So you’re finally taking the plunge and competing in your first jiu-jitsu tournament. Congratulations! Whether or not you come home with a shiny medal, you’re already doing what countless people will never do, many simply because they’re too scared to do it.
It takes serious courage to test your skills against another competitor in front of spectators, and whether you’re doing it as a white belt or as a twenty-year veteran of the sport, you should be proud of yourself.
Competing in jiu-jitsu is a blast, and you truly never forget your first tournament. But before you get out there, you should know that it’s a bit different from what you’re used to in the gym. Even if you’ve watched your other teammates compete before, the emotions you experience as a spectator are very different from the ones you’ll experience as a competitor. If you’re getting ready for your first tournament, here’s what you should keep in mind before you hop in the car:
I’m that person who’s almost obnoxiously prepared every time I compete, but if you only have enough room for one extra plastic grocery bag of stuff, make sure to put it to good use.
Any half-decent tournament will have medical staff on-site, but I always like to bring athletic tape and band-aids with me just in case. Over-the-counter pain killers are also something I highly recommend, not only for BJJ-related pain, but also for headaches.
I also have a bottle of water or a sports drink filled and ready to go for the moment I step off the mat so I can be hydrated in time for my next match. Protein or granola bars are a quick and easy way to recharge in between matches as well and stave off hunger until it’s time to really eat.
Because you might end up breathing harder than normal, I recommend bringing cough drops to soothe a raw throat, and even if you’re competing in the dead of summer, bring a warm blanket along. Some venues turn the AC on way too high, which is not only uncomfortable when you’re wearing a wet gi or rashguard, but can also make your muscles feel tighter. Even if you wear other shoes to the venue, bring along a pair of flip-flops that you can easily slip on or off when you enter and exit the mat.
Finally, if you’re a woman, bring a whole box of pads or tampons. Even if you don’t need them, you could end up being another female competitor’s hero.
You will be nervous
And it’s okay to be nervous. Really.
You’re competing away from your home turf against people who want to beat you. The proverbial training wheels have come off, and it’s going to be a bit of a wild ride.
Avoid consuming caffeine before you compete, and even if your adrenaline dumps in the middle of your match, focus on your breathing. Find good places to relax and collect your thoughts. I guarantee the person you’re competing against is just as nervous as you are, so you have to be the one to control your anxiety and let your technique shine through.
No matter what, though, don’t let yourself believe that you’re weak for feeling nervous. After all, “Courage is being scared to death and armbarring the crap out of your opponent anyway.” That’s a John Wayne quote, right?
Go with what you know
As appealing as it might seem to be that person who pulls off last week’s cool new technique, you’re going to forget how to do it when the clock is ticking down and your opponent just got two more points.
The basics are what are going to get your points, submissions, and wins. Go for the moves that come to you naturally rather than the ones that you have to think about for a few seconds because you’ve only drilled them a dozen times. It’s okay to play it safe in a tournament when the stakes are high. You can play around with the fun stuff in practice next week.
Make a good first impression
When you compete, you’re representing not only yourself, but your whole team. Go out of your way to be respectful and friendly to the people you’re competing against. Don’t argue with the referees, even if you know you’re right; that’s what your coach is there for. Be humble in victory and gracious in defeat.
And no matter how much you hate that person over there, save the gossip until after the tournament is over and you’re back at your own gym. You never know who might be listening, and with how small the jiu-jitsu community is, you don’t want to burn any bridges.
You’re going to be very, very sore the next day
I’m talking from-your-jaw-to-the-tops-of-your-feet sore. Whether you realize it or not, you’re going to be going hard when you compete, and those tensing, flexing muscles are going to feel it for the next few days. Ice everything once you get home, and take some pre-emptive ibuprofen if you have to walk the day after you compete.
Be prepared to get there early and stay late
If the event invitation says it’ll go until 2 pm, expect to be there until at least 4:30. At least. Unless you’re going to a big-name tournament such as NAGA or IBJJF, it’s likely going to be chaotic and poorly organized, despite everyone’s best intentions. It’s all part of the experience, but when I have tournaments, I clear my entire schedule for the day just to be on the safe side. Even if it does finish up earlier in the day, you’ll probably want to grab dinner with your team and spend the rest of the day relaxing. You can always leave as soon as your division’s over if you want, but unless you absolutely have to go, it’s best to support the rest of your team the way they supported you.
It’s a different kind of fun
Competing is what I consider to be retroactively fun. In the moment, when you’re exhausted and under a tremendous amount of pressure, it kind of sucks. But when you look back, win or lose, you’re going to realize that it was a blast. It’s a very stressful environment if you allow it to be, but in the end, the time you spend with your teammates doing the thing you love is going to make it all worth it.