Ok, so it fels a little strange to me, to be writing a blog about how to compete. I’m no monster at competing, i’m no world champion, and never will be. I have, however, competed in a lot of tournaments, i’d guess I’ve had around 2-300 matches over the course of the past 11 years, so hopefully that will lend some credence to the advice that i’m about to dish out.

I received my brown belt about 18 months ago now, and it was a mixed emotion. On one hand i kind of felt like it was time, i’d been a purple for a long time (5 years), and won some competitions (though not the big ones), but it always felt like when i rolled with brown and black belts, that i’d get completely destroyed. The way i saw it, a decent brown belt should be able to catch a black belt every now and then, i don’t think i’d ever caught one at that point. The good purple belts were still giving me trouble, and hell even some blue belts made me feel like I was working way too hard to beat someone who’d only trained a fifth of the time i had. This insecurity about not being up to snuff was probably exacerbated by the fact that apart from my coach, (who got his black belt the same day i got my brown), there were no other brown belts at the gym, so knowing where i stood was difficult.

The importance of mindset in BJJ

And so, competition season comes up, it’s time to test the theory, and see if i actually am just a “fake” brown belt, getting it more for time put in, than any real skills. Over the course of a year in competition, i start off decently but a few matches getting crushed send my confidence toppling. By this time, I’m coming into the matches almost beaten beforehand, the Scandinavian brown belt scene isn’t huge, so the guys i meet tend to be guys that I’ve already met before, and hence guys I’ve lost to. I know they can kick my ass; if i try to implement my game they’ll just counter it. I start playing really passive from my guard, which is usually my favorite place to be, thinking that if i open up and start playing freely, going for my butterfly hooks, surely they’ll just switch their hips and pass my guard easily? So I go to stale, boring, but relatively safe guards, that don’t resemble my normal game at all, and i’m therefore devoid of any attacks or comfort there, just sitting there, unable to do much else than defend. And so my brown belt record came to 2-9, with one of my wins being more or less erased later, when the guy taps me out in a different competition.

This brings me to my latest competition. I went to NAGA in Paris a few weeks ago (i wrote a blog about it here as well), and was signed up to compete in the expert division NoGi, and the brown/black belt division in Gi. The NoGi competition came up first, which is is not really measured in belts, but anyone that has 5 years + in any grappling training (so me as a blue belt would have fitted into this division). Before this tournament, i really wanted to focus on not being lazy, and being aggressive from the guard. My trip to Marcelo Garcias gym (blogpost about that here), had gotten me to understand that i was way too passive, and allowed my opponents to get into their favorite positions without me really fighting, I got completely smashed by all levels there, but it really allowed me to take a step back and re-evaluate what i was doing. As soon as the going got rough, i’d just kinda lay back and let them do what they wanted and attempt to flow with it. This time i was determined to be aggressive, and go for my game (x-guard, 1-leg x-guard and butterfly sweeps) right off the bat, not wait for them to establish grips, or lay back and wait for them to initiate.

Confidence started building as competition went on

As I watch the other competitors, i can see that they are very good, but seem to be wrestling based. Lots of the matches are taking place standing, exchanging shots, once it’s on the ground there is a furious pace. I conclude that these are BJJ guys with a base in wrestling and/or Judo. My first match comes up, and my gameplan works good, i rack up some points, and eventually catch him in my favorite x-guard move, a toehold. Second match starts the same, i aggressively pull xguard, thinking that i don’t want to be standing against a wrestler, and not wanting to give him a chance to settle and start putting a grinding game on me, I immediately go for the same toehold, and catch it, ending the match in 20 seconds. The last guy, i hadn’t seen much of, but i knew he’d fought 4 guys and won, and he was built like a wrestler, i decided to go for the same strategy, but his base was really good and i didn’t get my x-guard. I however decided to keep being aggressive, i felt like a wrestler shouldn’t be able to pass my guard, so i started really opening up my attacks, trying to pull him ontop of me for butterfly sweeps, going for cheeky crusher armbars, and eventually rolling for a kimura that i turned into an armbar and got the tap about one minute from time. These are the kind of moves i do in the gym all the time. Try to be aggressive, always looking to attack rather than wait.

Starting to feel like i can pull it off

After the match ended, and i received my NAGA belt, i ended up talking to the guy from my second match in the medic tent (we both messed up our knees, so no gi competition for me), and i found out that both him, and the guy i met in the finals had been black belts, and the first match was a brown belt.

At the time i just thought “oh wow, cool”, and was happy with my performance, but the more i think about it, the more i realize that i don’t think i would have performed as i did, if i had known this beforehand. My mindset was so hellbent on brown and black belts kicking my ass, that i was very half heartedly trying to get off my own attacks, constantly thinking that “these guys are better than me”, and expecting some magical counter that i’d never seen before. The truth is, the vast majority of moves out there, you will have experienced in the gym already. Your opponent may be better than you, but the likelihood of losing is only going to increase if you do yourself the disservice of giving too much respect and not trying to implement your own attacks with full intent of finishing it. Of course some guys are just better, and they will time you and hit you with counters, but you can’t avoid losing those matches by refusing to take the match to where you feel most comfortable. I feel like i won those matches because my mind wasn’t burdened with expectations of what my opponent would do, and i can only hope that the experience will be enough to alleviate that burden in future competitions.

Relief at the podium

I’ve always told my students when i coach them, that nothing their opponent does is going to be different from what they train in the gym, i tell them to impose their own game, and roll exactly like they do at the gym, just with a bit more intensity. I think it’s time i take my own advice.

P.S. the IBJJF belt rashguard i’m wearing there is the prototype, the logo will be slightly higher on the chest on the final version. They should arrive in the store in about 1-2 weeks time, if everything goes to plan.