7 Psychological Effects That Explain Your Jiu Jitsu Problems

“I don’t feel I’m worthy of the next belt”

“I’m in a slump”

“I can’t win any tournaments”

Guess what? You’re not special, you suffer from being normal.  It’s human nature to question things and go through trials of getting good at something.  It’s sooo normal in fact, that there are proven psychological effects to put you at ease.  Here are 7 of them that explain why you should realize that you’re not the world’s worst jiu jitsu practitioner…we all got ’em.



Illusory superiority, to put it simply is the habit of overestimating your positive abilities and underestimating the negative.  We have all heard about he guy in the gym that does nothing but ankle locks, or the one that does nothing but cross-collar chokes.  They’re out there, and I’m one of them – you should be as well, it’s a natural psychological event.  That being said, Illusory superiority should tell you something right off the bat; that ankle-guy’s leg locks aren’t as good as he thinks they are and his chokes are probably better than he realizes.

To put it in basics, Illusory superiority can be compared to arrogance and ego – two things that don’t belong in jiu jitsu.  We think we are better than we really are.  It’s a tough phenomenon to comprehend, but the more incompetent we are at things, the less we realize it.  We think we are more attractive than we are, think we know more than we actually do, and every time we honk the horn in traffic, it’s their fault – which you know is absurd, otherwise everyone would drive perfectly like me.

Going back to jiu jitsu – illusory superiority has a habit of giving you overconfidence, which in turn keeps you from drilling what you think you’re totally awesome at.  Over time and lack of drilling, what you think you’re awesome at is completely horrid.  So take a minute and think about the last time you drilled your “specialty” or “go-to” move 50 times before class…I’ll bet it’s been a while.  But before you start going through the motions of drilling, remember that your brain also does this to you..



We are more comfortable with people, places or things that we are familiar with – even though we don’t know them.  Given the choice, we would be more comfortable with someone we see jogging by our house every day than with a neighbor we have never seen – even though we don’t personally know nor have met either…but we see the jogger more often.  Take this test to see for yourself.

In a study done where a group of people were shown made-up chinese characters and shown all of them anywhere from 0-25 times each, 11 of the 12 subjects chose the most frequently shown character as the most liked – simply because they were exposed to it more often.

In jiu jitsu, this can determine your “game” to an extent.  Have you ever been on the fence about training some days, walk in and find out they’re teaching open-guard techniques then turn and walk right out?  I have (maybe I’m alone here), but I’ve also been in the same situation and found out they were teaching armbars and I stayed.  Obviously armbars are more appealing to some people.  Is that because they’re good at them, think they’re good at them (illusory superiority) or are exposed to them more often?  I’ll let you draw your own conclusions, but the mere-exposure effect is definitely a factor in what your preference is.



This may sound more like it should be a training point for business managers, but the Pygmalion effect is simple; the greater the expectation placed upon people, the better they perform their task.

Ask around and you’ll find people who have started off their BJJ competition careers with really horrible experiences.  As they mature and rank-up, they become leaders of the gym and seem to compete better, that’s the Pygmalion effect.  You could argue their timeframe extends in jiu jitsu and their skills increase, but also by that theory so does their opponents.

The Pygmalion effect not only affects the practitioner, but the instructor as well.  When the instructor believes the student is capable, they will teach more complex and intimate areas of jiu jitsu.  In line with that, when the student is told they have incredible potential or that they’re “picking it up really fast”, the student may be more inclined to prove the instructor right or make and extra effort to satisfy what they believe to be a natural talent.  Regardless, the high expectation drives performance.



If you’ve competed, you’ve experienced this.  The cocktail party effect is best described as that ability you have at a party to focus in on one conversation during a party where everyone is talking.  You’re able to “blank-out” the outer distractions to focus on a single event – in this case the individual conversation.

In jiu jitsu, you’ll most likely see this during competition.  You’ll hear people say that when they’re competing they can make out their coaches voice and understand it even though it may not be the loudest.  Most of the time when people are competing they won’t even notice the cheers or crowd noise due to the cocktail party effect – your focus is on your opponent.

