I used to compete in a bunch in various martial arts. I have fought in No-Gi, MMA and BJJ matches all over the world. Professional events, amateur tournaments, exhibition matches, super fights - you name it, I’ve done it. I definitely won more than I lost, but If I’m honest with myself I don’t think I lived up to my potential. I never quite made it to the elite level. Winning the IBJJF World championships was my sole reason for waking up in the morning for almost 6 years. But, to quote Bob Dylan ‘You don’t always get what you want - you get what you need’. Now that I’m mostly retired from competing and focusing on how to help my hungry, young students perform to the best of their abilities, I’ve been questioning why some jiu-jitsu athletes are unable to get it together when it comes to competition. I feel that these are some reasons some of us don't do as well as we might like in competitions.
1. You’re Not Conditioned Enough
Despite being ridiculously anxious and inexperienced, I actually won my first jiu-jitsu match. But my hands and forearms were so pumped and fatigued I could hardly even grip on my next opponent’s jacket - I lost badly and was eliminated in the second round. The simple fact is that I wasn’t conditioned enough. My body, in particular, my extensors and flexors were not up to the task required of them. Many years later as a black belt, I allowed a similar thing to happen. After a long break, I decided to compete in the Worlds Masters. At the time I was still living out of a suitcase teaching seminars in different countries and unable to get into a good rhythm for training. As a result, I made the mistake of not giving my conditioning training the focus it should have received. ‘I’m on the mats 6 days per week and I’m sharper than I’ve ever been - my technique will cover my lack of fitness.’ I thought. So dumb.In the second round, I drew a tough opponent. I knew his style and that the only way I could beat him was by being the aggressor and pushing the pace, so that’s the strategy I adopted. I dominated the match for 2 mins and then gassed. I literally had nothing left. I had made the same mistake I did 15 years and four belts previously - I wasn’t conditioned properly.When preparing for a competition, improved conditioning will pay bigger dividends than improved technique. Be the guy in peak physical shape. Build that big gas tank that will allow you to push the pace. Nothing breaks an exhausted fighter’s spirit quite like seeing his opponent energized and raring to go.
2. You’re Too Inexperienced
For most of us, the first few experiences of competition are pretty overwhelming. We underestimate just how anxiety-inducing and tiring competitive matches are. Fighting in a tournament is a very different experience from even the toughest rolls in the gym. It takes a while just to get used to the feeling of competing. Very, very few people enter their first event and feel totally comfortable. And it’s hard to perform well when you’re excessively nervous or don’t know what to expect. Consider looking at your first 3-5 competitions as exposure therapy. These are just ‘scouting missions’ - you’re just checking out what it feels like to experience a combat event and gathering data on how you react in that kind of environment. After doing this a few times, you should become much more relaxed and less likely to waste energy or make stupid mistakes.
3. You Put Too Much Pressure on Yourself
We’ve all got that training partner who enters a comp the day before on a whim only to end up winning. Meanwhile, you and the rest of the team trained 6 times a week for 3 months and all lost in the first round. Why do you think that is? My theory is that it’s because he had no expectations and this meant he was relaxed and just went out there and had fun. And it’s usually in that state (having fun) that you doing every better. One of the interesting things I’ve discovered about life is that the harder we grasp for something, the less likely we are to attain it. I’ve found that grappling competitions are the same. The harder you try, the more you tighten up and the worse you perform. And we usually try too hard because we put too much importance on the event. We believe that if we don’t do well that we’re letting down our training partners, coaches and our team. But nothing could be further from the truth. A good jiu-jitsu tribe will be proud of you no matter what and will support you regardless of your result. Remember that it’s just a jiu jits competition. It’s not the invasion of Normandy or the most important event of your life. You’re not fighting for your family’s legacy or the fate of the free world. Unless jiu-jitsu is your career it’s just not really big a deal. Your victories and defeats will soon be forgotten. Do you remember the 2003 Pan Ams middleweight black belt champion? Neither does anyone else.
