Gumby Column: So you wanna compete?

There are definitely things you can do to make your competition experience more successful and enjoyable.SO YOU WANT TO COMPETE IN BJJ AND GRAPPLING TOURNAMENTS

In all fairness, I haven`t competed myself in a long time (since US Open XIII in 2003). This is largely because with all the running around and stress on the day handling OntheMat duties during tournaments, I don`t have the energy or mindset to get on the mat as well. However, I miss competing quite a bit and have to admit to going a bit bonkers sitting on the sidelines. Before this whole OTM even started, I was known as one of the biggest mat rats around, competing in just about every tournament that comes around.

More than that however, I`ve watched a lot of people compete and I`ve now coached and talked to a lot of highly successful competitors. There are definitely things you can do to make your competition experience more successful and enjoyable.


Why compete? Because it`s fun! Leave your ego at the door (because it`s very likely to get squashed), you are ultimately on the mat to have a good time. Even the very top competitors do this largely out of the love of the sport first and foremost (the amount of work you have to put in for the tangible reward is almost negligible compared to many other pursuits). People compete because the love this sport and competition against worthy adversaries is the ultimate expression of our sport.

Moreover, competition is laboratory to gauge one`s own skill and effectiveness in a more neutral setting than the dojo. After month or even years of training against the same people day after day, you are likely to develop a game and mindset specific to your (well known) opponents. In competition however, you may not know anything about your opponent previous to actually first physical contact with them. You`ll be able to really test out your technique and learn how you might react against unknown factors.


Talk it over with your instructor:

The first thing you should do before you plan on competing is to talk it over with your instructor or coach (or if you are the instructor, an equal level teammate). Your instructor will more than likely be happy to give you advice or help you prepare for the tournament (after all, you will be representing them and their teaching abilities on the mat). Your instructor will also be able to help you work on any holes that might be in your competition game and polish you up for the big day.

Note that cleaning up holes in your game is different than learning a whole bunch of new techniques for competition. I largely believe this is an ineffective strategy, in the time it takes to prepare for a tournament you shouldn`t be trying to learn any radical new stuff. In competition you`re generally going to wind up relying on time proven, academy tested moves and techniques as opposed the fancy flying attack you haven`t quite gotten to work yet. Rather, ask your instructor what you need to work on, specifically as relays to competition. Whatever level you happen to be at, it`s always helpful to get an outside opinion of your strengths and weaknesses so you can adjust accordingly.

Your instructor may also discourage you from competing for one reason or another, or may not think you are ready for competition at a given time. If you trust your instructor (and really, you should trust your instructor or else you don`t belong in that academy), you will take their advice seriously, but it`s also okay to ask why they feel you shouldn`t compete, because that can be a learning process as well.

Understand and study the rules before entering a competition:

As much as we`d like and hope, there are no unified rules for BJJ or Grappling right now, and promoters may even change and refine their own rules in between their competitions. It`s your responsibility as a competitor to know the rules before you enter a competition, and if you have any questions, be prepared to ask them. Most often the rules can be found on the registration packet or online.

Some very specific rules to make sure you are clear on before entering competition:

What (if any) leg attacks are legal in your division? Most every division will allow for the straight ankle lock. In higher divisions you will see the toehold and straight knee bar allowed. Twisting knee attacks such as heel hooks are rarely if ever allowed in BJJ competitions and only in the most advanced no gi divisions.

Is slamming in any form legal? In most tournaments slamming is illegal, however in some tournaments it is a legal way to escape a submission and in others it is legal to advance position.

What constitutes an advantage point (do they even have advantages)? Usually this is defined as a submission attempt (or sometimes other maneuver) that doesn`t otherwise score, but must be vigorously defended.

What constitutes a takedown? More importantly what does not constitute a takedown? You would think the answer is obvious on this, but sometime guarding pulling or otherwise landing in certain position may result in extra points or no points at all.

What happens in the event of a tie? This happens almost every tournament, when the match is dead even and time expires. The choices are usually set overtime, sudden death overtime, or referee`s decision.

Being forewarned of the tournaments nuances will allow you to prepare and train correctly for the tournament.

How long to prepare for competition:

I know guys who won`t know if they are competing until the day of who then enter and do well, but they are the exception rather than the rule (and mind you, they are always seasoned competitors and are always in top shape anyway). Most of these same people will tell you however that for competitions they take seriously, it`s about 4-8 weeks of prep time. Preparation in this case means watching what you eat, conditioning work and plenty of hard mat time.

The last week before a competition it`s time to taper off the hard training and keep yourself moving and loose. You want to go into the competition relaxed, ready and most importantly injury free.

Conditioning work:

As any one who has ever competed will attest to, competing is often one of the most energy draining activities they could ever participate in. While a lot of that is nerves (more on mental state later), in the weeks of preparation before a tournament there is much to do in order to improve one`s wind.

First and foremost, comes mat time and lots of it. When training for a competition, I feel it`s very important to train to the point of exhaustion, and to keep substituting fresh opponents in whenever possible. If you`re training correctly, you should be getting your ass kicked as fatigue sets in. Remember, this is all about checking your ego and testing your limits. The point of fatigue should be farther and farther off with each session you train like this, so that your energy level should be high in the timeframe of a competition match.

The very top competitors in our sport will also supplement their mat time with other condition exercises. Running, cycling, bleachers, and swimming have all proved effective for many competitors for example. They key is to this should be SUPPLEMENTAL exercise to augment mat conditioning, and NOT A SUBSTITUTION. I can`t emphasize this enough.

