It took me a while to realize that when I go to tournaments, the most difficult part isn’t my match, it isn’t even the weight cut (when I cut weight), it’s the pre tournament jitters. I find that leading up to a tournament, if I am able to clear my mind and discard my fears and apprehensions, I am able to do much better than when I hold onto those feelings.
My coach, Pablo Castro always says “Don’t fight the event.” What he means by this is that a match is basically a rolling session, that’s all it is. As soon as you start to focus on the gravity of the event, as soon as you start to allow yourself to get sucked into any sort of negativity, your performance will inherently suffer.
So what does one do to address pre competition jitters? I think that in essence this comes down to understanding what goes into making the jitters…
Competition jitters start in the gym. There are many different kinds of rolling. One can roll to get better at defense, or one can roll for offense. You can roll against people who are worse, better or the same as you and you may have strategies for each kind of roll to help your own progress. Before tournaments, I like I find people who are slightly better than I am, and I like to start from the feet with them and keep score in my head. I do this for about a month before any tournament, as it allows me to get my head in the game.
I do NOT try to learn new material during the time before a tournament, and any new material that I DO learn, I save for afterwards to drill and perfect. Instead, I focus on my own personal game. I have an A, B, C, D etc game for tournaments. I work different angles on each of these; I try to find paths from my different go to submissions to each other. All of this I do in the spirit of being mentally ready the week of the tournament.
For me, a major issue is weight. I hate cutting. For this reason, I like to start making sure I am on weight about 2 weeks out before the tournament. I am not interested in cutting water last minute unless I can weigh in locally the day before the tournament, weighing in and having to compete after a cut ruins my confidence.
There are two schools of thought when it comes to training the week of a tournament: most people I’ve met don’t, some, like me, would train the morning of the tournament just to feel warm and ready. There is something about continuously training and rolling that makes stepping out onto the mat on game day much easier. He’s just another training partner, he’s just another person in the gym, and I have what it takes to dictate what transpires when we roll…
The night before a tournament can make or break me, and more often than not it breaks me. By this I mean, I must get a good night’s sleep. I’ve tried everything from waking up super early the morning before as to make myself artificially tired to taking sleeping pills. Sleep is so crucial and I haven’t gotten that part down. I think it’s something from which many actively competing jiujiteiros suffer, but the more I compete the easier that night before becomes. Stress inoculation, thinking of my time at competition as just another day at the office, it does get easier.
Day of the tournament is relatively easy for me. I have my routine. Wake up nice and early, show up to the venue early enough to be not be under pressure, and try to find people at the venue that I know. I joke around a lot at tournaments; I find that laughter keeps me calm. I also joke around during my matches, something that sometimes upsets my opponents, which is fine. Many people listen to music throughout the day, some watch the matches, some coach their teammates/students/ how you occupy your time at a tournament can help or hinder your performance, find a good balance that keeps you focused but doesn’t wear you out by the time your bracket is called. Far too often I see people experience such an intense adrenaline dump pre-match that by the time they step on the mat they’re already beaten.
During the match, discard your notions of victory or defeat. Live in that moment. Do your best to execute that which you already know works. In doing this, you will be able to best focus on your matches and winning them.
Competition jitters exist throughout the entire spectrum of our sport. Next time you go to a big tournament, watch the big names in the room, I promise that at least some of them will look jittery, everyone goes through it. It’s how you handle your competition jitters that determines how well you will do in competition.