Up for the challenge
Mixed Martial Arts is not the only sport that has witnessed explosive growth over the last several years. Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu has also been making large strides in popularity. People from all walks of life are drawn to jiu-jitsu for the plethora of benefits it offers, such as fitness, self-defense, stress-relief, confidence, positive relationships, and sport competition. While there are far more general practitioners and hobbyists than competitors, sport Jiu-Jitsu tournaments are sprouting up all over the world and some of the more reputable events are receiving record attendance. In fact, the IBJJF Pan Championships, which took place this past weekend in Los Angeles, was extended to a five day event and received over 3,000 participants!
Not all Jiu-Jitsu practitioners have the desire or goal to compete, but for some it is a fairly natural progression. They start training a martial art, and as they learn and become more proficient, they begin trying to find ways to test their skill set and the application of the knowledge they have gained. Sport Jiu-Jitsu tournaments provide an excellent outlet to challenge participants in this manner. You are matched up based on age, weight, and rank to level the playing field. Then it is up to you to prove that you are better than your opponent at playing the sport within the defined rules.
In the spirit of my column title, I would like to discuss some thoughts on how those who choose to compete can progress from the in-house and local tournaments to some of the most prestigious, high level competitions. The ideas below are not in any particular order, but I hope they can shed some light on creating a healthy competitive Jiu-Jitsu career.
Climbing the Ladder
Deciding to compete for the first time and jumping into the World Championships are very different platforms and should be treated as such. It is like climbing the ladder from a fighter's first amateur MMA bout to their debut in the UFC. It takes time, experience, and hard work. For someone thinking about competing, I would recommend that they take things one step at a time.
I think it's an excellent idea to train for at least 6 months before competing so you have an idea of what you should be doing in most of the basic Jiu-Jitsu positions. During this early stage of training, try to find the opportunity to go watch a tournament or two. This will give you a much better idea of what to expect on tournament day and it might also help to manage the nerves associated with the first few competitions. Another good starting point for competition would be an in-house tournament if your school hosts them. In this setting, you can experience the structure and progression of a tournament, but it's much less stressful because you are just competing with training partners you are already comfortable working with.
If you are able find some success at the local or in-house tournament level and still manage the nerves and have fun, you might decide you are ready to take your competition career further. If so, the next logical step would be to look into some larger tournaments that have an increase in skill and number of opponents. There are many tournaments out, there but it is pretty easy to figure out which ones are the most reputable and carry the most merit. If you want to challenge yourself, I would recommend tournaments like the Abu Dhabi Pro Trials, Grapplers Quest, or any of the IBJJF Open tournaments that they have in many of the major cities. I recently competed in both the San Francisco Open and the Chicago Open. Both had many participants, stiff completion, and were enjoyable experiences. Some people like certain tournaments and dislike others for whatever reasons. You will have to make this decision by listening to the reviews of people you trust or by trying them out for yourself.
You could stay at this level of tournament for a large part of your career and still continually get challenged because the level of competition continues to grow rapidly and these tournaments are getting bigger and tougher all the time. However, if you get to the stage in your career where you are ready to strive for a world title or test yourself at the highest level, you could try your hand at tournaments like the World Championships (both Gi or No-Gi), Pan Championships, Europeans, etc. These are the tournaments where the upper echelon of competitors test themselves, and battle for the most prestigious of bragging rights. There is no requirement on experience other than competing in your appropriate belt category. However, I would recommend getting some small and mid-level tournament experience in before trying your hand at one of top events. Not only do you want to give yourself the best chance of success, but it can be a very expensive trip to lose first round.
As you start to branch out of the local scene and raise the bar, your training must follow suit. I encourage my students to treat a tournament like a fighter would prepare for an MMA bout, by putting in an actual training camp. For example, for a mid to high level tournament I would suggest anywhere from 6-12 weeks of preparation based on the level of the competitor. During this camp, you shouldn't try to incorporate a bunch of new material, but instead mend your weaknesses, fine tune your strengths, and sharpen your strategy. Of course you should make sure you maximize your conditioning during this time, but a lot of your training should be focused on performing optimally within the time limit of your bracket and within the rules of the particular competition. I also encourage incorporating scenario-based training. An example might be to start in a bad position with the assumption you are down on points, and you have a very short time to escape and rescore. I feel training like this keeps you sharp and represents realistic situations you might face.
