How Thinking like a Loser Can Make You a Winner
By Sam Yang - Get similar updates here
I'm going to tell you a story about what went through my mind during the finals of a competition, but frankly it's what goes through my mind during any intense situation. To boil everything I talk about down into one word, it would be "mindset." Mindset meaning: the established set of attitudes. The attitudes I hold are far from perfect, what they are is functional and productive for my personality.
Whether it's sports, public speaking, or any intense activity, we're told to think like a winner — to own the room and destroy our enemies! That's nice, but I'm only human. A lot of thoughts go through my head very quickly and I can't control them all. Sometimes I have to let go and think what I'm going to think and let it pass on its own. I will never be able to remove all doubts, and I have come to accept them as a part of myself, it's something that keeps me sharp and informed.
I have heard the most dominant champions of MMA say, their mindset before a fight is that of extreme fear and confidence. Not going back and forth between the two feelings, they feel both emotions at once. When they are too relaxed or have no doubts is when they feel complacent and buying into their own hype. Well, I don't know about extreme confidence, but I have the fear part down.
My Competitive Art
Let me start by giving you a brief explanation of BJJ (Brazilian jiu-jitsu). It's one of the newer martial arts, born on the streets of Rio de Janeiro. Judo was brought to Brazil, taught to the Gracie family — through challenge matches (and some street fights), they evolved it from a throwing art to a ground-fighting art. Why it became a ground art is because a smaller person needed the ground as a platform to create leverage. I stand a better chance fighting a shark if I can drag it onto land. When a person gives up (taps out due to pain or is choked unconscious) or loses enough positions (positions are dictated by the amount of leverage that can be exerted), they lose. But mainly it looks like pajama wrestling.
I've done many different martial arts, but this is the art I find the most challenging, frustrating, and rewarding. From this art spawned the UFC and the sport of mixed martial arts (MMA) — creating a new type of professional athlete. I am no athlete. In fact I may be the opposite; I am an arthritic thirty-something who doesn't get paid to train.
I somehow got the bug to compete (a contagious disease at Cobrinha BJJ), which I still don't get because I don't like competing. That's part of the pull I think, to do the things you don't like and challenging yourself. That's what jiu-jitsu is about: fighting that bigger guy, overcoming obstacles, facing all the mental challenges of wanting to give up and beg for mercy, and finding a way to come out better than you were. Every technique you are taught is about snatching victory out of impossible situations, every roll (sparring) is the hero's journey. You don't love jiu-jitsu every time you train, sometimes you hate it, that's why you do it.
My Story Begins Here...
In my previous tournament outing, I was eliminated in my first match. My fingers still hadn't healed yet from all the grip fighting (grabbing at my opponent's uniform in an attempt to control his movements).
Somehow I've made it to the finals of this tournament. I suspect I had some lucky match ups but that can only last so long. I'm waiting in the bullpen. I think, "Is it too late to leave?" I don't warm up. I know others do, others like to get a good sweat going. My heart is already pounding, any warm up would probably exhaust me. I wait to be called. I tell myself I am going to lose. I start to relax because I feel like I have nothing at stake.
They call my name and the name of my opponent. Generally I avoid meeting and talking to my opponent, I'd rather not know my enemy so I can beat him mercilessly. That type of thinking though never seems to work for me so I shake his hand and introduce myself. If I'm going to lose, I might as well be cordial.
Then I find out my opponent is the guy who took first place at that last tournament I was in. He was the one who convincingly beat the guy who eliminated me in my first match. Does that mean he will beat me twice as bad as he beat that guy?
We enter the gym to compete and it's a swamp in there. No AC, hundreds of people, lots of people wrestling on the mats. It's a human sauna. I'm probably breathing in sweat particles.
I never tell anyone about what's going through my head, especially my teammates as they would try to convince me otherwise. That I'm going to win! That I'm a badass! But I got a good mantra going, the loser's mantra and I don't want to be derailed from my train of thought. Not everyone would understand.
We bow to the referee, shake hands, then start the match. In BJJ if you sit while dragging your opponent to the ground with you, there is no exchanging of points. It's considered a neutral move. I remember thinking, I better sit down before this guy takes me down. I pull him into my guard.
