BJJ for Mental Fitness: Tips for Staying Sharp on & off the Mats!

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New scientific research shows that the human brain is much like a muscle and it gets stronger with exercise.  In simple terms, everything we know and learn is determined by the number of connections between neurons in the brain.  It has been estimated that our brain contains 100’s of billions of these tiny cells. The more you learn new things and challenge your brain the more your brain cells grow and become stronger.  On the downside, according to the British Medical Journal, “In a group of people who were first tested on various mental abilities when they were 45–49 years old, reasoning skills declined by 3.6 percent over 10 years.”  But it’s not just in our 40’s that we begin to see noticeable changes.  Even in the mid 20’s and 30’s, reasoning skills, spatial skills and speed of thought begin to decline.  According to the U.S. National Library of Medicine, “The volume of the brain and/or its weight declines with age at a rate of around 5% per decade after age 40.”  So even the mightiest among us cannot stop our brain from changing over time.  With that being said there are may things that we can do to help our brain stay healthy and active!  All right here are my tips for keeping your brain healthy and vibrant on and off the mats.

  1.  Train BJJ More! – When you exercise regularly, you pump more blood to your brain which can increase the growth of new brain cells.  According to the Los Angeles Times:“To complete the study, the team recruited 120 older people who didn’t exercise regularly. Half were randomly assigned to an aerobic exercise program … The group doing aerobic exercise had increases in hippocampus volume: up 2.12 percent in the left hippocampus, and 1.97 percent in the right hippocampus.”

    So what does all that actually mean?  The hippocampus is associated mainly with memory, in particular long-term memory. The organ also plays an important role in spatial navigation.  When you train BJJ you are not just moving your body and sweating.  In a typical BJJ class you will learn new techniques and apply them on both willing and unwilling partners.  When you are learning new moves and techniques you are forced to coordinate your mind and body as one highly functioning unit.  This increases focus, brain function, problem solving skills, and mental clarity.  Have you ever noticed that when you train BJJ you don’t think of other things going on in your life, regardless of how big or small they are?  Part of the reason is because BJJ training takes a high degree of focus and concentration.  Unlike other sports or activities where you only use specific parts of your body, in BJJ you literally use every part of your body together.  This creates a powerful connection between the mind and body.  This is often referred to as  muscle memory, a process involving “consolidating a specific motor task into memory through repetition.”  Over time a long-term memory is created and these processes become automatic and do not rely on conscious thought.  In Japanese Martial Arts this is referred to as, “Mushin”, or no-mind, where the actor and the act become one.

  2. Mental Drilling – Mental practice is mental stimulation of a movement without the physical skill occurring.  In other words, it is the mental rehearsal of a technique or series of techniques.  Most BJJers have had the experience of BJJ daydreams or may even practice mental drilling as you fall asleep at nighttime.

     “Neuromuscular theory proposes that visualization activates the same motor pathways as if the skill were physically performed, but at a sub-threshold level. Studies using EMG equipment have demonstrated this activation, which is comparable to physical movement but at a lower level.”  One advantage that I like about mental drilling is that you can do it just about anywhere and at any time.  You are not restrained by space or physical location.  In addition, with mental drilling you don’t have to worry about injuries or fatigue. This is of particular value if you are working through an injury and cannot physically train.   With mental drilling, It is just you alone with your thoughts!

  3. Play to your “Weaknesses” – We all have our BJJ strengths and weaknesses.  Sometime we may even create “weaknesses” just based around our preferences.  For example, most right-handed people pass the guard to the left side.  My theory is that if you are right-side dominant (like 75% of the population) you will pass to the left because most righties will pass leading with the right leg.  Think of a common pass like the bull-fighter or the knee slice.  If you were passing to your left side (your partners right side if they’re facing you from their guard) you would lead with your right leg and then have either your right knee on the belly or your right leg at their hip preparing to mount.  (All while your non-dominant leg is doing minimal work) In addition, your right hand would be near their legs or controlling the hip while your left hand was doing minimal work controlling the neck.  As a righty or lefty you will develop preferences based around your dominant side.  When you start to practice passing on your weak side you will begin to rearrange your pathways and begin to stimulate your brain in an all new way.  This will also help you strengthen your weaknesses and also find new openings and opportunities all while exercising your gray matter.  (You can also play to your weaknesses by starting from non-dominant positions to work on your escapes and defense.)

  4. Be Creative & Open-Minded on the Mats – Jiu-Jitsu is amazing for so many reasons, but I find her greatest charm is the opportunity for unlimited creativity.  There are a millions and one ways to lock, choke, sweep and take people down and you get to develop, play and have fun with the ones that work best for you.  I always try to keep an open mind about my BJJ training.  When I was coming up through the ranks in the mid 90’s we didn’t have access to sites like youTube and instant on-the-go learning.  We had to work hard for our information.  This created a scarcity mindset for many practitioners  where one would take information and soak it up at every opportunity… because back then, these opportunities were far more rare. For me it didn’t matter if it was catch wrestling, pro wrestling, BJJ or Sambo…everything held an opportunity for growth!  BJJ offers this unparalleled opportunity for a lifetime practice of  something that literally has no end.  As you progress in your training, stay open-minded to every opportunity for learning and growth.    Flowing water never becomes stale; so continue flowing!

We do not stop playing because we grow old, we grow old because we stop playing.

-George Bernard Shaw

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