During my formative years of jiu-jitsu training, my team not only competed a lot, but consistently had great results. I always looked up to them, and I loved the process of training and preparing for competition. My problem came when it was time to actually compete; I would get so nervous that I wouldn’t even want to show up to the tournaments. But at the same time, I also didn’t have the guts not to go, as I didn’t want to let down my team, and even more so because I didn’t want all of my training and preparation to be in vain. I put pressure on myself because I always trained so hard, but once the moment arrived and it was time to step onto the mats and begin my matches, I always had an overwhelming feeling of wanting it all to be done as quickly as possible; to just get it over with. Somehow, I subconsciously preferred to lose in the first ten seconds and relieve the pressure than to win. That’s how it was in the beginning for me, and I remember losing my first fight in probably under a minute in each of my first five or six tournaments.
My biggest fear at the time was getting armbarred from the closed guard. The problem wasn’t that I didn’t know how to defend against that technique, but rather that I was boycotting it. There were so many tournaments that I’d step onto the mats with my legs literally shaking because of nerves, and as soon as the ref yelled ‘combate’ and we’d begin, I was already gassed. I remember thinking to myself that this was not normal, this could only be a result of something in my mind. So I decided that things would work better if I created small goals for myself; first I challenged myself to get through the first minute of a match without getting submitted, then working up to a 2-minute goal from there and at some point working up to a goal of winning just a single match at a given tournament. These small steps gave me confidence, since I guess it’s easier to face small and more easily-attainable goals than it is to face big ones that can often be too daunting.
I felt that if my preparation in the academy hadn’t been enough to make me feel ready, then that would be something entirely different, and easily fixed by more training and more focus in the gym. But at the same time I felt that if I showed up to a tournament totally ready in terms of techniques, training, diet, conditioning etc., knowing that I was better than the guy standing across from me - i.e. I’d beat him in the gym - but then I’d lose the match because I wasn’t mentally ready, that was on me. What I really wanted was to be able to show up and use the jiu-jitsu that I already possessed.
Behind The Fear
I think that people are afraid to compete mostly because they are worried about what other people are thinking, and because they don’t want to disappoint their teammates and teachers. At some point, I decided that I would stop caring about what others think or expect, and that I would stop apologizing when I lost. When it came down to it, the person who was most let down when I lost was myself. Of course your friends and instructors are never happy when you lose, but they go on with their lives shortly after your match; they don’t worry for too long, they have their own things to think about. So it’s never helpful to feel guilty about a loss, or to apologize to anyone for it. Instead, it’s best to internalize the experience and use it to prepare you for the next one.
So I tried to forget about absolutely everyone else when I was competing. I would step onto the mats and pretend that no one was watching me. It might always feel like everyone in the crowd is watching you, but the truth is, most people are not; instead, they’re watching other matches, chatting, eating, and worrying about their own upcoming bouts. But it’s often difficult to put it all out of your mind and forget the eyes that might be locked on you. This is why training must simulate the tournament experience; so that there are no surprises.
I’m very good friends with Demian Maia, and he told me that as part of his training preparation, he uses a recording of the sound of the crowd and plays it in the gym in order to simulate the experience of walking from the locker room out into the stadium at one of his UFC fights. So when event day comes, there’s absolutely nothing new for him. By the same token, when you cut down the number of new sensations and feelings that you’ll have to face on tournament day, you are able to much more accurately control the way you are going to feel when you step onto the mats for your first match, and avoid the buildup of nerves. It’s important not only to train and drill your techniques, but also to train and drill the non-jiu-jitsu parts of the overall competition experience.
I suppose that people are often afraid of getting hurt too. I’ve lost matches in every imaginable way; during my career I’ve been out-pointed and subbed from all angles. That being said, there were many times that I tapped out, and as soon as I did, I thought to myself that I could have held on longer. That thought is only momentary though, because when the logic sets in, you always realize that it’s so silly to get hurt like that.