The guard is basically anything where I keep my opponent behind my legs so that I can control him with a combination of my arms and legs. Without having to worry about winning, I only have to think one move ahead. In increments as opposed to fixating on a final goal. I thought, I better sweep this guy (flipping my opponent onto his back) before he eventually passes my guard.
My friend Charles from across the arena tells me to GO! So I go. Might as well, it may be the only points I score. He ends up on his back and I end up on top. I was immediately reversed in my previous tournament outing so I drop all my weight down to prevent the same mistake. I had actually worked on that for the last few weeks and it worked. Things you practice work. Almost as if we are machines playing out codes that we have been programmed. That's a fundamental part of BJJ training known as "drilling," the constant practice of moves until it becomes a part of our motor pattern behavior. Like a mindless BJJ bot. Except I'm not mindless, I have lots of thoughts, thoughts about not trying to win. Thoughts about going out there to lose.
In the heat of competition, everything slows down and in a very short period of time, you can think about many things. I thought about being reversed. I better pass his guard (his legs) before that happens. He tries to stand up, that would be the right thing to do to make me lose. So I push him back down and pass his guard.
I look up at the clock and only 40 seconds have passed. How in the hell? 40 seconds? That's it? Anything could happen with all that time left. I'm already beginning to breathe heavy. From across the arena, I hear Charles yell, "Calm down Sam!" I take a breath, but I can't rest here. He's bucking me off like a bronco. Like a little Asian light-featherweight bronco. We end up going out of bounds.
We're supposed to reset in the center in the same position, but it never ends up that way. The opponent will never let you get the same position, so I don't even bother. To my surprise, my opponent allows me to get my original position back. Wow. He's that confident he will beat me that he's letting me get my position back? He's been toying with me all this time, to give me false hope, like in the movie The Great White Hype, then he's going to take me out in the last seconds!
I pass my knee across to mount before he turns the tables. Mounting is basically the position an older brother uses to dangle spit over his younger brother. Naturally the most dominant position in BJJ.
At this point, I'm doing pretty well. Maybe I can try to put an end to this, win this before he beats me. I try to choke him but he's a lot shorter than me, he literally has no neck. I can't find his neck! He's going to roll me over, I know it.
He rolls me over. I'm a fool. Luckily there's no points for that as he went from an inferior position to a neutral position (as opposed to a neutral position to a dominant position). Now I'm thinking I'm going to lose. There's so much time left, he probably has the samurai kamikaze mindset. He beat a guy who's beaten me, he won the tournament I couldn't even place in, I was done.
You begin to think like Ed Norton in Fight Club: I am Jack's liver. I am Jack's colon. I am Jack's utter wasted life. I am Jack's complete lack of surprise. Was everyone who ever told me I was a loser — that I would never succeed — right about me? Was every girl who said I wasn't good enough for them, right? Was my dad right? Do I suck??? I'm 10 years old again, in PE and we're playing baseball, and I can't hit the damn ball!
I pull my antagonist down to think about what I should do next. Have we been fighting for minutes or for all of eternity? Maybe he'll pass my guard, hold me down, smash me, break my will, and then finish me. Then I'll lose. I look at the referee. He looks familiar, I think I've trained with him before. I think about work, I have a conference call to take. I need to change the DNS server for my website. Then I realize I have to focus, I'm in the middle of a damn fight! I look at my opponent, he has the look of a stone cold killer. Then I think about pro wrestling, then I think I have ADD, then I focus again.
I bet my opponent can sense my doubt, he can smell my weakness. He's going to kill me. In this situation, I have a move I've drilled a lot. It's not a guarantee, but it works... sometimes. I try the sweep, if nothing else, to avoid stalling. He doesn't go over but he's lost his balance, I think it took him by surprise because he kind of overreacts to it. I give it one more pump, a little more oomph just to see what would happen. He's back on his back. I can't believe it, but I can. It's just the way I've practiced it. I deliberately practiced all the inefficiencies out of the move. Not a perfect move but like anything, the more often I try, the more often it works.
