By Mohammad Ali
Apr. 15, 2018

The Mental Game: Misdirection and Manipulation in Jiu-Jitsu

Raheil Inaim and Mohammad M. Ali

The Mental Game: Misdirection and Manipulation in Jiu-Jitsu

Sports psychologists have studied for decades the importance of developing and improving the mental ability, otherwise known as mental game, for athletes. The world’s top athletes have been improving, and continue to further advance their physical and mental techniques in order to stay a few steps ahead of their opponents. The mental game in jiu-jitsu, however, has not been extensively researched or written about. The literature on sports psychology clearly lacks the understanding of jiu-jitsu as a mentally demanding sport that requires the athlete to borrow numerous techniques from other sports and even other disciplines. According to Ali (personal communication, 2018), a brown belt in the sport, improving his mental game during training required borrowing techniques he learned from chess and even magic. From magic, Ali was able to learn the art of misdirection and distraction, and from chess he was able to acquire the ability to see several moves ahead of his opponent. However, although the mental game plays a huge role in jiu-jitsu, Ali emphasizes the importance of physical technique and the simple ability to feel your opponents style. As he mentioned in our personal communication, when he engages in a fight with his opponent, a lot of his movement and responses are done subconsciously due to practice and familiarity with the sport.

Misdirection and distraction are terms often associated with illusions and magic. When using misdirection, the illusionist attempts to deter the spectator’s attention to the “magic” in order to hide the real method used to pull off the trick (Kuhn, Caffaratti, Teszka, & Rensink, 2014). Misdirection has within itself an element of manipulation in which the illusionist attempts to manipulate not only the spectator’s eyesight but also their thinking (Kuhn, Caffaratti, Teszka, & Rensink, 2014). In sports, this misdirection and manipulation is called feint. Feint actions are “pretend” actions taken by one opponent in order to manipulate the other opponent into taking a certain action. The trick in jiu-jitsu is to attempt feint actions that will lead your opponent into an action that will ultimately be advantageous to you. In other sports such as volleyball, basketball and soccer, it was found that experienced athletes not only had the ability to mislead their opponents, they were also able to identify feint movements almost subconsciously (Güldenpenning, Steinke, Koester & Schack, 2013). In volleyball, the feint action could be manipulating the opposing team into thinking the ball is going to be spiked to the left when it is really going to the right. In jiu-jitsu however, the fighter must manipulate the opponent while thinking of his or her reaction in advance. Each misdirected move is a gateway to a longer mental game that ultimately leads to the opponents defeat. The amazing thing about misdirection is that it causes confusion in the opponent. The initial reaction to the feint movement is fast and done without thinking. However, when a real hit is applied after the feint action, the opponent has a shorter response time due to the confusion which gives you the immediate upper hand (Henry, Dawson, Lay & Young, 2012).

The ability to respond to feint actions or physical manipulation in volleyball and basketball had a positive correlation with the players experience with the game. The longer the athlete played the sport, the easier and faster they were able to detect feint actions. Another study found that dancers were able to predict the movements of other dancers of the same gender. However, the dancers were more easily able to predict movements that they themselves use and have experience with. The subjects found it more difficult to predict movements that were not with in their dance style and that they had only viewed and not experienced. This knowledge of experiencing movement is not new to jiu-jitsu. In jiu-jitsu, athletes are encouraged to fight or “roll” with as many different opponents as possible. This strategy goes along with the finding of the dance study that suggest experience in movement is more beneficial for athletes than simply viewing techniques. In a personal conversation with Ali, I suggested watching opponents before big fights in order to learn their style. He informed me that watching the athletes beforehand did not give him any advantage, and that it actually messed with his mental game and made him less confident with his own movement. So, according to the available research, the jiu-jitsu principle that makes rolling more beneficial than watching reigns true.

Researching the ability to upgrade and develop the mental game in jiu-jitsu, which is often regarded as subconscious, into a concept for which data can be collected would be very beneficial to the sport. Collecting data and developing well studied strategies on improving the mental game and the athlete’s ability to misdirect can help those intelligent enough to understand and implement the techniques become top contenders. Although many studies have shown that mere time and experience are what help athletes develop this sixth sense, it can be argued that perhaps working with a set of data that has measured specific techniques used by good athletes to misdirect their opponent successfully could be used to develop the mental game. Perhaps it is possible to minimize the teaching time for these techniques in order for contenders to be able to use them more quickly. If future research does show that misdirection techniques can be successfully taught, then training and perhaps the sport will rely more heavily on those athletes who have skill, technique, strength, and who are more superior in intelligence compared to other contenders.

Güldenpenning, I., Steinke, A., Koester, D., & Schack, T. (2013). Athletes and novices are differently capable to recognize feint and non-feint actions. Experimental Brain Research, 230(3), 333-343.

Henry, G., Dawson, B., Lay, B., & Young, W. (2012). Effects of a feint on reactive agility performance. Journal of Sports Sciences, 30(8), 787-795.

Kuhn, Caffaratti, Eteszka, & Rensink. (2014). A Psychologically-based taxonomy of misdirection. Frontiers in Psychology, 5, Frontiers in Psychology, 01 December 2014, Vol.5.

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