A friend loaned me the book Superbetter by Jane McGonigal. I decided to write about how the ideas connect to jiu jitsu, so I’ll be writing this up as I’m going. The idea behind the book is that you can use the science of games to help yourself get stronger, happier, braver, and more resilient. Please feel free to read along with me. I’ll be quoting from the hardback book for ease of reference.


This chapter’s tagline is: Unlock the ability to control what you think and feel, even during extreme stress or pain.


I remember discovering that when I was having period pain, it would entirely go away when I would do jiu jitsu. I could have monstrous lower back pain, hip pain, etc, yet as soon as I got on the mat, it’s like that pain disappeared. Now I know why.

Your brain can process and absorb only a limited amount of new information at any given moment. […] if you learn to control your attention spotlight, you can actually stop your brain from spending its limited processing resources on pain signals from your nerves. P. 31

Rather than be a reason to stay off the mats, this is a great reason to go. Sore muscles? Try jiu jitsu! Generalized pain? Try jiu jitsu! Bruised up legs? Try jiu jitsu!


This was a new and novel idea for me. I know that in general, when I am trying to stop my negative thoughts and feelings, I would just focus on breathing. Some dude is crushing my face on the mats or pissing me off, I just try to breathe and get through it. In reality, I stew. I marinate, and then I write blog posts about being pissed off and crying in the bathroom.

McGonigal suggests playing a word game. Pick two letters. Think of as many words that have both of those letters in any order within one minute. Interrupt your negative thoughts by preoccupying it. It is a tool for “blocking unwanted thoughts, feelings, or physical sensations” (page 35). Sure, focusing on breathing can help, but I’m definitely going to try this next time.

BZ: Brazilian, blaze, zebra, brazen, ballz…


Anxiety is something I hear about a lot in jiu jitsu and on this blog, and most of the time I’ve seen two kinds. One is the “useless” kind – nervous about going on the mats, nervous about interacting with people, etc. There is also the useful kind – reminding you “HEY YOU, YOUR TOURNAMENT IS COMING UP AND YOU’RE NOT READY. GET READY,” which then, in turn, helps you focus and learn.

In the case of the former, where all that anxiety is doing is making you sick to your stomach, McGonigal suggests distracting yourself – engaging your eyeballs and brain. Play Angry Birds, Tetris, or even Candy Crush before class, while waiting in your car. Instead of focusing on being nervous, engage your eyeballs and brain. Break your cycle of attention. She even mentioned that kids who were going into surgery who played video games beforehand felt virtually no anxiety before surgery, and experienced about half the amount afterward (page 42).


This was one section that really resonated with jiu jitsu for me. “Flow is the state of being completely cognitively absorbed in an activity. It’s not mere distraction or engagement; it’s full engagement. It’s being totally immersed in, motivated by, and energized from the challenge at hand. In a state of flow, you not only lose track of time, you lose a sense of self-awareness.” (page 44).

Jiu jitsu absolutely falls under this category – your full attention on what your body is doing, what your partner is doing, engaging your brain, your body, on every detail. You get physically exhausted, and your body learns to react, you’re also constantly trying new things – something you just learned, trying to break bad habits, etc.

“If you can create flow for yourself, you’re not just blocking negative feelings like pain and anxiety. You’re also actively creating better psychological and physical health.” (page 45)

I remember when I started jiu jitsu, just feeling better all around. My outlook improved, I smiled more, and I was generally happier. When I’m not doing jiu jitsu, I’m just not as happy.

Jiu Jiu’s Question: Have you read this chapter of Superbetter? Which of these ideas resonated with you? How have you interrupted your negative feelings/thoughts/anxiety? Has jiu jitsu helped with your generalized pains? I’d love to hear your thoughts or reactions to any of these ideas, or to this chapter in general.

Coming up soon: Chapter 2: You are Surrounded by Potential Allies.