Lots of grapplers run into the problem of their mind going blank when they’re sparring or competing.
In a class setting they might be able to bang out repetitions of techniques, demonstrate combos, and flow with the go like nobody’s business, but as soon as they hit the mats to actually roll, well, all of a sudden they have absolutely no idea about what they should be doing.
This can be an insanely frustrating problem…
Your mind can go blank on the mat for different reasons, so the correct solution depends on figuring out exactly what’s causing the problem in the first place.
In this article I go through the most common causes of blanking out as well as the best solutions I know of to solve this problem. So if this is something that you’ve been experiencing then I would suggest both watching the video and reading the article below.
Not every suggestion will apply to you, but hopefully you’ll find at least one solution to help you perform up to your potential!
1: Not Making Decisions Fast Enough
It might be that your mind isn’t really going blank: maybe you’re simply not making decisions fast enough…
Think of it this way: if you could call multiple time-outs in the middle of a sparring session every time your opponent was about move then you could probably make life difficult for him, right?
Your opponent would freeze in mid-technique and you’d analyse his grips, posture and weight distribution at your leisure. From there you could figure out what your perfect countermove or strategy should be.
If you had that much time then you could come up with an answer and your mind wouldn’t be blank.
So it really might just come down to making faster decisions.
When you’re sparring or competing you’ve got to make decisions fast when you’re on the mat. You’ve got to react to your opponent’s moves, counter his attacks, and take advantage of temporary openings before the opportunity has passed.
Faster Decision Making = Knowing What To Do = Mind Not Going Blank.
How on earth can you make faster decisions on the mats? There are several ways…
The most obvious way to start making decisions faster is to get in more mat time.
The more time you spend on the mat training and rolling then the more experience you’ll get and the faster you’ll start making decisions.
This is part of why so many beginners struggle with their minds going blank. In fact the very worst time for beginners is in their first 2 to 3 months.
During this initial period a beginner’s sparring is reactionary, defensive and mostly instinctive. They simply don’t know enough yet to formulate any kind of game plan, and that’s perfectly OK.
The solution is mat time. Keep on training, don’t quit, keep going and you’ll get there, I promise.
Another way you can speed up your decision making process is really limit your game.
Put less techniques on the menu so you don’t have to spend as much time choosing between different options.
There is a phenomenon in psychology known as ‘Hick’s Law’ which roughly states, “The time it takes to choose between a number of possible options increases the more choices that person has.”
Hick’s law applied to jiu-jitsu means that the more techniques you’re choosing between then the slower you’re going to be.
To go fast your decision-making process must be simple. The simpler your game the faster you’ll go.
So if your mind is going blank then try limiting the positions you’re training and the techniques you’ll be using.
Just work on one aspect of your game.
Let’s pretend that you’re going to limit your training to the topic of open guard retention (but obviously the exact same thing could apply to sidemount escapes, armbar attacks, throws, takedowns, or any other aspect of jiu-jitsu)…
To do this all you’re going to focus on in sparring is to stop your opponent from passing your open guard. If he passes your guard (or if you accidentally sweep him) then everything stops, you reset, and you both go back to starting open guard position.
To narrow your focus even further, maybe you’ll decide to focus only on two things during your training session. For example you might decide to: 1) grip fight like crazy, and 2) only use the frame and hip escape method of guard retention.
Yes, there are a thousand other ways to keep your opponent from passing your guard, but for today you’re only going to worry about and use the two methods above.
By limiting your game like this the stress of having to choose between all options in all of jiu-jitsu is gone. All you need to do is focus on two things, and the odds of having your mind go blank have just decreased tremendously.
2: Not Having a Gameplan
Having a gameplan is another way to make decisions faster and stop your mind from going blank.
A gameplan is just having some techniques that fit together extremely well. By having these techniques put together in advance it limits the amount of thinking and decision making you need to do on the fly.
Gameplan = Knowing What to Do Next = Mind Not Going Blank
(Does that sound familiar? It should, because it’s very closely related to the first problem we covered.)
Multiple time world champion Bernardo Faria’s combination of the deep half guard with the over-under guard pass is an example of a great gameplan; he knows exactly how his techniques fit together and what he’s going to do next without really having to think about technique selection. His algorithm is pretty simple: 1) get deep half guard, 2) sweep from deep half guard, 3) go directly to the over-under pass, 4) smash opponent from the top.
