As I peruse the latest event results posted on this page, I notice somethign interesting. The various successes reported, be they MMA or BJJ have something in common. They all describe someone working to a game plan.
It got me thinking about game plans, for BJJ, for MMA, for life.
Any good coach will tell you as you’re preparing for competition it’s important to have a game plan. At the very least a basic idea of what you want to achieve, what positions you are trying to get to and what you want to do once you’re there.
One of the tools that is closely connected to game plans is visualisation. Pretty much any top athlete on the planet now uses visualization as a training tool -a practice that, as far as we can determine started with Roger Bannister. Bannister was the first to break the 4 minute mile despite accepted beliefs at the time that it was physiologically impossible to do so.
So if we accept the importance of visualization as a training tool, having a game plan can help structure your visualization training.
Some assembly required.
So how do you build a game plan? There’s a couple of different models. One is a very linear approach. For example in a BJJ match, here’s how I’m going to start, here’s how I’ll take down, this is the position I’ll end up in and this is how I’ll finish. You have now have a clear structure to the match you can visualise.
But there’s an obvious flaw.
Fighting, wrestling, competition is a chaotic environment. There’s other factors involved (most notably your opponent) which can get in the way of your carefully crafted script. And if your plan is too narrow, once you end up off plan you may find yourself lost, unsure what to do next and therefore a bit panicked.
So the next layer of sophistication is to have a plan that is more encompassing. Rather than starting at the start, start at the end. Think about your preferred finish and work out how to get there from a variety of different places. If I want to finish with a rear naked choke from back for example, do I have a path to get the back from mount, from guard, from side control (top and bottom) from half guard etc etc. Now wherever I end up I am still “on plan” and it’s simply a matter of executing.
When top athletes visualise their events (for example a track and field star thinking about an 800m run), they will visualise every conceivable eventuality. If they’re in the lead early on, if they stumble at the start line, if they’re boxed in by other runners etc etc. So that when it’s time to run the race whatever unfolds they have already experienced it, it’s already familiar and they know how to get from that point to the end goal – crossing the line first.
And then of course you can have branching plans. Rather than having all roads leading to rome (e.g. back choke) you have a separate plan or way to finish from every position. To take an extreme and inspirational example it’s said that Jean Jacques Machado really doesn’t care how you attack him because over time he’s had so many seperate game plans they have all melded into one. So whatever the attack, he has a response ready to go which could feed into a variety of game plans. Or to put it another way he’s worked so many game plans to the point where he no longer needs one.
This is also how Rigan Machado was able to go into a match with a world class judoka and ask John Will to pick a finish. So broad is his library of game plans he was confident whatever John chose (omoplata, left arm), he had a path to that outcome from any situation.
Beware positive thinking.
That may seem an odd thing coming from me. Maybe it’s more accurate to say beware of certain types of positive thinking. Because the research shows some positive thinking is very helpful, whereas other types are not only not helpful but potentially harmful. And the difference can be quite subtle. Here is one of the pitfalls of visualising a game plan that I’ve seen. A tendancy to focus only on “positive thinking” to the point where competitors refuse to entertain the possibility that they may be losing – on the bottom, or getting hit with a flurry – for fear “negative thinking” will make it so. So they never consider how they will deal with being on the back foot.
This is not so much positive thinking as wishful thinking. Those that were around in the mid 90′s would have heard alot of this from the world of Traditional Martial Arts (“We don’t fight on the ground because you’ll never get us there”. Oh really?)
Much more useful is to go there, imagine you’re under mount, or facing a barrage of punches, but to see yourself working out of it, turning the tables and taking the initiative.
So what’s the point?
That’s all well in good if you’re into competition. However, for the amount of time effort and resources we devote to our training, if getting better at fighting people is all we get out of it return on investment just doesn’t stack up. Particularly when you consider fighting is a skill that most of us are not likely to need off the mat. However as anyone that’s been training for a while can attest, the true beauty of training is that the lessons translate directly to our off the mat lives.
So how does the idea of a game plan fit off the mat. Obviously there is a parrallel with goal setting. I’m sure we’ve all heard various accounts of the importance of goal setting. And yet at the same time it turns out some of the studies that are quoted around goal setting (e.g the “yale” study) turn out to be urban myths. And when I look at my life, and conversations I’ve had with others, I can’t help but notice something else. Often the biggest opportunities have come out of no where.
