The big day is finally here. You’ve been training for months for this moment, and you’re feeling good. You’ve been submitting people who outrank you in the gym, your game feels solid, and you’re confident in your jiu-jitsu. The referee beckons you onto the mat. You stand across from your opponent, slap hands, bump fists, and…
You don’t even know what happened, really. You didn’t feel like your opponent was that much better than you, and looking back, you can clearly see the mistakes you made, so why didn’t you catch them in the moment? How could you go from being so dominant in training to feeling like you regressed so much in the time it took you to step onto the mats to compete? Surely everyone isn’t this much worse at jiu-jitsu when they compete?
Look, the short answer is that you’re right — not everyone feels like their jiu-jitsu knowledge flushes out of their brain when they compete. Some BJJ athletes thrive in competition, like they magically earn a few extra skill points when a gold medal is on the line.
Still, though, there are plenty of people who feel just like you. And while it sucks to drop the proverbial ball the moment you need to be at your best, it’s not a surprise when it happens.
No matter how much you try to tell yourself that a tournament match is basically the same as a roll in your home gym, it’s undeniable that the overall “vibe” of a tournament is different. Even if your mind feels prepared for what’s to come, your body may subconsciously react to the additional stimuli around you — the noise, the light, the pressure. Your body knows, just as your mind does, that even though you’re just here to do some jiu-jitsu and go home, the stakes are still higher than they are at practice.
For many competitors, one of the main culprits is an adrenaline dump. Our nerves get the better of us, and we make mistakes we’d never make in training. We exert more force than needed, often to our detriment. We may also tire out faster — most competitors know the feeling of aching, cramped forearms after even just one five-minute match.
The good(?) news is that countless jiu-jitsu competitors have gone through the same confusing, upsetting experience. Even so, it can feel crushing to go into a tournament as prepared as you’ll ever be, knowing that your confidence is supported by how well you’ve been doing in training, only to get wrecked by your opponents.
The first step to getting over this disappointment is to accept what is often obvious in hindsight: that competition is very different from regular training. Taps in training may represent personal victories, but they’re not actual wins. Going up against an opponent you likely don’t roll with on a regular basis is going to give you a different experience than rolling with a teammate, especially when that opponent wants that spot on the top of the podium as much as you do. No matter how tough your teammates are, no matter how hard you go in training, it is still just training, and it’s not realistic to expect competition to closely reflect what you experience in practice.
The second step is simply to compete more. Oftentimes, your mind and body experience such a shock at tournaments because you’re not used to it. Competing twice a year is going to feel strange and stressful because you’re not used to it. Doing anything just a few times a year, especially if it’s a high-pressure situation, will make you feel out of practice and uncomfortable, and you probably won’t be performing at your best.
The fact that you do jiu-jitsu every day isn’t irrelevant, but you also shouldn’t be hard on yourself for fumbling a bit in a stressful setting. You probably talk to people every day, but for many people, public speaking is a challenge. You may be known as cool and charming around your friends, but get nervous and awkward around your crush.
“Just compete more” sounds like lazy advice, but it’s also the best solution for anyone who struggles with a gap between their performance in the gym and their performance in competition. The more “normal” competition feels to you, the more likely you’ll be to use your “normal” jiu-jitsu skills when you compete. Don’t let losses or poor performances keep you from signing up again. Practice what you fell short on in your last event, and come back to the next one more prepared. Failure is frustrating, even devastating, but you’ll never taste victory if you don’t keep coming back for more.
You aren’t a failure at jiu-jitsu if your competitive results don’t match up with your work in practice. And you definitely aren’t the only one in the sport to struggle with this disparity. Remember to stay grounded and keep signing up to compete. If you flounder on the competition mats, your best bet is to make competition your new normal.