BJJ Competition For Self-Defense

“Competition can help solve the riddle of stress inoculation training for self-defense.”

Recently there has been a resurgence in the importance of self-defense training in Brazilian jiu-jitsu. This resurgence has been inspired by many outstanding and respected instructors, such the legendary Rickson Gracie. Rickson has expressed concern that as the sport of BJJ grows, the self-defense foundation of jiu-jitsu could disappear. Being someone who started training over 15 years ago and did so specifically to learn self-defense, I couldn’t agree more. In the beginning of my jiu-jitsu journey, it was common to see schools training self-defense techniques and to have classes geared towards vale tudo, the predecessor of MMA. This style of training has faded from many schools over the years, so to see this mentality make a come back is welcomed. With the pendulum of BJJ training swinging back towards its self-defense roots, some schools are going to the extremes and refuting the importance of competition. These schools and practitioners are ignoring the benefits of competition for self-defense training.

A difficult aspect of training for real life scenarios is the re-creation of stress and fear. Real life encounters are filled with stress, anxiety, and fear: the stress of being verbally and physically confronted by another person, the anxiety of not knowing the outcome of the encounter, the fear of physical harm or embarrassment from the encounter. Military and law enforcement have known for years that inoculating soldiers and cops to extreme stress through training is essential to their positive performance in real world situations. Recruit training in, let’s say, the United States Marine Corps, is an example of 13 weeks of extreme stress inoculation training. Drill instructors screaming, physical training until exhaustion, sleep deprivation, and a constant fear of failure has proven effective in creating the modern combat Marine. While effective, I think it would be safe to say this type of structure would prove a far less efficient way to run a BJJ academy.

Competition can help solve the riddle of stress inoculation training for self-defense. Our body has a difficult time telling the difference between stress induced by life threatening circumstances versus non-life threatening circumstances. In fact, our autonomic nervous system reacts to extreme fear in the same manner regardless of the stimuli. During these times of extreme stress, our body undergoes a loss of fine motor skills, auditory and visual exclusion, feelings of nausea, and adrenaline dump followed by loss of strength and stamina. If you have competed, you may recognize these symptoms.

Learning to successfully counter and even harness these responses begins with exposure to this heightened state of arousal. When we compete, we come in to the match with a fear of failure. We fear failing our teachers, family, and training partners. We fear being embarrassed in front of a crowd of people. We may even fear being injured. All of these fears may be misplaced, but are real enough to someone when they first begin competing. These fears cause the “butterflies” in your stomach. A feeling caused by the adrenaline rush of the pending confrontation.

Learning to deal with these emotions and your bodies responses to fear is an invaluable tool for self-defense. Competition allows for us to ride the wave of these emotions while operating in a controlled environment. Becoming good at competing is truly a matter of mastering your own emotional response to fear. If you let your fear overwhelm you, you will under perform or possibly freeze. Both of these outcomes could prove disastrous in a life and death situation.

Some have argued that If you have competed and been overwhelmed by your emotions, it will have disastrous effects on your confidence to handle a real situation. They argue it is better to have never competed and never have experienced this level of stress. This could not be further from the truth. It is better to have encountered these feelings of fear in competition then to be caught completely off guard in real life. Learning to work through these emotions in a controlled environment is the intelligent course of action. We must also remember that when we compete, we are going against another person who is also battling their mental and physical response to fear. Just as the technical aspects of BJJ come easier to some people, so does the mental aspect of fighting. Those who have the most experience and are the most prepared to handle their bodies’ response to fear will have the greatest success.

The understanding of fear and your ability to control its responses can have profound influences off of the mat. Numerous public polls have determined public speaking to be the number one fear in America. This fear can have drastic influences on career choices and advancement. I can imagine few leadership roles where speaking to groups is not part of the job description. While to some this fear may seem silly, it is quite reasonable. At the heart of the fear of public speaking are the same fears underlined in competition. Those who fear public speaking fear failure, embarrassment, and freezing. Everything except for physical injury. Although many people fear public speaking more than pain and physical injury, the fear of failure and embarrassment are aspects that adversely affect our performance during competition. Competition teaches us to meet this fear and handle or even harness our physiological response to it. Think about this, have you ever seen a professional athlete give a press conference? Ever seen an athlete just stare blankly at the crowd frozen in fear? This just doesn’t happen. This is because the fear of embarrassment and failure has already been tackled on the playing field, court, or in the ring.

One of BJJ’s all-time greatest fighters Royler Gracie has been quoted as saying ‘Everyone should compete at least once”. I could not agree more with this statement. I don’t believe competition or its results should be a determining factor in promotions. I do believe, however, that there are many benefits one can gain from competition. The most beneficial of these being stress inoculation and learning how to deal with fear.

So if your goal is to become proficient at self-defense, then don’t forget to use the sport as a training tool. Competition, free rolling, and self-defense training is all just training to become a champion in life.

Read also on Jiu-jitsu Times: Closing The Distance In A Fight


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