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The Mental Game With Travis Stevens

The Mental Game With Travis Stevens

We’re going to look at a topic that’s often vague, confusing and full of myths. Mental toughness.

What is mental toughness? We often think that mental toughness is simply enduring physical discomfort. 

The more physical discomfort we can endure the more mentally tough we are, right?


Let’s listen to what Olympic Silver medalist Judoka, John Danaher black belt, and Judo Fanatics tutor Travis Stevens has to say about mental toughness in Judo and BJJ.


The first thing we notice is that Travis changes the common sense definition of mental toughness from simply enduring physical discomfort to being present during discomfort and actively learning.

If we really grasp this concept it can have a massive impact on our capacity to learn and get the most from each and every training session. 

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Travis notes its relatively easy to show up to training, mentally switch off, and just coast through a session. In fact the harder the session the more tempting it is to switch off and just go through the motions. 

It’s great to hear that whatever level we are at in our game, whether it’s the first class we’ve ever been to or we’re a black belt, being present during training is always something we can practice and improve on.

When Travis observes less competent Judo or BJJ players he sees there’s often a lack of engagement during training, which leads to the same mistake being made over and over and over again. This is a really time and energy inefficient way of training that slows our progress.

Let’s see what Judo founder Jigoro Kano said about this issue:

“One’s mental and physical energy must be used most effectively in order to achieve a certain goal. That is to say, one must apply the most effective method or technique for using the mind and body. 

If we use the term ‘seiryoku’ for one’s mental and physical energy, this should be expressed as seiryoku saizen katsuyo (best use of one’s energy). We can shorten this to ‘seiryoku zenyo’ (maximum efficiency).

This means that no matter what the goal, in order to achieve it, you must put your mental and physical energy to work in the most effective manner.”

In BJJ we might be familiar with a core concept, Alavanca, which means “leverage” in Portugese. It would be easy to think of Alavanca or Seiryoku Zenyo as only applying to physical techniques, that we want to use the most efficient physical leverage against our opponent to maximise the force we can apply to them. 

What Traivs is saying however is that this is a crude understanding of Seiryoku Zenyo. If we only think of mental toughness as biting down on our gumshield and enduring the pain this is the mental equivalent of using ineffective physical technique. 

To apply Seiryoku Zenyo to our mental game we need to adopt what in Zen they call Beginners Mind and be present to what’s happening so that we can learn and adjust throughout our training.

One practice that might help you with this is a basic mindfulness meditation practice. Mindfulness practice works on the logic that we train first in an ideal situation, in a comfortable posture and in a peaceful location, so that we can build the skill of paying attention to our mind. As we increase our ability to be mindful in seated meditation this skill naturally becomes a bigger part of our daily life, and also part of our life on the mats. 

Without this awareness Travis notes that people don’t take an active role in their own learning, which brings us onto another vital concept Travis highlights, taking ownership.

Another concept Travis brings to mental toughness is what Navy SEAL Jocko Willink calls ‘Extreme Ownership’, which means taking responsibility for our own goals regardless of the situation we find ourselves in. 

If we don’t have a training partner that matches our own skill level then we can allow them to play their best position and ourselves to play our worst position so that we can both develop. If we have a training partner that’s a lot weaker or smaller than we are we can use this as an opportunity to really reduce the strength we use and get our technical game as sharp as it can be.

Once we adopt an attitude of Extreme Ownership in our practice we realize that every moment on the mats is a moment we can learn, adapt, and improve. 

The third concept Travis brings is also crucial.  Maintain High Standards for yourself. This doesn’t mean being arrogant or anything like that. It means really paying attention to what we’re doing and asking ourselves how we can improve.

In order to do this Traivs has three questions he asks himself during rolling:

1) What were my mistakes? 

2) How do I fix them?

3) What will I do in this next exchange?

As Travis is asking himself these questions while rolling he’s training his mind to actively pay attention, to not settle for anything less than his best, and to be able to see, assess, and adapt at a fast pace. Crucial for success in training and competition!

As World Champion and twice Silver medal Olympic Judoka Neil Adams says “Practice doesn’t make perfect, it makes permanent, so be careful how you practice.”

Paying attention while stressed and fatigued and being able to adapt is mental toughness. Pay attention. Learn. Improve. 


The Judo Academy by Jimmy Pedro and Travis Stevens

To continue to improve your own mental game take this chance to invest in your learning with those on the world stage on both Judo and BJJ by checking out The Judo Academy by Jimmy Pedro and Travis Stevens here!