And what about visualising success? Of course there’s The Secret, the pop psychology phenomenon which everybody was citing after an appearance on Oprah. The Secret will tell you to simply visualise what you want (more money, great exam results, that perfect partner) and the universe will “manifest” it for you. However as John Will is fond of saying – if you put a picture of your perfect house on the wall and visualise it every day the only thing that will manifest is a family of spiders behind the picture. And John’s scepticism is backed up by the research. It turns out if you spend a bit of time visualising those great exam results every day, you’re actually *less likely* to get good marks. It seems that the visualisation tells your subconscious you’ve already accomplished the goal – so it decides there’s no need to work for it!
So while most would agree it’s important to have a game plan for life it’s clear we need to be careful about how we go about setting that plan.
Visualising the successful outcome, that winning moment, getting the job, opening the results, is great for creating an emotional incentive for the work. However just visualising the outcome is not enough. We need to have a clear idea of the end point and then get serious about working backwards to the “how”. That then needs to become our point of focus. Rather than day dreaming about how nice it would be to get those great exam results, we need to focus on today’s study plan, or even better, that page of text in front of us right now.
Or to put it more succinctly, visualize the outcome to connect you the “why” at an emotional level, and then focus on the process to create the “how”.
From there it’s a question of execution. There’s a number of factors and unexpected complications that may need to be overcome in the pursuit of any goal. So we have to be aware enough in the moment to both notice any barriers early, and change tack accordingly (just like on the mat!) Sometimes there are more difficult obstacles to overcome. The goal may not be “ecological” (i.e. it doesn’t fit in with the rest of your life very well), you may have some unconscious part of you that is resistant to the goal for some reason or you may have ingrained limiting beliefs that are holding you back..
In these cases, just like on the mat, a coach can help iron out the wrinkles and get everything aligned.
Another thing to consider is how a game plan that is too narrow can restrict your options. On the mat for example, if I’m absolutely focused on hitting omoplatas this month I’m probably going to ignore, and not even notice all those opportunities for chokes. That’s ok on the mat. But if we become too obsessively focused on a narrow goal set in life – what more important things can we be missing out on? How many people have pursued “financial security” so single mindedly they sacrifice any quality time with the family for whom they are supposedly working. Or are so intent on that next step in the specific career they have mapped out that they don’t see other and perhaps more exciting career opportunities right in front of their face.
As BJJers move from blue to purple one of the things we look for is a shift from a single minded attention on executing a game plan, to a slightly different mindset. A mindset that has a gameplan in mind, but is also so flexible and in the moment that they can notice changing circumstances very quickly and adjust to take advantage. This I believe is also the appropriate mindset in life. Have some end points in mind, and at the same time not to be so focused on that, that you miss the opportunities that are around you all the time. Rats head and ox’s neck all at the same time.
So where does that leave us?
Just like on the mat there’s a number of different ways we can run a game plan. We can have a very linear game plan, this is what I’m going to do- I’ll do this then I’ll do this then I’ll do that. Unfortunately just like a fight life can be a little chaotic. There are a whole heap of things that can get in the way. And if we are overly focused on just that game plan we may find ourselves too slow to adapt and adjust. Try asking yourself occasionally – “what opportunities am I failing to notice right now by being focused elsewhere”
Or we can have an end point in mind and a number of different ways to get there. Allowing for as many contingencies and “what if”s as we can come up with.
And then perhaps the more sophisticated version, the Jean Jacques version if you like, is to work simply on developing ourselves. To develop ourselves goal by goal so we are more and more prepared for whatever life throws at us. To be awake and aware enough that we can notice what opportunities are around us and then be absolutely focused in the pursuit of our passions. All the while being open to changing circumstances and new possibilities. I’ve had the opportunity to speak to some remarkable individuals, from John Will to Olympic gold medalists to top business people and world renowned sports psychologists. When discussing the area of goals and achievement they all seem to indicate the same thing.
At the end of the day it wasn’t the achievement of the goal that was the important thing. It was who they became in the pursuit of the goal that mattered.
So maybe it’s not so much a matter of developing ourselves so we can achieve our goals.
Maybe it’s more a case of setting goals so we can develop our selves.