Training without a gym: Pre-mortem

Previously, we discussed using mental exercises such as the Feynman technique and 6 degrees to deepen knowledge in a particular aspect of BJJ and find connections between different areas (respectively). In doing these exercises – and training BJJ in general – it can be easy to feel overwhelmed with all the details, variations, and situational nuances. To help level-set and remember the core ideas and concepts, I suggest performing a pre-mortem.


From Wikipedia:

A pre-mortem, or premortem, is a managerial strategy in which a project team imagines that a project or organization has failed, and then works backward to determine what potentially could lead to the failure of the project or organization.

The beauty of a pre-mortem is that it can be adjusted based on your needs at the moment. A light version can be performed to quickly review what you’ve learned and identify the core ideas and concepts to focus on. In contrast, a more in-depth version can be performed while preparing for a competition, identifying the most important areas of your game to solidify and key opportunities to take advantage of while you still have time to train.

Light pre-mortem

To do a light pre-mortem, simply ask yourself the following questions:

  • What’s the worst that could happen?
  • What led to that happening?
  • What are the essential things I must do to prevent that and succeed?

For example, let’s say you’ve just watched a new pass – let’s say a long step pass from reverse de la riva. The mental Q+A could look as follows:

  • What’s the worst that could happen? I could get swept and mounted, and maybe even armbarred, all in one move. (And coach could be watching)
  • What led to that happening? My opponent’s grips and the reverse de la riva hook are what allows for a sweep, so I probably didn’t clear those two things. Plus, I let my arms out when I got swept.
  • What are the essential things I must do to prevent that and succeed? At minimum, clear the grips and get free of the reverse de la riva hook before attempting the pass. If I do get swept, keep my arms in and bridge immediately.

Here we can also see that performing a pre-mortem allows us to face our biggest fear head on.  Being able to work through a worst-case scenario can not only crystalise the most important factors but also give a sense of control over the situation. After all, part of what fuels fear – and panic – is the unknown. Performing a pre-mortem takes that away, leaving calm and focus in its wake.


In-depth pre-mortem

To do an in-depth pre-mortem, it can help to block out an hour to run the whole exercise. Atlassian’s playbook also mentions using post-it notes during the brainstorming section, however, a simple piece of paper or an online application can be just as effective.

Running a pre-mortem can be distilled into 8 phases:

  1. Prepare
  2. Pretend
  3. Ponder
  4. Prioritize
  5. Plan
  6. Proceed
  7. Pause
  8. Profit


Phase 1: Prepare

Physically and mentally prepare yourself for the exercise. Get a cup of coffee, shut your door, or put on some music. Start thinking about things that you’re already nervous about, past successes and failures, etc.

Phase 2: Pretend

For the first half of this phase, pretend your endeavor has failed, be it a simple roll or a competition. Set a timer for 5 minutes and brainstorm all of the possible reasons why this happened. Include everything, from things within your control to things outside of your control. As Atlassian says, “This isn’t the time to be defensive or dismissive. All depths of doom and despair are encouraged.”

When the timer is up, take a break and then go into the second half of this phase. This time when you set your timer for 5 minutes, brainstorm all the ways you could succeed. List every goal, big or small, that you would be proud to achieve. Once finished, look at what you’ve written for both phases and identify any common themes before moving on to the next phase.

Phase 3: Ponder

With your lists and themes in front of you, it’s time to ponder more deeply to uncover the underlying roots of these possible failures and successes. Some questions that may help to ask yourself, care of Atlassian: “What happened to cause that?” and “Why didn’t we see that coming?”

Phase 4: Prioritize

Some themes should be emerging by this point and in this phase, you can now assign priority to these items to tackle first. One way to look at things may be to use the Pareto Principle, or 80/20 rule and choose the items that would address 80% of the pain – or get 80% of the results you want to achieve.

The key here is not to try to do everything – in fact, attempting to address every item you’ve listed, whether it be a success or failure, would only end up leading to subpar results. Instead, choose only a handful of things to focus on, and do those things extremely well. Atlassian’s recommendation is to “narrow it down to the top three risks or opportunities for the project.”

Phase 5: Plan

Now that you’ve prioritized and chosen what you will be focusing on, it’s time to plan how you’ll actually achieve those goals or prevent those failures. As Atlassian recommends, “err on the side of being granular and tactical,” and be as detailed as you can while keeping your original goals in mind.

Phase 6: Proceed

The hard work has only just begun: Now you have to proceed with the plan you’ve created. Part of the success of this phase relies on actually executing your plans, which means reminders to yourself. These can be in the form of other people like teammates, or notes placed strategically by your gym back, or a system of proactive notetaking.

Phase 7: Pause

Just as rest is important for your body, pausing and assessing your current progress is important to making sure you’re still on track to achieving your goals. Set a regular cadence for pausing and reviewing what you’ve accomplished – or haven’t accomplished – thus far so you can pivot early and adjust before, say, competition day.

Phase 8: Profit

Hopefully by this phase you’ve accomplished your goals. If you’re preparing for competition, this is where it’s time to leave everything on the mats.  Either way, you should go into this phase knowing that results you receive here is the result of the quality of your preparation, the rigor at which you’ve planned and held yourself accountable to that plan, and your ability to adapt as things change – all things covered by performing this pre-mortem exercise.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s