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That Competitive Edge

Updated: Jan 5, 2019

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. Competing in this sport can be extreme and difficult and requires a certain mental toughness, which means competing while dealing with a mental illness can be even more taxing. Competing in jiu jitsu with a mental illness adds a level of stress to the experience, and through information gathered on how this affects competitors, I hope to create a better understanding of what they feel and how they manage it. I was able to get detailed answers to four separate questions from a number of competitors. The questions cover diagnosis, therapy, symptoms and tools for managing symptoms.

My sample size is 33 competitors, 20 men and 13 women. Though this group may be relatively small, the answers I received were well thought out and gave me a good overview of what competing is like for someone with a mental illness. The diagnoses of those interviewed varied; 9 different illnesses came up. However, anxiety in some form, depression and PTSD were most common, comprising 77% of all diagnoses reported. The breakdown is the following:

Anxiety - 35% of respondents

Depression – 27% of respondents

PTSD – 27% of respondents

At first glance, these illnesses seem to be an ill-fitting match for jiu jitsu. Mentally healthy competitors often feel anxiety before a tournament as part of the normal stress of competing. Someone with an anxiety disorder would feel a heightened level of this symptom due to the pressure to perform, among other things. Depression can make someone lose interest in activities they once enjoyed and can lead to a disinterest in the sport they were once dedicated to, which would greatly affect training. PTSD is often accompanied by flashbacks and stress in physical or violent situations. Since jiu jitsu does create aggressive situations, it can be a stressor for people suffering from this illness. That being said there are ways to alleviate these issues and to manage symptoms.

When asked if they talked to their therapist or mental health professional about competing, 72% of those interviewed said yes. Women were more likely to bring up competition in their therapy sessions, as 83% of women said they did and only 65% of men did. When discussing competition with their therapist, most people addressed whether competing is a trigger for them or a tool through which to work on symptoms. In this case, 82% of those polled answered that a jiu jitsu competition was a trigger for some of their symptoms, and those who discussed it with their therapist came up with tools and skills to mitigate those symptoms. This leaves 18% of respondents who explained that the competition itself was used as a tool to work on symptoms.

The symptoms that came up most in terms of pre-competition and the fights themselves were similar from athlete to athlete. Most people reported feeling a sense of self-doubt, a lack of confidence and a certain intimidation at performing for their teammates and fighting an opponent they have never faced before. These symptoms are all related to the way we think and the monologue that goes on inside our head. It would then make sense that one of the tools used most by competitors to control these symptoms and ready themselves for their fights was positive self-talk and breaking the cycle of negative thoughts. This can be extremely difficult to accomplish but having the help of a mental health professional can make a great difference.

Despite this, the most used techniques were breathing and music. Overwhelmingly, respondents explained they used breathing techniques to calm the physical symptoms, which in turn allowed them the opportunity to work on the more mental symptoms. Music can be said to have a similar effect. Several studies have been done on the subject and it has been found that music releases mood-enhancing neurotransmitters in the brain. Similarly to breathing, this would give a competitor the calm physical base from which to attack the mental symptoms.

Competing with a mental illness, in many aspects, is similar to competing as a mentally healthy athlete. The stressors that exist are related to the pressure to prepare adequately, to perform and to live up to your team and coach’s expectations. When dealing with an illness like Generalized Anxiety Disorder or a mood disorder, these feelings are magnified. This is why tools and skills must be developed, often with the help of a therapist, to handle these feelings and manage the physical and emotional symptoms that come up due to competition.

With an illness like PTSD, the symptoms brought on by a tournament fight are different. They usually are related to panic, fear and stress due to situations bringing back memories and trauma. Nonetheless, the skills that can be used for dealing with these concerns are similar to those used for anxiety. Breathing, music, anything that can be done mindfully and that grounds and distracts can be of help. Furthermore, some respondents’ diagnosis of PTSD explains having joined jiu jitsu as a sort of exposure therapy, to become more comfortable in situations that would have once triggered their emotional wounds. Being placed in situations that may bring up trauma provides them with the opportunity to face those symptoms and apply the tools that work for them, whether developed with a mental health professional or independently.

Jiu jitsu is a supportive community and provides us with social benefits other sports may not, however like any group of people we have our shortcomings. There is 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 displays strength. What it truly shows is resilience and fortitude. By talking more openly and honestly about mental health, by expressing what we are experiencing and what we may need help with we are creating a safe and supportive environment in which to build elite athletes. We are allowing athletes to seek help and to overcome their struggles. I hope this overview has helped you understand mental illness in this sport a bit better and may lead you to either ask for help when needed or better support your teammates who struggle. When it comes to mental health, we are all in this together.

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