The first time I ever competed as a Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu white belt, I didn’t sleep the night before.  I was super nervous going to the event and once I arrived at the event I saw everyone around me as a potential enemy.  My first match I came out and was stiff as a board, by some miracle I wound up on top and survived the whole match and won, I THINK by advantage maybe…  And the next match I lost. It was a weird awkward mess.

The next 3 or 4 tournaments I did were similar, but eventually I started getting the hang of it.  I started learning some critical truths about competition that made it all so much easier.

  1. There are no enemies.  Yes, there may be people that you’ll compete against who are real scumbags and who ultimately are bad people who you should hate, but the truth is that the competition mat is a pure place where your goals are singular: win.  Once you are able to stop thinking of your opponent as a human being and start seeing them as a puzzle to solve things become way simpler. Leave your emotions at the door, and approach it as an equation. Even though you may have a lucky or unlucky number you don’t think about that when you’re doing a math problem, same can apply in competition. 
  2. Tension is your enemy.  Remember when you were a kid and made those tin can walkie talkies?  If you don’t here’s a reminder: a common childhood game was/is to take two empty tin cans and tie a long string between the bottoms of them.  Then stretch the string and put tension on it. Then talk into the cans. You’ll notice that the string acts as a conduit for vibrations allowing people to talk quietly into their cans and the person on the other side hears them…  The same thing applies in jiu-jitsu: if you’re tense the other person will feel what you’re planning on doing and it becomes very difficult to do whatever it is you want to do. Couple that with the fact that being tense is exhausting, you’re better off being relaxed and losing like that than being tense and losing like that…  Being tense sucks and often the more relaxed competitor wins.
  3. Trust your jiu-jitsu.  So, you’ve spent the past X months training, this is it, it’s go time.  You did specific techniques and tactics in training, you built strength, endurance and confidence…  Very often I see people go blank in competition. They doubt themselves. They doubt their training, their mat time, their jiu-jitsu.  TRUST YOUR JIU-JITSU. You’re not likely to succeed at doing a technique you haven’t drilled, so try to do techniques you HAVE drilled.  I can’t remember the last time I won with something I hadn’t drilled over and over again, and when I enjoy major successes it’s usually with a technique that I’ve spent hundreds of hours perfecting.  I watch competitors who I know normally pull guard play the ole white belt shuffle. I watch competitors who like closed guard insist on playing spider or half and they get wrecked as a result. Go into competition with a goal in mind but at the same time let your training take over.  Ideally you should look like you’re on autopilot.
  4. Don’t fear defeat.  So here’s the biggest secret t my competition mindset: I’m not scared to lose.  I don’t hold onto my losses on an emotional level. Yes it bothers me when I lose.  Yes I’m trying to win. But I’m not SCARED to lose. I play my game the same way I do in the gym, and it shows in how I interact with my opponents.  I’m not scared of them. Even guys that are way more experienced than I am, even guys that are scarier looking than I am… I approach every match with the attitude of trying to win each moment until I win the match.  And if I lose in one moment I try to win the next moment, and if I lose in all moments, and I lose the match, I bring that information back to the gym with me to reload and prepare for the next one. Fear of failure is crippling in jiu-jitsu competition. 
  5. Separate the opponent from the task at hand.  This is a continuation of #1. Some opponents may seem scary, some may seem easy to beat, don’t let your preconceived notions cloud your judgement.  There have been several matches I’ve had where I assumed I would win and it caused me to play lazy or sloppy and I lost. There have also been matches in which I thought for sure I’d lose but I played my game as well as I could and wound up winning or performing way better than expected.  The truth is that you should always put your best face forward and address each potential strategy with the same level of seriousness as you would others. Don’t let fear blind you, but don’t let perceived weakness make you complacent.

It can be very difficult to leave your preconceptions at the door and it can be even harder to leave your doubt, anxiety and nervousness by the wayside.  Doing so, however, will make you a better, more successful competitor.

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