With the innovation of technique, strategy, and technology over the past several years, one can find thousands of YouTube videos and DVD sets on the market demonstrating Jiu-Jitsu techniques and tournament footage. While this is no replacement, for a good gym, teammates to train with, and a credible coach to guide you, they can serve as a great supplement to your training. However, as the same disclaimer I tell my students, anyone (regardless of experience and ability) can film and post a technique. Make sure you are watching someone who has some credibility.
In the beginning, of your jiu-jitsu career it would make a little more sense to watch technique videos from reputable sources and try to practice the moves and implement them into your game. But if you began watching tournament footage early on, you might not have the foundation to understand the subtleties of what is actually going on. As you progress and get more experienced, I think it will be important to incorporate tournament footage into your supplemental training. You are able to watch high level competitors enacting their "A" game in a live setting, and this can be very beneficial to your own training. In fact, I recommend looking at the top guys in your weight class and then segment them even further by focusing on the competitors who have a very similar body type to you. If you have a similar body type and features, you might have better success in incorporating some of the same techniques to your own game.
Do Not Neglect the Start of the Match
Sometimes we get so focused on the ground aspects of Jiu-Jitsu, that we forget that all matches start on the feet, and recent statistics show how important the first few seconds of the match are. I believe it has been shown that the person who scores first wins the match about seventy-five percent of the time. That is staggering. With this in mind it is important to be able to get to your best scoring position as quickly and efficiently as possible so you can get on the board first. I typically encourage my students to have both a couple solid takedowns as well as the ability to pull guard effectively, so they can manage different styles of opponents. I think drilling "beginning of the match" scenarios becomes increasingly important as you prepare for higher level competition.
Understand the Rules
As you progress in Jiu-Jitsu and compete more often, you will see that the sport is a lot more complicated than just trying to submit your opponent within a specified time limit. There is a lot of strategy involved in utilizing the rules to help you win in the case a submission is not possible. However, it is difficult to use the rules to your advantage if you do not thoroughly understand them. While every tournament has its own set of rules, it is beneficial to familiarize yourself with them before competing. In doing so, you can become a better competitor because you can employ more strategy in your game plan, as well as defend yourself in the case of a referee error (which is common).
It might be beneficial to even try your hand at some refereeing. It is a difficult and thankless job, but it will help you get an in-depth look at the rules and how they are enforced during competition. For example, I recently completed the International Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu Federation referee course for a few reasons. First, it will help me to be a better competitor knowing what I can or cannot do within a match. In addition, I am able to more effectively prepare my students who compete because I understand how to incorporate those rules into my lessons.
We have all heard the term ‘ring rust," and I firmly believe this applies to most sports, not just MMA and Boxing. If you have a schedule and budget that will allow for it, I would recommend competing often to keep your blade sharp and stave off the common detriments of being idle. In addition, if you are competing often, you will likely see greater improvement in your game because you will have a specific goal to focus on and have more motivation to train and work hard from week to week.
With gym dues, equipment costs, seminars, etc. tournament fees can get expensive and difficult to add to the mix. However, like I mentioned in my last article, sponsors can help with this if you are willing to market yourself. There aren't a lot of big companies willing to sponsor new Jiu-Jitsu competitors working their way up the ranks. However, if you beat the pavement and look to the right sources you can typically find a "mom and pop" business willing to help a local athlete reach their goals. This can go a long way to help with tournament fees and travel expenses associated with competitions.
Even if you move up the skill ladder, be sure to support local tournaments like midwestgrappler.com and nagafighter.com. If we continue to be involved in these events, they will not only continue to hold them, but they will also have the resources to improve and make it a better experience each time. If the local tournament scene doesn't survive, we will be forced to travel long distances to the nearest tournaments, thus raising associated travel expenses and possibly excluding some people from being able to compete.
If you have made the decision to compete and you would like to progress from the local scene to the top tier competitions, the concepts I mentioned above should be considered and potentially implemented to help elevate your game to the next level.
Thanks again 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