Conversely, this can get out of hand.  If you haven’t seen the gorilla experiment, give it a whirl…I’ll warn you to just click the link and pay attention to the video without reading any further until you’re finished and without reading anything about it beforehand…here is the link.

Now that you’ve seen that video, what do you think?  Whether you saw it or missed it is irrelevant.  You more than likely are able to see how someone can completely miss the monkey in the middle of a group of kids throwing a ball.  That phenomena is a product of focused attention – “zooming in” on something that is completely taking your attention away from outside details.

While on the mat and in competition, the cocktail party effect can be beneficial in terms of hearing your coach and getting rid of distractions, it’s possible to become too focused and miss things that you’d normally see during casual rolling.  Don’t believe me?  Next time you lose, don’t throw away the video.  Instead, watch your match and you’ll ask yourself, “how did I not see that triangle?  He’s giving it to me!

…or something of the like…welcome to focused attention and the cocktail party effect.



The spotlight effect in essence is when you think everyone is watching you and they aren’t.  It’s hard to think outside of your person, your own world that you live in 24-7.  That’s why whenever you trip, slip, spill something on your shirt or whatever your embarrassing moment may be, it seems like everyone is watching when in reality it’s more likely that people don’t really care at all.  Read here for a few experiments involving T-shirts (one of which was Barry Manilow, get some!) that show that roughly half of people who you think notice you, don’t.

This can be incredibly effective in calming tournament nerves.  One of the biggest reasons for the nerves is the fear of failing or the fear of being embarrassed in front of a large group of people.  You only need to look at the spotlight effect to calm your nerves – most people aren’t even paying attention…which sucks when you win by a sweet spider-guard sweep to knee-bar combo and want your applause.



Fairly simple, and if you’re in college you more than likely don’t abide by this at all because it is the exact opposite of cramming for a test all hyped-up on Red Bull.  The spacing effect is the rule that learning or experiencing an action spaced out over time is more effective that than the same frequency “crammed” together in a short period.

The best part of the spacing effect is that it applies to all sorts of learning – including jiu jitsu, so when you see a quote along the lines of “you get better by going to class”, they aren’t lying.  Going to class and drilling and getting in the habit of coming back to study the basics will bring your game to a more understandable level along with a deeper understanding of the physics behind the moves.  Well, that or you can practice armbars for 5 straight days then call it good, but I wouldn’t take that route.  Basically the spacing effect is scientific backup that doing the same boring crap during drills every week works…sorry.



Hold on to your hats here because this one will pretty much answer any doubts or questions you’ve ever had about your jiu jitsu.  Ready? Read this for the long route, or continue on here for the quickie breakdown:

Unskilled individuals are overconfident while the ones that have skills that come easily more or less assume that they come easily to everyone which drives them towards a lack of confidence

Basically what the Dunning-Kruger effect is, is a skill set that is somewhat inversely related to how you feel about your skill.  Someone that has horrible technique thinks they’re the badass of the century while someone with perfect technique will be humble as apple pie (I don’t know what I meant by that).  But hold on, that’s the way it’s interpreted, and it’s incorrect.

Here is a great article on the Dunning-Kruger effect where the author explains the misconception.  He spells it out for you in black and white and provides this chart from the paper:



You can see that it isn’t necessarily inverse, but what this chart shows is the top quarter of people actually out-do their perceived ability, which I guess would technically mean that they are better than they think they are.  But if you look at the bottom quartile, the difference in actual and perceived is insanely huge.  To put it in layman’s terms, when you’re really good, you know it but you’re a little better than you know.  When you’re really bad, you think you’re a lot better than you actually are, and when you think you’re just ok, well, you’re pretty close to being just ok.  I’ll let you pick where “Tapout guy” falls.

So next time you get promoted and feel you don’t deserve it, guess where you are?  You think you’re bad but your instructor thinks you’re next level…sounds a lot like top-quartile-problem to me.


Categories: EVERYTHING (in no particular order), Jiu Jitsu and Judo

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  1. 7 Psychological Effects That Explain Your Jiu Jitsu Problems | Utah Martial Arts and MMA

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