The life of an Israeli Air Force cadet is a psychological rollercoaster. When drilling complex aerobatic maneuvers, sometimes execution is flawless, other times it comes with unintended turbulence. In the 1950’s, the cadet instructors had just as difficult of a task trying to “fix” the unpredictable issues. In the instructor’s eyes, when a cadet performed admirably, praise followed, but more often, immediate future performance suffered. And when expectations weren’t met on those same maneuvers, an unhealthy dose of negative reinforcement usually netted a better subsequent run. Intuitively, most instructors thought the lesson was simple: spotlight the negatives and never acknowledge the positives.
But they missed the point. As the Israeli-American psychologist (and Nobel Prize winner in Economics), Daniel Kahneman explained to these instructors, in reality, they were witnessing a statistical phenomenon known as regression to the mean. Like most things in life, we experience random fluctuations in our performance. Yelling, praising, or overanalyzing any single data point only creates more noise, and at its worst, a false narrative.
Jiu jitsu is no different. We have “good” and “bad” days on the mat, but we can benefit from some healthy reframing. Whether the goal is prepping for competition, finding your flow, executing a specific move, or something else, we probably aren’t doing ourselves any favors litigating every roll.
An alternative: zoom out. Go beyond the roll, the day, the week, and maybe the month. Countless factors—fatigue, partners, diet, weather, color of gi, bad facial hair—can contribute to natural and random fluctuations in performance. So why try to fix something that might not need any fixing? Instead, take a step back and consider a couple of ideas:
- Think like a financial advisor, not a day trader. Financial advisors study the trends, not the data points. Look at longer run trends rather than individual instances. The good news: over time you will most likely see you are doing great. What can you do today that you couldn’t six month ago? The list is probably more impressive than you initially thought.
- There are no bad days. No matter how dire a day may seem, it’s expected—and even good. Mat time (and just time) provides you with most of the subtle learnings and corrections your mind craves. There’s little need to actively over-analyze it or get discouraged. You’re at class, participating, and getting better for it.
We don’t need to worry about regressing to an arbitrary mean because slowly, overtime, the mean is shifting upwards—even if we can’t immediately feel it.