There is an expression in Brazilian jiu-jitsu that there is no losing in BJJ: you either win, or you learn. It sounds good on the Internet, but in the heat of competition, it’s a perspective that’s easy to lose sight of. While it’s counterintuitive, a hyper-focus on competitive success can do more harm than good. The most successful athletes are those who have found a balance between a desire to succeed and an enjoyment of the game. That strategy holds true for not just martial arts but for most competitive sports as well.

Why is an obsession with winning bad? If you intend to compete, shouldn’t you want to win?

There’s nothing wrong with a desire to win. But an obsessive fixation on competitive success can produce problems both during and after competition. In the heat of competition, a student fixated on winning may actually blind themselves to potential opportunities during a match: every reversal, every missed attempt, can be viewed as a failure or setback which paralyzes the student, rather than allowing them to move forward. They become so inflexible in their thinking that they are unable to recover from even a minor setback.

An obsessed competitor may find themselves having a difficult time learning and growing, even outside of competition. Coach Tony Blauer often asks the question “Are you training for your next fight, or your last fight?” A student fixated on their last victory may try to re-enact it over and over again, instead of learning new skills or shoring up weaknesses. A student fixated on a loss may focus on nothing but trying to prevent that loss from occurring again, and shut out any other information that might improve their performance.

The training partner obsessed with competitive success may become a bad training partner. Competition-obsessed individuals can become incapable of recognizing the difference between training time and competition time: every roll becomes a championship match, every drill or sparring session becomes a full-contact fight. Eventually, other students simply won’t want to train with someone who turns every training session into a death match. When one’s training partners start to disappear it becomes more difficult to get ready for the fight.

Of course, there are dangers to taking an overly casual approach to competition. Too much of a laissez-faire attitude may make it difficult for the competitor to push themselves when the competition requires it. They may find themselves losing matches they could win because they have trained themselves not to put in the extra effort. If this becomes a pattern, the student may even start to view themselves as someone who underperforms–ultimately training themselves to be less successful than they could be.

The goal then, is to find a place of balance in competition. Approach it seriously enough to succeed, without taking it so seriously that it negatively impacts your performance (or your life).

The heart of this process begins with a simple question: how important is the battle I’m fighting right now? If you are a white belt entering your first local grappling tournament, it is unlikely that anything earth shattering hangs on your performance. Focus on having fun, learning and truly remembering “how important is this battle really.” I think in most cases you will find the pressure applied to one’s self will go down when you ask yourself this question. The goal and focus should be learning and fun more than winning. The more fun you have, drives you to train and learn more……that my friends is the path to winning instead of an over focus on the end result.

If you’re preparing for a title match in the UFC, it might make sense to have more emphasis on your performance, but remember the same thing is true focus on the learning and enjoying the journey. Listen to many of the athletic legends of our time during interviews, you hear many of them share their deep “love for the game” this love doesn’t develop by turning the passion into “work” through one’s over focus on results.

The question “how important is the battle I’m fighting right now?” can be applied outside of competition as well. It’s a question you can ask about a disagreement you have with your boss, your spouse, or that guy online whose politics you just can’t stand. When you take a step back and look at the big picture it becomes much easier to see the forest from the trees and put things into true perspective.

The choice is yours, but make it consciously.