Marcelo Garcia’s use of the Butterfly Guard, Single Leg X and X Guard from the bottom is another example of a good gameplan. He doesn’t use every technique and every form of guard he’s ever seen; he doesn’t use the spider guard, he doesn’t use the de la Riva, and he doesn’t use the deep half guard. He has a coherent system that revolves around only a few positions that link together really well.
The first time the power of a gameplan became really clear to me was when I worked with BJJ black belt world champion Brandon Mullins on his takedown and top position gameplan and his guard and bottom position gameplan. Everything was just so logical and connected together so well that it made decision making very simple.
In your gameplan you might always start with technique number one. If that doesn’t work, then you already know that you’re going to go to technique number two. And if that doesn’t work then you go to technique number three…
This is a really powerful concept because it stops your mind from going blank. In your starting position you don’t have to think about every technique you’ve ever seen on Youtube and/or been taught by your teacher; you just have to start with technique number one and go from there.
Just to reiterate, if your mind keeps going blank when you’re sparring then build a gameplan. Try to do less, not more.
3: Exhaustion and Not Enough Conditioning
Vince Lombardi once famously said, “Fatigue makes cowards of us all.”
Thats true, but fatigue also makes us idiots as well as cowards. It makes us forget everything we ever learned.
If you’re exhausted then the other guy is always a step ahead. You’ll always be countering his techniques too late; you may see what’s coming but you won’t have the presence of mind to actually initiate the counter in time.
If you’re exhausted then you’ll always think slowly.
If this is your problem then the cure is to roll more and do extra cardio on top of that.
More Mat Time + More Conditioning = Mind Not Going Blank
More cardio is almost always a good thing; in fact I’ve always found that the more cardio I do then the faster I think on the mat. But as always, individual results may vary, so test it out for yourself!
Here are a few articles to get you started and give you some ideas for potential conditioning routines…
- What’s the Best Conditioning for BJJ?
- How to Get in Shape for a Tournament Fast!
- 11 Short MMA Conditioning Workouts that Take an Average of 11 Minutes Each
- A List of All the Conditioning Articles on Grapplearts
4: Holding the Breath
Some people might be in great shape but then gas out anyway.
The most common reason for this is that they’re secretly holding their breath when they get stressed out. Unfortunately jiu-jitsu is an anaerobic activity and if you’re holding your breath then you’re going to be exhausted in no time.
As we just mentioned in point #3 above, when you’re exhausted your mind tends to go blank (or, more correctly, you think so slowly that your mind might as well be blank).
If you think you might be having this problem then monitor yourself very carefully and/or ask your sparring partner to keep an eye on your breathing.
Try to find out if you’re holding your breath and/or breathing very shallowly and ineffectually.
Deep, Effective Breathing = Good Endurance = Mind Not Going Blank
If this is a problem then forget about techniques, tactics, strategy and gameplans; your ONLY goal for the next month is to make sure that you’re breathing deeply and effectively on the mats. Do a move and ask, “Am I breathing deeply?” Do the next move and ask yourself again, “Am I still breathing?”
This is a relatively easy problem to fix, but you do need to deliberately focus your attention and awareness on your breathing for quite a while, until it becomes second nature.
Here’s a really cool story about how a Grapplearts reader went from gassing out in every sparring session to winning his division at Naga by paying attention to his breathing.
5: Blanking Out from Claustrophobia
People with claustrophobia experience raw, visceral panic when they’re tightly pinned and held on the bottom for any length of time.
This claustrophobia-induced panic can definitely get your brain to stop working as it goes into full freak out mode.
The important thing to realise here is this problem CAN be fixed – I know many grapplers personally who have made major breakthroughs on this front.
The key is progressive desensitisation. You might actually get people to hold you down for short periods of time – just 5 seconds to start – and try to stay calm and breathe through the panic. Then, very gradually, increase the length of time on the bottom.
Like I discussed in the video at the top of this article, I even know one MMA fighter who dealt with this by lying down with his wet gi over his face at the end of class and working on staying calm.
Progressive Desensitisation to Claustrobia = Mind Not Going Blank on the Bottom
If this is your problem then go read this article about dealing with claustrophobia in BJJ on Grapplearts – you’ll see that a lot of other people have dealt with it and maybe some of their approaches will work for you too.