Lastly, people are scared to lose, simple as that. Often not even because of letting someone else down, but just because of what it means to you personally, for your confidence, on your track record, etc. But fear of losing is something you have to get rid of. If you’re afraid to lose, you’ll never compete. There’s that old saying, “you miss 100% of the shots you don’t take”, well your goal shouldn’t always be to win, sometimes it should simply be to learn and to improve. If you focus on improvement, you’ll eventually win at some point. What’s most important to note is that you don’t necessarily have to have the better technique to win a match in a tournament; you have to have the better mindset.
Overcoming The Fear
I was the guy that overcame the fear of competing and learned to love the experience. I remember when I was much younger, the smell of the soap in the shower before a tournament would somehow stay in my mind as a mental anchor. Then when I’d smell that soap again a week later, after having lost in the tournament, the scent would stir up my nerves and I’d get butterflies. That’s how bad it was for me. Today, when I see my bracket for an upcoming event, I still get butterflies, but I’ve learned to love it - to get excited. What made the difference for me was the way that I worked through it in little steps; I realized that there was really nothing to fear, and that I could overcome it since it was all in my own mind. But it’s important to note that you can in fact overcome your fear of competing, and beyond that, you can develop a love for it!
State Of Mind
When it comes to being in a good mindset for a tournament, there’s no objective rule; for each person it’s a bit different. I’ve tried all of the various mindsets to get into the right ‘mood’ for competition. For some people, they need to get riled up - game face on, ready to smash - and for others, they need to be calm and focused. I’ve experimented with trying to get angry, imagining that my opponent beat up my mother or something ridiculous like that, just to get pumped up. That aggressiveness didn’t work for me, rather it just made me more nervous and caused me to tire out more quickly. What worked for me was to simply remain as relaxed as possible. I need to feel like I’m at home in my academy. But I don’t go comatose, I need that perfect combination of extremely tranquil and extremely alert. Everyone’s different, so I can’t say what’s best for you. Maybe you need a slap in the face to get pumped up before a match. Whatever it is, you need to do some experimentation and see what yields you the best results.
I’ll be 36 years old this year and I’ve never stopped competing in the adult category. It’s a bit contradictory because I always tell my students that they should compete in their own classes. But I like the training and the challenge so much now. I’m not a huge fan of the dieting, but it certainly keeps me focused and forces me to maintain a strict training regimen across the board. In fact, at the tournaments that I didn’t diet for, I felt perhaps less focused. In any case, I’m obviously not the best in the adult category now, but I like that I can keep up there with the very best, and I want to see how long I can do this for. I still make it to the podium in the major international events like the Pan Ams, Brasileiros and the Worlds, and won gold at the Rio Open, all in the adult category. Yes, I feel like there are people that can beat me, but I feel like I have a chance, and as long as I feel that, then I’ll keep doing it.
Light Guys Only Training In Rio
The idea of ‘light guys only’ training is that there’s not necessarily any good reason to train with people that are much bigger or heavier than you. If you’re doing straight up self-defense training, then that’s a totally different story, and you have to train and prepare for any size of attacker. But when it comes to competition training, I just feel like the risks of rolling with much bigger partners is too great. If you keep a 10-kilo (22 pound) differential between you and your training partners, and don’t go outside of that range, your jiu-jitsu career with be a lot longer, as you’ll avoid injuries, and your training will much more accurately simulate the tournament experience. Now I’m not saying that you shouldn’t ever train with bigger partners, there is certainly a point in your jiu-jitsu journey that you need to have the experience and feel what it’s like, but it doesn’t need to be your norm.
When training with the light guys only group, I definitely notice that they are often faster, nimbler, and often more crafty. The crafty part is most likely a result of the fact that in regular training, they need to rely much more on technique, timing, leverage, etc. than on muscle and weight. You’d be surprised by just how intense a light guys only class is! Our training sessions have become extremely popular, and we get people from literally all over the world, and from every team you can imagine, coming to visit and train with us. What started out as a project is quickly developing a life of its own.