We've already been here before. Literally we were just here minutes ago, so I already know his script. My opponent is really going crazy at this point, he activated #beastmode and it's on level 10. I can't find his neck. He must be a turtle. This is his secret mutant power to beat me. This is how he wins all of his tournaments, with warrior spirit and a secret turtle shell to tuck in all his appendages. I'm going to lose while I'm looking for his damn neck. Where the hell is it? Does he have a neck? Why are his arms so strong?
I really shove my hands deep into his collar, trying to feel around for his neck. Shit he rolls me over. I'm on my back again, but I think I have it. I squeeze just to make sure... If it truly is his neck, he'll cough, or choke, or at least make a face. I actually can't see his face as he's turtled his head into his shell. I wonder if he's secretly a ninja turtle at this point. Am I trying to fight Leonardo from the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles? What am I thinking? I'm going to get my ass kicked. He has a secret katana blade in his back.
He's got a grip on my uniform, he's holding firm to secure the dominant top position. He's already passed my legs. I still can't see his face. He'll probably break my grip and take my arm home with him as a submission trophy. Only a matter of time now before he holds me down and beats me, there's still time left for him to unveil his secret plan. To finally stop toying with me and take me out. He's not moving though and I'm not sure what's going on. He's still gripping tightly.
And the Winner Is...
I look up at the referee, he looks at me. He looks down at my opponent and waves his hands, signaling that the match is over. What happened? Did I win, or did he do some secret move on me and I am dreaming? Am I lying unconscious on the mat dreaming? No, it's the other way around.
I let go and my opponent is snoring. Snoring loud. The referee raises his legs and my opponent quickly wakes up. He's okay but confused. He didn't submit, he wouldn't tap. Even in his sleep he was fighting me. He really is a crazy samurai kamikaze ninja turtle. I better act calm and relaxed. They don't need to know all the wild thoughts that were running through my head.
Maybe confidence in a match isn't really what we think it is. Maybe it's not about confidence but composure, to keep your cool while your mind is scared out of its wits. But to the outside, that looks like confidence.
I look at the clock and there were 39 seconds left. In my mind, 39 seconds was still enough time for him to beat me. In a fight, 39 seconds is enough time to lose. You start thinking you're the best and that's when you start losing your edge, getting sloppy. Doubts keep you sharp, your nervousness slows down time. Thinking I was going out there to lose took all the pressure off of the end goal, leaving me only increments to think about. I saw the match one move at a time. Aim for getting each move right and the effect will take care of itself. Hopefully.
After our match, we shake hands again. I wanted to make sure he was okay, which he was. I commend him for allowing me to restart in the same position. He tells me his martial arts philosophy and how his professor (BJJ term for master) taught him not to take any unfair advantages, a true martial artist does not need them. A good reminder of budō. Wonder what went through his mind during our match?
If you asked me before and after, if I honestly believed my opponent was this scary monster, I would say no. During intense moments, your mind plays a lot of tricks, you can't control much of it. You can, however, plant some seeds and channel some of your thoughts to make them more productive. You're not just fighting your opponent, you're also fighting yourself. You're fighting doubt. The physical battle is small, the war is always within your mind. And when you fight doubt, fight it with faith, not certainty. Certainty gets your ass kicked.
Some people amp themselves up, believe they are a world beater, slap their face and tell themselves they are invincible. That's not me. I channel my loser's mindset to help me win incrementally. That is what the martial arts are after all. They are arts where a "loser" can beat a "winner" by making better incremental choices.
Before putting my opponent to sleep, the score was 22-0, with me winning. There was no point in the match I was losing. This was my sixth medal of the year and my second gold.
Mindset: To identify the values, assumptions, methods, uncertainties and other issues relevant to a given decision, its rationality, and the resulting optimal decision. I define mindset strategically. If you have no fear, you need no courage. If you are certain, you need no faith. You lose your edge and you get sloppy.
It's a Matter of Perspective
Was everyone right? Am I a loser? I am Sam's loser mindset and I am what keeps him sharp, humble, and successful. His weakness is my strength.
- Fight Club: A Novel - Chuck Palahniuk
- David and Goliath: Underdogs, Misfits, and the Art of Battling Giants - Malcolm Gladwell
My name is Sam Yang. I'm a martial artist, entrepreneur, fitness nerd, information geek, and productivity nut. For more useful information, join my newsletter. You can also connect to All Out Effort on Facebook and Twitter.