How to mentally deal with an amazing talented opponent

Last week, one of my Jiu-Jitsu friends from Brazil sent me an article about super talented sparring partners that culminate on an interesting discussion. The discussion made me reflect that issues of comparison with others can be found everywhere and not only in martial-arts or any other one-on-one type of competition. All of us have gone(or will go) through a situation at some point in our lives in which we literally had to (or will) “eat someone else’s dust”. Yes, I mean ALL OF US; even Michael Phelps had to suck up Biedermann’s victory in 2009. This type of experience can make us question how good we really are in our sport and although these moments of self- criticism may not always be bad, allowing them to haunt us will culminate in the deterioration of our self-confidence to the point of even giving up the sport. We start thinking in terms of “conditionals”: “if only I had the same genetics”, “if only I had started training earlier in life”, “if only my family was more supportive”, “if only I had money to buy that latest gadget or attend to that training camp”, “if only…

During these moments of hard self-doubt, we are invariably faced with two options, either we reevaluate our training in order to learn and improve or we “smash our heads against the wall” and unmercifully knock ourselves out, meaning we are out of the game! Thus, considering that option two should be always avoided – and I think I gave a very good reason why to avoid it – I would like to give you a few tips on how to deal with these experiences. Have in mind that I I do not intend to cover every aspect of resilience and mental toughness but these are can be a very good start.

  1. Don’t lose before it starts: Our mind is in a constant attempt to infer about future results and consequences of our actions in order to make us the most efficient possible in terms of saving energy and protecting our bodies. Thus, when we see that famous competitor or that person with apparently perfect shape and technique our mind’s first reaction might be to tell you “give up, you are never going to make it”. This is a rapid reaction that your mind creates based on the signs that it is capturing to help you avoid wasting energy. Do not engage on that sort of mentality. Go against it, give your best because what your unconscious reaction does not know is that even if you lose to that person you can still surprise yourself with what you have accomplished and that might be the spark that will light up the flame of future amazing possibilities in your performance.
  2. Focus on your performance: once you put aside the initial desire of giving up before the competition starts, it will be time to focus on yourself. Do not focus on imitating the other “amazing” competitor technique. Do not try to be someone else. Be yourself because only by doing so you will allow yourself to beat someone else. When you focus too much on the other you forget about your inner strengths and weaknesses, and you consequently lose track of your optimal performance. So, focus on yourself and beating your rival will be a mere consequence. Remember to write your own story and not to relive someone else’s.
  3. Be smart and strategic: great challenges are the perfect moments for personal growth as you will be out of your comfort zone – when all your normal and usual actions will have no place at all. When facing a challenge you will have to go beyond and use both, your body and your brain. It is time to find an edge by creating and sticking to a smart strategy. That applies to your physical training, diet, and mind set. It is time to trace your winning strategy and hold on to it, because if you let your emotions speak louder you might lose just for not being smart enough to listen to your rational self. At this point, you should know by heart all your own weaknesses and strengths and it is time to look for flaws in your opponent; study him or her, analyze when and how you should attack as well as when you should keep a defensive approach. But remember, knowing your opponent is not the same as imitating him or her. Be one step ahead and have in mind that success equals to hard work plus sharp mind plus talent. Thus, hard work and sharp mind will always beat talent alone.
  4. Do not engage on negative thoughts: the worst thing you can do when you start questioning your sportive ability is to let yourself get caught by a spiral of negative emotions because the toughest opponent one can have is always him or herself, and trust me, you don’t want you to engage on a fierce competition against yourself. You have to learn how to use the negative experiences and thoughts in your favor, learn from them, and then let them go. Do not get attached to negativity. But caution here blocking them is not a solution either. When you block negative emotions you accumulate them, and at some point they will come they will overflow or worse, they might bounce back with full force. Accept that you will make mistakes and eventually fail and lose, but try to learn how to see your failures as the most amazing opportunities to learn and become better since only through failures one can forge greatness.
  5. Learn: if I had to summarize in one word how to mentally deal with an amazing and talented opponent, that word would be “learn” once even amazing talented athletes have to A LOT to learn before becoming great sports legends. The path to success is made of constant learning experiences, those who have their eyes and heart open to see and feel these experiences will be the ones who will fully embody the teachings that life provides. Every athlete needs to be willing fall and crash, but still be able stand up with flame in their eyes thinking: “thank you for putting me down because now I will become stronger, smarter, and faster”. Remember, we are like water, we need to be in constant flow and if we stop we become polluted, unnatural, and likely sick. As Bruce Lee once said, “be water my friend”.