I have lost more tournaments than I have won. Lots. Most of the tournaments I have lost have been because of either my strategy, attitude, or mentality.
I have repeatedly made strategic mistakes. The most common strategic mistake that I made was trying to approach a match holistically as if there was some honor in testing the entirety of my Jiu Jitsu out against the entirety of my opponents. Maybe I’d watched one too many John Wayne fight scenes?
I would enter the match and just “see what happens” and react. That was largely how I treated rolling and I was sometimes successful there, so I adapted this to my matches as well.
After years of disappointing losses I finally began to realize that once I walked into my opponents game it was hard to come back. If I don’t insist on getting the match to the ground on my terms (pulling guard), then my opponent is going to blast me with a takedown and start up by 2 points.
Now we are in a position that takes Jiu Jitsu largely out of the equation. My opponent’s incentive now isn’t to have better Jiu Jitsu than me anymore, it is to hang on to this lead while reducing my options for a safe escape. So either I get stuck and squished out for the remaining time, or I escape at high risk giving ample opportunity for the opponent to score more points, wear me out, or submit me.
When discussing strategy there is a huge difference between rolling and competing. Typically when rolling in class if I am able to pass someone’s guard and get to side control I won’t just stay there. I will keep working actively to submit from there or advance my position. Usually, because we train in efficiency of movement, the person getting squished in side control tries to time these transitions to create their windows for escapes.
In a tournament all of this changes. I spent a number of tournament matches waiting for a window to open so I could work my escape, but my opponent had no intention of moving out of their winning position (and rightfully so).
In competition mode, energy efficiency is used to prevent the control positions from being locked up. In rolling, I may think, “Oh my guard is being passed, let me get myself set up so that when they get to side control I am safe.” In a tournament we must scramble and fight tooth and nail to stop them from solidifying a position that will be mostly impossible to remove them from without using excessive energy.
Bursts of explosive determined energy to stop someone from getting to mount and settling will end up using less effort than trying to dislodge someone contently holding the mount position.
I also pulled a lot of half guard following the strategy of someone who I looked up at in my early Jiu Jitsu career, Eddie Bravo. He was open that his strategy was to pull half guard, work that to a sweep or full guard and submit.
Again, in class, I had reasonable success with this approach, but in a tournament many things change. The first problem I realized is that it takes a LONG time to sweep from half guard, especially from a lockdown half guard position. When someone is fresh and full of energy with their family watching it takes some time to get things moving. I still feel confident in my ability to advance from bottom half but it can oftentimes take 2-3 minutes to force the sweep position and if during that time I get even a little impatient I am probably getting passed.
I adapted my strategy towards an approach that works for me, my style, and my body type. I am a bit of a slow starter and can maintain a medium pace for hours, but if I get into a fight of explosiveness, agility and speed, I will typically run out of steam. With this in mind, I aim now to get my opponent into my closed guard.
Here, my long legs slow down agile passing attempts and wear on my opponent as I send tricks and tactics their way to emotionally frustrate them as I try to get deeper and deeper into my attacks. This is a safe tournament strategy. I am not in near as much danger of being passed. I am fighting my fight.
When I fight my opponents fight there is a chance that his very best game is De La Riva and my De La Riva passing game is my 4th or 5th best game. So now I’m not seeing who has better Jiu Jitsu, I am playing my 5th best against his 1st best. Unless I am significantly better than my opponent I will lose this battle and maybe never get a chance to get into any of my 1st best game against his 4th or 5th best.
Don’t wait and see. Implement your game. Let them call your bluff and try to stop it. Develop at least the skeleton of a game plan and challenge them to beat your A Game.