For more conditioning tip, visit our good friends over at

Cutting and making weight:

Be aware of the weight classes available as they tend to vary from tournament to tournament and if you`re cutting weight, those extra few pounds one way or the other could make a big difference. Also, when the weigh ins are done could make a big difference as well as to how much weight you want to cut, the weigh in may be done the day before, the morning of, or in some cases right when you step on the mat!

It goes without saying that you generally want to be at the top of your weight class. But I generally I don`t advise making too big of a deal about making weight as opposed to coming in well practiced and conditioned, if you`ve been preparing correctly the weight has probably come off on it`s own anyway. If the day before weigh ins you`re five pounds or less over a weight limit it`s pretty easy to remove the excess weight by sweating it or emptying your stomach. If you have to cut more than five pounds however you`re going to have decide if it worth it to cut the extra weight. Some people can shed lots of weight very quickly, but in my unscientific observations I have noticed that people who cut too much weight don`t tend to perform as well as those who didn`t.

Also, be aware in smaller tournaments they often don`t have enough competitors in a certain weight class, so weight classes may be realigned or competitors bumped up or down on the fly, so if you spent a lot of time cutting weight it might be for nothing!

In general my opinion is be at a weight you are comfortable at, but it`s more of a by product of being in shape. I`m sure there are other sources which might have more invaluable information on cutting weight.

Sex before a competition?

I think depending on what you want to hear, you`ll hear opinions on both sides of the fence on whether abstaining from sex before a competition is a good idea. Some people need the release of energy and that can carry them through a tournament. Others need the stored up reserves of energy and I guess frustration in order to make them more aggressive on the mat. It`s largely a mental thing I believe, so whatever floats your boat. (Although some of you I don`t advise turning some down in any case if you`re lucky enough to get a chance at it!)


Get a Good Night`s Rest:

You`d think this would be an obvious suggestion, but it`s important enough (and often enough not followed) that it bears repeating here. Try to get a good night`s sleep before the competition. Enough said.

Don`t forget to eat something.

Again something you`d think would be obvious, but bears mention as well. Make sure you have something in your stomach so you are sustained throughout the day, but don`t eat something so heavy that you`ll be leaving your breakfast on the mat. I`m not a nutritionist, but I`ve always found that a little bit of protein, a lot of carbohydrates, and a bit of fat is my optimum meal before a competition. Ideally that`s a couple of egg whites, hash browns, pancakes and an avocado half in the morning. Also, having drink some water, and remember to bring some water with you to the tournament (you will be asking for it later). Sports drinks are good as well (although I think they are pretty nasty if not chilled). Personally the only energy drink I consume with any kind of regularity is a cup of coffee, but I only very rarely ingest caffeine so it has a pretty strong effect on me. Bananas are a good food to eat as well and contain loads of potassium which will help fight muscle fatigue.

Don`t worry about the tournament time:

Even the best managed tournaments can have scheduling conflicts or things happen. Most every tournament I`ve ever seen runs at least a little bit behind schedule. So if your bracket is set to go at 2:00, be prepared to go at 2:00, but don`t be surprised if you go on later than that. The promoter will do their best to keep you informed of the situation, and keep things moving along. Try to stay loose and relaxed, and begin your warm up in earnest when you hear your division called.

Warming up:

Everyone has their own method of warming up and getting those final butterflies. I don`t think it has to be a complicated ritual. What do you do to warm up before training for class? Do that. Make sure you have at least a few moments for whatever ritual you have before the match. Stay relaxed and focused.

Competition Strategy:

I`m not going to go into too specific details here, everyone has their own style of rolling and this could get into an involved treatise without even trying here. I`m going to give you a few tips.

First of all, never look past any opponent you have in front of you. Yes, it might be three matches to the finals, but these tournaments are mostly single elimination, so any mistake and you could be done early. You might have to dig deep and fight to the very limits of your abilities the very first match.

At the same time, when you are in a tournament situation, you may have to do the same thing several times in the day. My advice would be to fight to the best of your abilities each match, and then use the in between time to recuperate both physically and mentally.

During your match, select ONE voice to listen to (preferably your instructor or coach) and block everyone else`s voice out. There is likely to be a lot of noise during the match and if you don`t prepare yourself to hear your coaches voice you may miss important advice, or worse yet, listen to poor advice or advice for your opponent!

Competition time is the time to execute the tried and true techniques you learned and drilled at the academy, and it is the time to stick to the fundamentals of what you know you can do. Competition time is definitely not the best time to bust out a crazy Karate Kid Crane Kick style maneuver that you`ve never even gotten to work in the dojo. I can`t tell you how many times someone tells me to watch out for their flying armbar, then they miss it and forget how to pass a guard.

A lot of time even experienced or top level competitors will ask me for advice in dealing with a specific opponent. My advice always comes down the same at a root level: the competitor who is able to impose their style of grappling is almost always the one who will win. If you are able to play your game, you`ll probably win. If you have to adapt to your opponents game, you will probably lose.

Have Fun!

These days, grappling and BJJ tournaments really are a friendly atmosphere and a chance to make a lot of new friends. Don`t worry about the guys who are wandering around the tournament looking intimidating. Most of the time they are really nice people who are doing what they love just like you. And the ones that really want you to think that they are tough? They`re just projecting their insecurities to the world.


Back to the drawing board!

Alright, there are two ways of looking at competition over all, as a means or as an end. I personally prefer the means way of looking at competition, that ultimately it is a tool and a laboratory setting. Competition is a good way to gauge your skills or ability to handle a pressure situation, but like many of life`s experiences the ultimate goal is to learn more about yourself. Ask yourself what went well, what could have gone better and what you can do to improve. Often time the best person to begin this conversation with is your instructor which brings us full circle on this article.

Train HardFight HardParty Hard


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About the author


Gumby is the co-founder of back in 1997 with Scotty Nelson.