4. You Don’t Train How You Fight
Let’s make one thing clear: In most cases, competition jiu-jitsu is very different from ‘academy’ jiu-jitsu. In a typical BJJ academy sparring session both players will start on their knees and then roll for submission. In a good gym, these matches usually take place at a moderate pace with each person engaging the other without trying to rip his or her head off. Think about how far removed this is from competition. For one thing, I’ve never seen a competition that starts on the knees. That scenario is almost never encountered in a match, regardless of the ruleset. Competition jiu jitsu starts standing, is characterized by a LOT of guard and moves a lot faster. The margins for error are really small. You can’t relax and ‘work on your defense’, or try out that new counter you saw on YouTube the day before. You have to execute the stuff you know how to do and you have to execute it well. So it makes to sense to train in that manner. Sadly, it’s often the case that a competitor won’t even think about going for a submission and instead will try to gain a small lead and then stall to get the win. The problem is in an academy, you cannot fight competition-style all the time, for a couple of reasons. Firstly, your training partners will start to hate you if you go 100% consistently because you’ll end up injuring them (and yourself). And secondly, your game will never progress if you don’t experiment and allow yourself to be put in bad positions. There are a few very successful teams where they train for competition almost exclusively. But most of their students are all physically broken or burned out by 30 if they even last that long. This is where periodization of your training comes into play. Most of the year you should train ‘academy style’ - moderate rolling with a bit more flow and experimentation. But when preparing for a competition, devote a certain amount of time to training in that mode. This means you either start standing or in a specific position and you fight like you’re hoping to in the upcoming event. This will require willing training partners and dedicated training sessions. And keep in mind that you don’t need a huge repertoire of techniques to do well in competition. DJ Jackson wins most of his matches with the same two moves. It’s far more important to have a basic strategy. Have a few simple combinations from each position, and practice the crap out of them. If you’re not hitting something regularly in practice in the academy, you sure as hell won’t hit it in competition.
5. You Don’t Have a Coach
Now you might be thinking something along the lines of ‘What are you talking about? My coach is Diego Santos and he’s a black belt under Bruno Viera” or whatever. But is he really a coach? Or is he a teacher/academy owner. There’s a difference. A teacher demonstrates certain techniques and / concepts and helps you to learn them. Your coach monitors and guides you through all aspects of your contest training including your mental preparation, physical conditioning, strategy and possibly even nutrition. Elite athletes can have a whole team of coaches. Granted, that’s not always feasible for jiu-jitsu hobbyists, but at the very least you should have someone responsible for helping you to prepare who will also be at the venue on the day. This doesn’t even have to be a black belt. As long as they are someone with the relevant experience, patience and an interest in helping you succeed, it’s likely that they will get you further than you could on your own.
6. Your Opponents are Sandbagging
There’s a vast discrepancy in levels between players of the same belt, and sandbagging is an unfortunate but ever-present reality of the jiu-jitsu competition scene. Let’s run through a hypothetical scenario: Jimmy has a black belt in judo and has fought in international-level competitions. He’s also a 4-stripe blue belt in jiu-jitsu who is long overdue for his purple belt, but his coach is ‘holding him back’ so that he can get a medal at world’s/pan-ams/
7. It’s Not All Under Your Control
Let’s say none of the above issues are applicable. You’re experienced and you’ve trained with realistic competition scenarios in mind. You’ve had great coach guide you along the way. There’s nobody way better than you in your division. Guess what. You could still lose. Why? Because there are two sides to the coin in any match. It’s not just about you - there’s an intelligent, focused and resisting opponent who is trying to impose his will upon you just as you are trying to do the same to him. And please don’t give me any of that ‘It’s about who wants it more!’ crap. Do you think Roger Gracie didn’t want it as badly as Xande Ribeiro in the Absolute final he narrowly lost in?t And beyond the opponent, there are countless other variables beyond your control. Fighting is very dynamic and unpredictable. When you take two fighters of (nearly) equal skill, conditioning and mental strength, it doesn’t come down to who wants it more badly. It comes down to luck, the referee, how the styles match up with each other or any one of a hundred other things. An example I always use is Kron Gracie. He’s been doing jiu-jitsu literally since he could walk and is coached by his father, Rickson Gracie, one of the best jiu-jitsu fighters in history. He is a super-conditioned, athletic and seasoned competitor. The dude was basically bred to compete, and even he couldn’t win the Worlds at black belt! Don’t let any of the items put you off the idea of competing or use them as excuses if you lose. Instead, control the things you can, let go of the outcomes and have fun.