A couple weeks ago, I signed up for the American Grappling Challenge in Ohio. It would be my first time competing in exactly one year (to the day). I was an anxious mess and regretted signing up every day leading up to the event. A few days before the tournament, I took up a suggestion to write about how I felt before the event, then include how I felt after I’d competed in order to provide perspective to both myself and anyone else who gets the pre-competition jitters.
Two days before competing:
When I signed up for this thing, I didn’t do it because I wanted to compete — I did it because I felt like I would hate myself more if avoided this competition than if I competed and lost. I really, genuinely hate competing, and I only do it because I know it’s good for me. I last competed at this particular tournament two years ago, and I enjoyed its sub-only format. I’m guard-pulling garbage and do pretty poorly at point-based tournaments, and I wanted to test myself as a purple belt who messed around a bit more with submissions that weren’t legal at point-based tournaments.
All that said, just thinking about going into this event makes me feel physically ill. Writing this now, my heart is racing. Mostly, I’m worried about letting myself down and embarrassing myself. I try to make myself feel more confident, reminding myself that my endurance is pretty darn good and I know my game well enough to be able to identify which submissions I’d like to aim for, but then that voice comes creeping in again: “What if you’re not as good as you think you are?” Here, again, my chest gets tighter, and I can feel my pulse in my throat.
My impostor syndrome when it comes to jiu-jitsu is overwhelming. I’m a purple belt, one of the highest ranked practitioners at my academy. I help manage this website. I know my friends, my significant other, and my employers because of jiu-jitsu. My identity is so wrapped up in this sport that I fear that losing means that I’m a fraud.
I don’t want to do this competition. I want to skip it and just go to class on Saturday like I always do. But I know that if I bailed, the feeling of losing my matches would pale in comparison to the feeling of knowing I had the ideal conditions to compete and the only thing that stopped me was my own fear.
Two days after competing:
Despite feeling for sure that my adrenaline was going to dump after being off the competition mats for so long, I couldn’t remember feeling more calm right before I competed. I’ve always encouraged my nervous friends and teammates by reminding them that they’re just competing in jiu-jitsu: the same sport they practice day in and day out, but sometimes, I forget to remind myself of the same fact. In past tournaments, I’ve gone in feeling like I was about to walk into a boxing match (in which I would certainly die), but this tournament felt like I was coming home. I had a blast and focused on personal goals rather than being hyperfocused on winning — I wanted to see where I was, expose the holes in my game, and crank up the offense even if it meant losing a match.
In the end, I lost my only gi match, then lost my first advanced no-gi match and won my second to earn bronze. On paper, the results were “meh.” But since I achieved all my personal goals, I was happy. Jiu-jitsu has never been about the competition for me, and when I do compete, it’s never really about the medals — I do it because it helps me grow and keeps my jiu-jitsu honest, but at my core, I’m a hobbyist. And as usual, my jiu-jitsu impostor syndrome was in full effect when I was surrounded by all the other competitors in my division who were clearly not just hobbyists.
For the first time, though, I was really ok with that. When I was competing regularly (mostly as a white and blue belt), I felt like winning tournaments and establishing myself as a fierce competitor was the only route to success in jiu-jitsu, and whenever I’d lose, I felt like a failure. Now, after spending so much of my (relatively short) purple belt career focusing on what I really love about jiu-jitsu — the community, the personal benefits, the opportunities for growth — I was able to actually enjoy competing. I’m comfortable with what jiu-jitsu means to me and how competing fits into that dynamic.
Looking back on how I felt before I competed, I definitely understand why I felt the way I did. Now, though, I feel like if I signed up for another tournament next weekend, I’d be a lot less anxious. As much as the emotional part of me wanted to pull out, I’m grateful that the logical side of me (aided by my borderline excessive sense of pride) convinced me to suck it up and deal with it. I’ll almost certainly never compete at a major competition, but this small event on an indoor soccer field in Ohio helped me conquer the “Don’t Wanna” and provided a great checkpoint to reference in my jiu-jitsu journey.