Anyone who’s competed in jiu-jitsu knows that it’s a completely different beast than what you experience during practice. You’re going up against people who want to win just as badly as you do, and many times, you’ll walk out feeling more exhausted than you are after a two-hour open mat even if you only fought for a grand total of fifteen minutes.
But often, our greatest opponent isn’t the person trying to submit us, but our own minds.
Recently, I’ve gotten a lot of questions regarding the mental challenges involved in competing. As it turns out, there are a lot of athletes out there who struggle with getting their heads in the game… and to be honest, I’m one of them. To say that I felt ill-equipped to answer these questions would be an understatement, so instead, I asked someone who does know what it takes to get your mind prepped for the stress that comes with competing.
For many people reading this, Tom DeBlass will need no introduction. But for those who aren’t sure why this black belt is so qualified to give advice on this complicated topic, just keep in mind that he’s a Bellator and UFC veteran, a no-gi Pans champion, a World champion in the no-gi masters/absolute division, and most recently, a 2016 ADCC North American champion. And those are just a few highlights. Basically, this Ocean County BJJ professor isn’t just used to competing — he’s used to winning.
Part of DeBlass’ success comes from the fact that he’s been competing in something since he was just four years old. It’s just another part of life for him… and he loves it!
“It’s in my blood,” He told the Jiu-Jitsu Times. “I can honestly say I love every aspect of competition. I really love the preparation and hard training.”
Because he’s so accustomed to stepping outside the gym and into a more competitive atmosphere, the nerves that strike many of us at tournaments and make us “forget” our jiu-jitsu in such a high-pressure situation tend to steer clear of him. For those of us who do feel ourselves become less technical the moment we start rolling at a tournament, DeBlass recommends an attitude adjustment not on the day of the tournament, but every time we train.
“I try to approach competition the same as I do every training session, with a clear mind and positive attitude. I don’t put too much stress on the competition itself, but the preparation.”
A lot of that preparation involves that all-too-familiar process of becoming comfortable with being uncomfortable.
“Training doesn’t begin until we are tired,” says DeBlass. “There are no such thing as rest matches if you are a competitor. Learn to be comfortable in hell.”
Once you get to this point, he says, competition will seem more familiar to you — like everyday training “except for the fact that you’re going against people you aren’t used to.”
All that hard work will eventually culminate into a competition mindset that doesn’t center around coming away with a gold medal, but on fighting your best. DeBlass says that rather than focusing on winning or losing, he sets his sights on perfection.
“I think about being perfect where it counts. The consequence of perfection will be victory. I focus on my breathing, my technique, and my strategy.”
Even when you’re as prepared as you can possibly be, though, that’s not always enough to stop that heart-pounding, stomach-turning sensation that tends to crop up during the days or even weeks right before a tournament. When it comes to calming the jiu-jitsu jitters, DeBlass says it’s important to calm yourself down.
“I think it’s important to recognize them and talk yourself down. Remind yourself this is something you are choosing to do. Learn to love the uncomfortable feeling competition brings you. It reminds us we are alive. One thing I always do is focus on my breathing. I try to keep my pulse low. I also remind myself I been here many, many times before.”
Easy enough, right? Well, of course not. That’s the point. For most people, it takes a lot of work and a lot of time to get to the point where you’re not only a relaxed competitor, but a successful one. In fact, DeBlass himself didn’t win anything “significant” until he was a brown belt. The losses he experienced before his incredible success, however, taught him a lot about how to handle defeat.
“Someone coming off a tough loss needs to understand it’s just jiu-jitsu; losing a match doesn’t mean we are horrible at jiu-jitsu. Use competition as a tool to help your jiu-jitsu journey, but remember it’s not the end-all-be-all. A victory doesn’t make us perfect, and a loss doesn’t make us horrible.”
It’s an important point to remember, especially for anyone who feels like their losing streak is never going to end. If you’re struggling to find the motivation to get back out there after getting beaten again and again, DeBlass recommends doing what helped him finally get his chance to shine: just keep showing up.
“All it takes is one win to erase a thousand losses. Your time is coming.”
Coming from someone who literally had to fight his way up to become one of the most famous names in jiu-jitsu today, it’s a bit of encouragement that shouldn’t be ignored.