Perhaps one of the most difficult aspects of competitive grappling is the fact that our bodies react substantially different to the experience than they do to most other moments in life, specifically the production of adrenaline changes everything. I recently got the following question from one of our readers:
I competed in a small local tourney this past weekend and the adrenaline dump after the 1st match just annihilated me (it bottomed me out completely, and I felt like I could barely move the next two matches.) Any advice for the inexperienced competitor on managing the dump? I’ve collected some good ideas already, but would love to hear more from those who compete all the time.
I will do my best to answer this question based on my own personal experiences and understanding.
The adrenaline dump is a fight-or-flight reaction. It’s your body’s way of coping with the stresses and rigors of being attacked. It is also a twofold reaction: physical and mental. From what I’ve seen, if you don’t compete often you will inevitably experience adrenaline dumps when you do decide to compete.
First let’s look at the physical aspects of the adrenaline dump and what you can do to deal with it.
The easiest to control aspect of your physiology that will affect your body’s reaction to stress is your breathing. No, this is not going to completely mitigate the situation, but if you take long deep breaths you will slow your heart rate. If you slow your heart rate you will slow your body’s production of adrenaline.
Being in good shape helps. If your mat cardio is on point, you will better deal with adrenaline dumps. However, that’s not always enough, and sometimes the fittest guy in the bracket doesn’t take 1st place…
The more you compete, the better you will be at competing. If you compete once a year, you will likely freak out a bit when you step on the mat to roll. If you compete once a month or more, you will begin to find yourself feeling way more relaxed, and your game will be way more effective in competition.
I see a lot of competitors listen to music to get in the zone at competition. This can help calm nerves as well. I personally like to avoid the competition venue until close to my match time. I find that watching other people compete actually puts me into fight-or-flight mode.
When I started being able to calm down before matches, a big aspect was the realization that my opponents were just as nervous as I was, and thinking about how if I could somehow stay calm it would give me an edge.
Sometimes adrenaline dumps are inevitable, you just can’t stop yourself. Once an adrenaline dump has happened, consider a few crucial details to allow yourself to get to the next match:
You need to address muscle cramps.
My personal favorite way to do this is to raise my arms above my head and have one of my friends, teammates, or anyone else who is around knead the muscles of my arms. I can do the same thing to my own legs. I bring a foam roller with me to tournaments to allow me to get the rest of my body.
Keeping your muscles, particularly your hands and forearms, from seizing up is half the battle.
You may not notice, but when you go through an adrenaline dump, your body requires far more hydration.
After an adrenaline dump has happened, you’ll be tempted to sit or lie down. If you do this, you will lower your heart rate too quickly and you will get tired.
If you’re actively thinking about the next match, you will experience that adrenaline dump all over again. Don’t do that to yourself. Talk to your coach and teammates about what you’ll be doing after the event. Do whatever you have to do to not get even more nervous.
Ultimately your goal for competition should be to avoid the adrenaline dump altogether. It took me about eight months of very regular competition to get to the point that I could show up to a tournament and feel fine the entire time, and this is an ongoing process. My current goal is to keep my heart rate at baseline even during matches. It’s amazing how much more effective I am when I’m calm.