Jiu Jitsu Jitters: Overcoming Tournament Anxiety

I’ve been on the BJJ competition scene for a little over 7 years now. From white belt all the way to purple, i have seen just about everything one could possibly see at a tournament. From guys getting their bones snapped and put to sleep to a guy actually opening the match with an inside leg kick. But one thing I never fail to see at any tournament of any caliber is the nervous-as-shit white belts. These guys and gals are pacing back and forth , sweating bullets, studying their competition, watching last-minute you tube technique videos, and they tend to warm up WAY too early. I talked to a newbie one time who one might think was shipping off to war. Without going into all the details, he used the word ‘to the death’ when describing his white belt consolation bracket.
In my humble opinion BJJ tournaments tend to be way too hard on the white belt psyche for this reason and this reason only, they think it’s a fight.
Despite what the old school black belts and ex-vale tudo guys say, a BJJ match is not a fight. It is not a fight nor does it simulate a fight in any way shape or form. It’s an athletic endeavor. Much like a wrestling match or a slow pitch softball game, the tenets of competition abide by a strict set of rules and adhere to a rigorous point-system.

does this look like a fight to you?


But the mainstream popularity of the UFC and terms like ‘superfight’ have blurred the lines between Brazilian Jiu Jitsu and mixed martial arts and led to a train of thought that suggests a bjj match is some kind of life and death pseudo-MMA fight. This is simply not the case.
Now that all the eggheads and cynics have probably stopped reading and taken up arms behind their keyboards to launch a full-scale attack, let’s get to my point. Your first Brazilian jiu jitsu tournament should be fun. It should be about taking a real practical inventory of your arsenal and having confidence in your technique, while learning what you need to work on. Win, lose, or draw, nobody remembers the guy who won or lost his first tournament. Nobody is going to walk up to you in the grocery store and say ‘Hey, you’re that guy who lost at the Toledo open!” It’s great to win, but it’s okay to lose, if the worst thing to ever happen to you is getting tapped in front of a dozen or so spectators, you’ve had a wonderful life.
All that being said, sometimes you just cant shake the nerves. I get it, i have been there. It’s a new experience, you want to do well and make your coach and team mates proud. Maybe that girl from the bar (to whom you may or may not have exaggerated your abilities) woke up and 9am and drove her prius to Toledo central catholic high school with her hair in a bun to watch you play butt-scoot with the guy from the gym across town. Whatever your reasons are, you obviously want to do well. Take it from a complete headcase who is 8 years in and has won and lost a ton of tournaments all over the country, follow these principles and your jiu jitsu jitters will never get the best of you:

Trust in your technique
This seems like a no brainer, but you’d be surprised at how many people go into their first tournament super-timid and not wanting to pull the trigger on techniques. If you take even a split second to think-twice about a technique, you’re too late and you miss the timing, burn energy and die. Ask questions in class, drill the techniques over and over until you understand every intricate detail and when you see your opening, pull the trigger! You miss 100% of the shots you don’t take, so go for it!

Train smart
Given that Brazilian jiu jitsu is the art of hyper extending the joints and cutting off the circulation to the brain, it should be a given that training intensity should be carefully monitored. Be good to your body and it will be good to you. Know when to tap and when to take a round off. We’d all like to adopt the Dan Gable ‘More is more’ mentality, but you also have to remember Dan was a CAREER wrestler who didn’t have a job to go to on Monday, and he’s also had double hip replacement.
PRO TIP: Also be mindful of your training partners bodies. Nobody wants to roll with the spaz who hurts everyone. And remember BJJ is not a one-fits-all martial art. You can roll with some people differently than others. I can attack my coaches legs all day long without so much as bending one of his toenails, but if I play 50/50 with a white belt someone is probably headed for total knee replacement. I have a blue belt training partner who is a former D1 offensive lineman, obviously I can go at him a little harder than the 50 year old school teacher. Get the point?
 Train consistently
Consistency trumps intensity. Nothing gets you over a fear of being choked quite like being choked ten thousand times. One might think that tournament time should be the time to blast the training volume to a 10, but you’ll have much more success training at a reasonable intensity CONSISTENTly without taking breaks. This isn’t your sophomore ethics class, you cant come off the couch and cram techniques into your muscle memory. I’m sitting here writing this article while using the RICE method on a leg that I cannot put any weight on..so take it from me. Train smarter, not harder. Try not to miss classes and while you’re at class, be there. Get off your phone, save the fraternizing for after class and get better at your technique.
 Keep an open mind
BJJ tournaments are not life or death. You might go into it with an exact idea of what you want to happen and how you want it to go down, but things aren’t always going to go as planned. Remember that anything can happen and be willing to adapt to whatever situation may pop up. It’s a learning experience, think of it as such.
 New techniques are for the gym, not the tournament.
This should be completely self-explanatory. If you’ve been drilling the armbar, triangle, and flower sweep, don’t try to sub a guy with a vaporizer from crackhead control in your first BJJ match.
The other guy is nervous too
If you’re a 3 month white belt, your opponent is not going to be Marcelo Garcia. We have weight classes and belt divisions in place for a reason. The other guy isn’t going to be light years ahead of you in terms of technical prowess, so don’t assume everyone is a killer. The baddest guy/girl in the building in your mind should be YOURSELF.
Know Thyself
In all my years of BJJ, I have always been a takedown guy/ top player. Although the man who taught me what I know is a guard player, the philosophy that has always served me well in competition is the age old Takedown..pass..mount..submit. Which is why I will never forget the 2012 IBJJF Chicago open. I was heading into a match with the 2-time returning champion…and I pulled half guard.

I tried every single technique I knew and was actually up on points by more of a miracle than mastery of technique, and I wound up getting choked. And Coach gave me quite the well-deserved talking to afterward. What the heck was i thinking?
Play your game. You’ll never win a match by deliberately exiting your technical comfort zone and trying to beat the other guy at his own game. If you’re a top player, don’t pull half guard (note to self). If you’re a guard player, pull guard. If you’re a butt scooter..drink bleach. (kidding).
My point is, do what you’re good at. You will kick yourself in the rear end a lot less hard if you lose playing your game than if you pull halfguard like I did.
 Have fun!
At the end of the day, not many people care if you win or lose. Your first tournament should be a mission of self-discovery and most importantly FUN. It’s a sport, just like wrestling or basketball or slow pitch softball or Finnish cellphone throwing. treat it as such. If you lose, get back in the gym and learn what you need to get better at for next time. Your coach didn’t send you in to the tournament to become the next Rodolfo Vieira, your coach just wants you to test what you know so that you may grow. The ratio of spectators to competitors is usually a landslide, because no matter what you got out there and put yourself to the test on the mats. This is something that not many have the fortitude to do. Get out there and have some fun!

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