To Compete or Not to Compete...
Introducing a new column by UFC-vet Kyle Watson on raising your game to The Next Level
For those of us involved in Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu or other combat sports, this is a question we all will answer at some point. While competing is not for everyone, it does offer a wide variety of benefits, which I might cover in a future article. However, with NAGA quickly approaching this weekend, I thought I would use this opportunity to take an in-depth look at BJJ competition, the challenges you will face (besides your opponents), what it takes to perform at the highest levels, and share my most recent competition experience.
When competing at both local events and the biggest tournaments, you can see many parallels. While the World Championships are going to carry more merit, more pressure, and possibly tougher competition than a local tournament, many of the mental, physical, and preparation factors are the same. I would like to share some advice that I believe every competitor should follow whether doing the Pan-American Championships or the Rex-Kwon-Do Invitational:
Attitude: Go into a tournament looking at it as a tool for growth and experience no matter the outcome. I believe in the quote, "In competition, you either win or learn." You are there to test your skills. Some things will work and some things won't but you will find out and be able to take the experience back to your gym and mend the newly found holes and/or refine the things that were successful.
Also, remember to have fun. When you compete, you are choosing to be there, so why voluntarily put yourself in a situation you don't like. It should be an enjoyable experience, so have fun while you are testing yourself. This comes back to having a good attitude. I tell my students if they train properly and go out and give it their all, I can never be disappointed in them. The only way I would ever be disappointed is if they don't learn something or they don't have a good time.
Perspective: I found that when you can scale down the magnitude of the event and what the results actually mean in the grand scheme of your overall BJJ journey, you also scale down the pressure you put on yourself. Having coached jiu-jitsu competitors to UFC fighters, I have seen people buckle under the weight of the pressure they place on themselves to win. Obviously, if you are in the finals of the World Championships, the pressure is on! But if you are at that stage, then you are already a seasoned competitor and you have faith in your training and skill set. However, at smaller tournaments remember that this is a small obstacle on the long marathon that is your BJJ journey. If you don't get the results you want, then a door for improvement just opened. Try to remember that each challenge is a building block for your overall skill set and experience. One tournament is fairly trivial compared to the long road to black belt or whatever your long-term goals are. This is similar to what an old coach of mine used to say. If you focus on how good your opponent is, then you let your mind make them into a giant. Then when the match or fight comes, you are fighting a giant. Don't make the tournament into something bigger than it is so you don't put undue pressure on yourself.
Persistence: When you compete some days everything seems to align and everything goes well. Other times you get the toughest guy first round, or you make a mistake that costs you the match. However, it is important to focus on continuing your growth win or lose and trying again even if you don't succeed the first few attempts. I personally flew out and competed in the Pan-American Championships four times and came home empty handed, losing in the medal round each time. It would have been easy for me to quit and say that it was a waste of time and money and think that I wasn't good enough. But each time, I came back and worked harder to correct my mistakes and refocused. Then in 2010, I went back a fifth time and won it. Had I given up on this personal goal, I would not have been able to enjoy the achievement that I worked so hard for.
Game-Plan: Have a game-plan, and physically write it out. This doesn't mean write down every possible scenario, but it helps to have a plan A and plan B for the most common scenarios: passing, sweeps, subs from top, subs from bottom, escapes from the most common bad positions and submissions. This short list should consist of the things that you are most successful with in the gym. Then in the few weeks leading up to the tournament, these should be the things that you consistently drill and attempt in class and make small, last minute adjustments. That way when these positions come up during your matches, you won't have to think. It will just be reflex.
Relax and Breathe: I have found in tournament matches with two opponents of similar skill level, the one who can stay more relaxed and let his full arsenal and game-plan come out typically prevails. So it is very important before stepping out on the mat and even during your matches that you focus on controlling your breathing and trying to relax. When your heart rate and anxiety level rise, it is easy to get tunnel vision, lose some degree of motor skills, and half of your arsenal goes out the window. I always try to keep my students laughing and joking around until the last couple of minutes before their match when they put their game face on. For example, I usually tell them, "don't worry, the worst possible thing that could happen while you are out there…..you could die." That usually at least gets a smile since they are used to my terrible sense of humor. But the point is, stay relaxed and continue steady breathing.
Self-Talk and Visualization: In the weeks leading up to the tournament all the way until you step on the mat, you should visualize the tournament day from waking up until going home with the medal around your neck. Visualize the venue, the smells, the sounds, your teammates, your opponents….everything! Most importantly, visualize several scenarios of each of your matches, but each time you win! It will be much easier to relax when you feel like you have already done this day one hundred times before.
Use self-talk to stay positive. Much like Muhammad Ali did, tell yourself you are the best and no one can stop you. Repeating positive affirmations or a mantra will make your brain believe it and then your body will follow suit!
Uncontrollable Variables: Sometimes there are going to be factors that are not in your control. For example, you might get a poor match-up first round of the bracket. Perhaps you get a poor referee who gives you a bad call. Maybe you get injured in one of your matches. Since these are all things that you cannot change, you should not waste energy on them. Only focus on the things you can control like training hard, doing the proper mental prep, making weight, etc. If you do everything in your power to be prepared, give the competition your all, and still fail, then take advantage of the learning experience, grow and come back stronger the next time.
I feel all of these factors are crucial to get the most out of your competition experience. In fact, several of these same concepts came into play in my own performance last weekend at the No-Gi Pan Championships in New York. In my weight class, the referee made the worst calls I have received in my entire competitive career, forcing me to lose and settle for 3rd place. I was furious and could have given into this uncontrollable variable by packing up and going home. However, after regaining my composure, I decided to change my attitude and get back in there. I decided to enter the black belt open category where all weight classes are combined. Despite fighting both a heavyweight and a super-heavyweight, I was able to secure another bronze medal in this difficult division. Had I let the misfortune in my weight class detour me, I would have missed this valuable opportunity for more experience and more success.
I personally like to challenge myself through competition, because I feel that it is important to lead by example. Also, in my quest to be the best instructor I can be, I feel that the best teaching comes from hands-on experience.
As previously mentioned, competing is not for everyone. However, if you do decide to challenge yourself and try it, please support local events like the Missouri State Grappling Championships or NAGA. Currently, we have very few tournament opportunities in the area, which forces competitors to spend much more money to travel long distances to compete or to not compete at all. If we support local tournaments, we can provide them the funding to grow, improve their structure, and have more frequent events. In addition, other organizations might see that there is a demand for tournaments in this area and possibly bring other events and opportunities. Lastly, even if you don't compete but are a fan/practitioner of the sport, go be a spectator at the local events. In doing so, you can support your teammates while getting a better idea of what competing is all about in case you are riding the fence.
Plus, every little bit of support helps!
Thanks for tuning in, train hard, and I hope to see you on the mats!!!
Kyle Watson is a Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu blackbelt, UFC-vet, semi-finalist on the Ulimate Fighter, Pan-American Champion, Multiple time champion/medalist in International Masters Championships, No-Gi World Championships, No-Gi Pan Championships, Arnold Classic, Relson Gracie US Nationals, NAGA, and many more.
He has reached the pinnacle of MMA along with great success in competitive BJJ, but takes the most pride in achieving all of this while coaching full time and creating other champions.
For more information on Kyle's school on the campus of St. Louis University visit the website at watsonbjj.com
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