win.” If your opponent is better than you — and lets face it, for at least the first several years, this is almost always true — it’s silly to set the goal to win, and it’s even sillier to get upset when you don’t win. This kind of emotional overinvestment in winning sets the stakes too high, and is just going to distract you. Instead, set goals that are small and achievable.
  • Comparing yourself with others (also known as “having an ego”). When you get really emotionally invested in doing better than someone else, you’re making your performance personal when it doesn’t have to be. Being ego invested is a distraction. Instead of “better than” or “worse than,” where there are only two options, adopt what’s called a “growth mindset.” Compare yourself with yourself last week/month/year, not with that other person.

White says that many high-performing athletes learn to use something called “focus flexibility,” which means that even as you are paying attention to the arm you’re trying to trap, you’re still maintaining “soft focus” on the rest of your body. Doing so allows you to monitor for potential injuries (as well as sweeps and attacks!). Focus flexibility is only possible, though, if you aren’t thinking or feeling anything. You need your whole attention span to pay attention to your whole body. Taking into consideration Mike Pellegrino’s advice to develop good positioning habits, this idea makes even more sense; if you make safe, well-structured positioning part of your automatic process, you won’t have to waste precious attention on it.

Optimizing Your Mental State to Avoid Injury

White has worked with athletes in all sorts of sports, so the following are skills that any athlete can do to avoid injury by improving their mental functioning:

  • SKILL 1: Self-Care. It may seem obvious, but just yesterday one of my long-time training partners revealed to me, at the end of the second class we attended together that day, that he had not eaten anything that day! What?!?!? If you take away one thing from this article, let it be this: DON’T COME TO CLASS HUNGRY, SICK, OR EXHAUSTED. If you are sleepy, overtrained, having a splitting headache, or starving to death, you are not going to have a full mental capacity and your chances of getting hurt (or hurting someone) are much higher. Don’t tell yourself that you’re a badass for rolling or competing even though you’re falling apart at the seams. You’re not doing anybody any favors!
  • SKILL 2: Seek Comfort In Routine. If you compete and want to work on staying calm, or even if you want to work on your focus during class, you may find it valuable to create a pre-training/fight routine. This should include anything essential (hydration, warmup, food) but also whatever stuff helps you mentally — listening to music, mentally rehearsing a few key moves, or generally going over your favorite strategy. It’s less important what you actually do during the routine and more important that it’s the same every time. The predictable nature of the routine is important for its ability to calm you. To that end, make sure you set aside enough time to actually do that routine. Don’t show up to class 5 minutes before it starts with a 15 minute routine to run through!
  • SKILL 3: Mindfulness Techniques. It may sound hokey, but one of the easiest ways to calm yourself and clear your mind is to sit down with the intention of calming yourself and clear your mind. No, really! And there’s actual research showing that doing so reduces injury risk in athletes! There are lots of different mindfulness techniques, from simple deep breathing to something more structured like a Body Scan meditation. One option that may be especially popular for BJJ practitioners is the moving meditation, which is often practiced together with walking or yoga, but could easily be adapted to go with a BJJ warm-up routine. If you find yourself wanting to learn more about how to cultivate mindfulness, I encourage you to check out a class in Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction (MBSR).

Together, these posts provide physical and mental factors that contribute to injury and some concrete behaviors anyone can implement to better protect themselves. Injury is higher in BJJ than many other sports, and sometimes we lose people as a result, be it to frustration, fear, or lack of inertia from a long time away from training. Let’s build a community where injury prevention is valued, and where we all encourage each other to follow these practices! OSS!!!!


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Acacia Parks Mo began training BJJ in early 2015 and is now a blue belt. She trains under Jason Williard at JW BJJ in Ravenna, OH and Jeff Starr at Griffonrawl Combat Sports & Fitness in Mentor, OH. She's had the privilege of learning from Pedro Sauer, Henry Akin, Kurt Osiander, Mike Bidwell, Michelle Nicolini, Rachel Casias, and many others. As a woman in BJJ, and someone who was obese, horribly out of shape, not particularly aggressive, and well over 30 when she started training, Acacia has a lot to say about taking the non-traditional training path. She lives in NE Ohio with her husband, CS, and her 4-year-old, Cassie, both of whom also train, and when she is not training, she loves to Scuba and is Chief Scientist for a New York-based tech startup called Happify.


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