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competing in jiu-jitsu

4 Lessons I Learned from Competing in 156 Grappling Matches

I’ve been competing in jiu-jitsu and judo for 5 years now. I’ve come a long way, not just in physical skill, but in my mental game and attitude too. So I decided it was time to share the most important lessons I’ve learned over 156 matches. If you are relatively new to competing, or mulling over signing up for your first tournament, this post is for you. Read on!

1. It’s okay to be a late bloomer.

competing in jiu-jitsu

Competing is hard. Sometimes it just doesn’t go your way. Photo by Mike Calimbas.

At the white belt level, matches are usually not very technical and often won by whoever is more aggressive or athletic. As a competitor who is more analytical than aggressive and definitely not fast or athletic, I didn’t fare well in my earliest tournaments. As a matter of fact, my record at white belt was 1 win and 5 losses. Then I earned my blue belt, and with it, the opportunity to be technically dismantled by far more experienced competitors in my next few tournaments. I pretty much got my butt kicked at my first 7 tournaments, and I started to think I would never be good at competing. I had lost all faith in myself, and I was ready to quit competing for good.

But for some reason, I kept going. And so that brought me to tournament number 8. After spending almost a year at blue belt, I had my first real success in competition. I submitted two opponents and took second place overall. I thought maybe it was a fluke. It wasn’t. Things really did start to turn around for me. I kept training, kept competing, and kept learning. Today I have a box of medals in my closet. I don’t mean to brag, I still lose plenty of matches. But I don’t lose all the time anymore. I’ve had a handful of first place finishes. And at purple belt matches are usually quite technical and a lot more fun than the aggressive brawls I had to go through at white belt.

The key to success in competition is to never give up.

I feel sad whenever I see a white belt student lose at one or two tournaments and then throw in the towel on competing. Just because you aren’t good at something the first few times you try it doesn’t mean you won’t be good at it someday. The only way to get good at competing is to keep competing. Believe in yourself and don’t give up!

2. The nerves really do go away (mostly).

I’ve heard people say “competing will always be terrifying!” I beg to differ. While I can’t speak to the experience of others, for me it stopped being scary a while ago.

I remember my first few tournaments and the horrible nerves I felt. For a whole week before the competition I could hardly think about anything else. When I showed up at the venue, I hadn’t eaten all day or slept much the night before. I just wanted it to be over. The first few tournaments were the hardest, but got a little bit better every time. Then it even started to be fun.

Lying in bed the night before my 24th tournament, I felt something new: pure, unadulterated excitement. For the first time, I didn’t feel nervous at all. I just wanted to show up and scrap with some tough ladies. I wanted to get out there. It was a beautiful state of mind. Today, after competing in over 150 matches between jiu-jitsu and judo, I feel pretty well within my comfort zone at tournaments. Competing brings me only joy, and when I step onto the mat I feel a strange mix of excitement and calm.

3. Compete often, but don’t burn out.

competing in jiu-jitsu

It’s important to remember to have fun at tournaments!

If I ever take more than a couple of months off from competing, the nerves start to come back a little bit. I’ve found that to stay sharp in my mental game, I have to compete regularly. At the same time, competing too often can cause burnout.

I’ve seen it happen to many people. Some of my toughest opponents at white and blue have dropped out of the tournament circuit; a few of them have quit training entirely. My goal is to compete as a black belt someday, and I need to keep a pace that I can sustain. It’s a marathon, not a sprint, and certainly not a death march. My general rule of thumb is to compete every 1 to 3 months. This keeps me sharp and motivated in my training while still keeping things fun.

4. Winning is a choice.

The biggest thing I’ve learned from years of competing in jiu-jitsu is that winning and losing aren’t really defined by the scoreboard.

I used to always feel proud if I won a match, and disappointed if I lost. Winning for me was all about beating my opponent, being better than someone else. This is a foolish way to define winning.

Consider this: You will almost certainly never be the very best jiu-jitsu competitor in the world. There will always be someone out there who can “beat” you. Even those few people who do win a world title rarely stay on top for long.

There are matches that I won that I am disappointed by. Disappointed because, even though I beat my opponent, I know I didn’t perform well by my own standards. And there are matches I am extremely proud of that I lost. I lost because my opponent was better than me (remember, someone always is!), but I fought my heart out and performed very well. I am proud of these matches even if the scoreboard says I lost, because I know I didn’t really lose.

You aren’t competing against your opponent. The opponent is the obstacle, a necessary source of challenge; you are competing against yourself. Your goal is to live up to that challenge and perform at the best of your ability, with all of your heart, mind, and soul. If you understand this definition of winning, then you must also understand that winning is a choice.

And if you chose to win every time, you can never lose.

competing in jiu-jitsu

Feeling proud after “losing” a tough and very technical match with my teammate Jennifer Perez. Photo by Mike Calimbas.

So, are you interested in competing? Sign up for a tournament; give it a try! Here are a few upcoming tournaments in Denver:

NAGA

Easton In-House

IBJJF Denver Open

-Roxana Safipour is a coach at Easton Arvada and Easton Littleton

Cover Photo by Heather Bock

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