The silver lining is that grapplers with claustrophobia usually develop really good guards and really good pin escapes because they hate absolutely hate getting pinned. So take heart: your liability might just end up becoming a super-power!
6: Difficulty After a Training Layoff
Sometimes intermediate-level students blank out during sparring sessions after a long layoff.
Maybe they had 4 stripes on their white belt and were feeling pretty good about their sparring. They had some skills and were able to implement them on the mat.
But then something came along and they had to take an unexpected layoff from training.
Months later they finally get back to the mat but have a really tough experience. They’re just not performing at the level they were at when they left. In other words they’re now getting their asses handed to them by people they used to be neck-and-neck with.
They may still know the actual techniques and they have an expectation of being able to use them, but the reality is that they just aren’t able to execute those techniques against a resisting opponent anymore.
This is super frustrating. The inevitable degradation of skills during the layoff is hard to deal with.
The solution to these comeback blues is to stick with it and simply put in the mat time. If you took an 8 month layoff from training then for sure it’s going to take you up to 8 weeks to get back up to speed, so don’t be too hard on yourself.
Mat Time = Rediscovery of Skills = Faster Decision Making = Mind Not Going Blank
Become the beginner again and just accept that it’ll take some time to get back into shape and get your timing back. Take heart: because you’ve been up to a higher level before means that you’ll progress much faster than everyone else.
Your body will remember, just give it some time. You’ll get there, just don’t stop training.
7a: Freezing Up When Fighting Higher Belts
Some people can roll for a long time and do very well when they’re fighting people their own level or below, but really freeze up and go blank against higher belts.
In a way this is to be expected: jiu-jitsu works, which means that a BJJ brown belt SHOULD be able to beat a BJJ blue belt 99 times out of a hundred.
So if you’re a blue belt and getting all frustrated when you’re fighting higher belts you need to chill out. Don’t worry about; they’re supposed to be several steps ahead of you and beat you!
This is a great opportunity to try and use your very best techniques even though they probably won’t work.
Hit them with your best sweep, your best submission, your best attack and see if you can at least put them into trouble and force them to react to you.
Use Your Best Techniques with Commitment + Be OK With Tapping Out = Mind Not Blanking Against Higher Belts
Let’s say that you hit that brown belt with your very best butterfly guard sweep and he has to post like crazy to avoid getting swept; even if he now passes your guard and chokes you out then you can still take some consolation that you made him work for it and that you had him worried for a second. Take moral victories wherever you can!
Relax, use your best techniques, be ready to tap, and take solace in the fact that jiu-jitsu actually works!
7b: Freezing Up When Fighting Lower Belts
This is a really interesting phenomenon: here people do OK fighting higher belts, but hugely underperform when fighting people their own level or lower.
This is because people are so concerned about performing in front of their peers and instructors (and maybe even being worried about somehow being responsible for defending the honor of jiu-jitsu) that the idea of screwing up and losing to a lower belt becomes extremely stressful.
This stress and fear then feeds upon itself, completely screws up that person’s performance.
Here’s the key: DON’T WORRY ABOUT IT!!
I tap out to lower belts all the time, especially when I’m experimenting with a new position or technique. In fact if you’re NOT tapping out on a fairly regular basis then you’re NOT doing enough experimentation and exploration!!
If you ain’t tapping out then you’re not opening up your game and trying enough new things!
Adopt The More You Tap The More You Learn Mindset = Mind Not Blanking Against Lower Belts
Growth comes from going into uncomfortable areas, and if you’re never tapping out against lower belts then you’re probably not growing as fast as you could!
Video Summary About How to Deal With Your Mind Going Blank in BJJ
If you’re frustrated by your mind going blank in jiu-jitsu and feel that you’re not performing up to your level then check out the video below. I also posted this same video at the top of this article but maybe in your eagerness to scroll down the article you missed it…
If you want to get better at jiu-jitsu and grappling fast then I have 3 suggestions for you, all of which are 100% free…
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Suggestion 2: Download my free Roadmap for BJJ app to your Apple or Android device. This video-based app takes you through the big picture of BJJ, including which positions are the best for attacking and defending. It also does a deep dive into the closed guard, open guard and half guard positions. The Roadmap for BJJ app has received great reviews online and I’m sure you’ll get something out of it too.
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