About the author: Sam Joseph is a 3rd degree black belt, head instructor and owner of Buckhead Jiu Jitsu in Atlanta.
Competition plays a major role in Brazilian jiu jitsu. Pick up any BJJ magazine or surf the web and you’ll find competitions and successful competitors highlighted.
Walk into almost any BJJ academy and immediately see medals, trophies and pictures from tournaments on display. There are a number of regional, national and international organizations and tournament circuits now making regular competition accessible and a real option for athletes around the world at all belt levels. These organizations and tournaments are popular in the BJJ community, as they provide points of reference – sometimes even including ranking systems, rallying points for teams and the opportunity for notoriety for both athletes and teams based on positive performances.
Competitions also serve as a platform to display and discover new techniques and strategies to the larger BJJ world outside of the athletes’ individual training circles.
As an instructor, I often use competition footage to make points or bring ‘real world’ perspective to lessons covered on our mat. Due to that practice and the focus of much of the BJJ media on competition, some of my students have asked me for guidance in terms of if or when to compete. To their surprise, I offered advice both encouraging and discouraging competing that I would like to share.
Reasons to compete
One of the main reasons why athletes should compete is the reward of benefitting greatly from the process of preparing for competition. That process includes paying greater attention to technical details during class and in positions, often more mat time over-all, some focus on “areas of weakness” and a self-imposed, over-all “higher personal standard” being applied to training sessions.
These individual benefits would be substantial but – taken as a whole – they provide a compelling argument for competing to improve our BJJ regardless of the results achieved.
Competition expands our BJJ experience. As athletes, we train at our local academies or with our regular training partners. There is a level of comfort there over time as trust is developed and friendships often established. Competition allows us to be exposed to “strangers” who may or may not have similar views, coaching approaches or styles to us. This stimulation can be a positive thing as it can challenge us to think about our own BJJ and grow in our understanding of BJJ. Beyond that, competitions can serve to introduce us to others in the BJJ community that we otherwise would not meet, providing us with the opportunity to make new friends in the community. All in all, tournaments can really help enrich our personal journeys by enlarging our scope and perspective of the community.
Competition helps us develop the skill to process adversity in a positive way. Even Buchecha and Gabi Garcia, the current Mundial open division champions, have lost matches – so it stands to reason that we, if we compete, will lose matches as well. No one is unbeatable, so competing puts us all in the position to deal with losing. Derek Kaivani, black belt and co-owner of Lucas Lepri BJJ and Fitness, says that this opportunity for personal growth is the “most valuable thing we get from competition as it is a life-skill that goes way beyond the mat in it’s ability to generate success in our lives”. Tournament victories are fantastic and we compete to win, but losses should be valued as well as they can improve us both on the mat and in the game of life if we allow them to. The by-product of honing this skill is that it takes needless anxiety out of competing and that makes us more capable of producing our best in the stressful situations that competitions often represent.
The last reason to consider competing is that it is often FUN! Some consider the actual matches fun, while others enjoy the preparation and yet others savor the “glory” that comes post-competition. Competing also brings teams together in a unique way that helps “jump-start” friendships, which also helps everyone have a good time. When I look back at 20 years of BJJ, most of the BEST times I have had have tournaments center-stage. Whether I was competing at regional or international tournaments or I was coaching/cornering a teammate, I have fond memories of great times full of humor, excitement and camaraderie. Wherever we find the fun individually, the point remains that tournaments are often a great source of it for everyone involved!
Reasons not to compete
The first reason why competition may not be a good idea for us is if there is some physical reason we cannot compete. This may sound like common sense to most of us but it needs to be covered. I am not talking about “discomfort” here but real injury or a physical condition that prohibits us from safely competing. If a doctor says we cannot compete, we should not compete. No prize, medal or amount of prestige is worth potentially risking our health. Once we cross this line, we are taking something that should be positive and making it harmful and negative.
Related to this point is the inability to properly prepare. Reasons can be family obligations, work, an injury, etc that prevent us from training or dieting in a way that will support our reasonable preparation. Also, in this category is competing before having enough mat-time to safely participate. To this end, I tell students to have at least 6 solid months of training before even considering entering a tournament.
While most of us can safely compete in tournaments physically, many of us do not have the skill I eluded to earlier: the skill to process competition in a positive way. I have a saying that I repeat during competitions season, “If you are not ready to lose, you are not ready to compete”. It is NOT a defeatist mentality, it is simply looking realistically at the possible outcomes of competition and making sure we are prepared for the worst. When we push towards the best and yet are prepared to deal with the worst, we free ourselves from allowing the worst to have fatal impact on us. Every academy has at least one example of the talented BJJer who competed, lost and then was never the same. That person was not prepared for the worst. If the choice is between potentially quitting BJJ and not competing, I will always push that athlete not to compete, at least until they are READY to process any potential outcome in a better way.
Some BJJ athletes simply do not have the desire to compete. This is NOT referring to the athlete who says they do not have the urge to compete BUT they SMASH every training partner they can get their hands on and keep score during all sparring sessions – that person is simply fooling themselves. The person who has no genuine desire to compete does not treat teammates like the enemy and can often be an AWESOME training partner and teammate as there is not any ego involved in their training. This is not to say that they approach training with any less intensity or have any less love for the sport. This athlete simply has a different view of BJJ or different personal goals. BJJ is so much more than competition so we must be open to those of us who embrace the elements of teamwork, technical growth and the over-all lifestyle in a way that does not manifest itself in a combative way.
All things considered, I believe competition can be a great tool to both improve our BJJ games and to add layers to our BJJ experience. When my students ask me about whether to compete, I encourage them to do so if they can have a genuine desire and are willing to prepare. I also make sure my students understand that tournaments are to be used to help them reach their BJJ goals and not to elevate their standing in my eyes. Competition can help spur growth but is not a REQUIREMENT for advancement. In short, use tournaments to get better and have fun – do not allow tournaments, or anything, to sour you on BJJ or derail your BJJ journey. See you on the mat!
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