Roger Gracie focus for peak performance
Required by amateur chess players and jiu-jitsu world champions alike
If you know of anyone who might appreciate the One-Thing-at-a-Time approach, please forward them this email. Thank you.
I was at a Jiu-Jitsu festival in Mallorca last week. It was fabulous. Lovely, open-minded people, horizon-broadening experiences and enlightened thinking.
Roger Gracie was there. If you don’t already know, he’s considered one of the greatest, if not the greatest, Brazilian jiu-jitsu (BJJ) practitioner of all time, owing to his dominance and technical mastery. He’s won the IBJJF World Championship at black belt level ten times, an unprecedented feat. He also clinched the ADCC (Abu Dhabi Combat Club) Submission Wrestling World Championship in 2005, and is the only BJJ athlete ever to submit (force the opponent to tap out / concede) all his opponents (in his weight class as well as the open weight division) at the World Championships.
Roger’s also keen on chess. I was running a small chess tournament as one of the festival’s niche experiences. I’m not a chess master but I’ve played since I was a kid, studied the game a little and to this day enjoy it very much. Roger has only recently become interested in chess. We played a game. It turned into an epic battle with several ebbs and flows. It was even for a good while, then I won a rook for a bishop, he got an attack against my king with an intimidating, advanced pawn. In the end, I won with a trick*, but I was lucky. Despite having played maybe 30,000 fewer games, Roger outplayed me. At one point (a few moves before the position on the board below), I was up, started to relax and took a picture of the position. A few moves later (after the position below) I was losing. Roger asked, ‘why don’t you take a picture now?’
What particularly struck me about him was his extraordinary concentration. He seemed to block everything else out of his mind and only see the 64 squares for the 30 or so minutes we played. I didn’t know it at the time but, in BJJ, hyper-focus is his trademark. In an interview with Lex Fridman, last year, Lex opened the conversation with a question about Gracie’s 2017 super fight with Marcus ‘Buchecha’ Almeida. Roger talks about his 100% focus on his opponent in the lead-up to the match, and that he notices nothing else, not even friends or family wishing him luck. He says he just ‘sees black’. It’s well worth watching or listening to the first five minutes of that Lex (who also happens to be a BJJ black belt) interview for focus-in-the-moment. Much of the rest of that interview is good for focus-over-a-whole-life.
Peak performance requires total focus. While most of us won’t ever scale the performance peaks of world-champion athletes, the need for focus applies to everyone. To optimise performance, whether it’s playing chess, practising BJJ, writing a report, analysing a spreadsheet, explaining an idea to a child, we’re always better off when we focus on that single activity. One thing at a time. A state of complete focus will sometimes lead to the even more immersive state of flow, as described by Hungarian-American psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, in which time seems to stand still there’s a curious, exhilarating feeling of concentration, control and joy. Flow states are considered by many to not just yield peak performance but to constitute peak human experience period.
And yet we consistently allow unnecessary distractions to intrude: noise, notifications, social media, web browsing, aberrant, recurrent thoughts. We could all usefully spend a little time thinking about how to make our environment as conducive as possible to distraction-free focus and flow. What is your perfect place to concentrate? Where are you? What can you see? What can you hear? What time of day is it? Most of this is in your gift. Get yourself more of that.
The next day in Mallorca, Roger came back to the chess area for the tournament. He sat down to play someone else. At some point is opponent made a joke which had many of us laughing. Not Roger. He was concentrating.
*Chess enthusiasts…in the game, I’m black and I made the mistake of taking the white pawn on a2. Can you guess how the game continued from there? Reply to this email if you’d like to find out...