Jiu Jitsu Tournament Competition Checklist

Last weekend, FUJI held another great tournament in Springfield, MO.  Twenty competitors from Springfield BJJ put it all on the line against students from other local gyms.  This was their first or second tournament for the majority of our competitors.  Skill in the gym doesn’t necessarily translate to results in a tournament.  There are some guidelines that can be followed to improve the odds of performing well at a tournament.  I learned lessons the hard way when I began competing.  I have compiled some of the preparation tips I found myself repeating to competitors these past few months. Which Jiu Jitsu tournament tip had the biggest impact on your performance?

(Original Post only included 4 tips, Post updated 1-31-17 to include all 10)

Jiu Jitsu Tournament Tips

Pre - FUJI Springfield Competition Photo

Jiu Jitsu Tournament Tip #1:  No Procrastination Allowed!

Decide whether you are going to the tournament or not, then preregister for the tournament.  If you wait until you feel “ready” to register you will NEVER register.  There is always more to work on, just take a leap of faith and do your best. Now you have made a pact with yourself to compete no matter what.  Even if the day of, you feel like you have a cold coming on, even if you can’t sleep the night before, even if you had to miss a week right before the tournament because of a surprise work schedule change…

Understand there is no wiggle room, so you better get your cardio, weight, and technique in line once you make a commitment. Your brain can’t try to trick you into slacking off from training.  You don’t have an “out” to avoid competing.  You can’t win a tournament in the week before the tournament, so you need to begin preparing 3-5 weeks out at least.  Lifting heavy, killing yourself in training, or eating healthy during the last week before a tournament won’t do the trick.  Put in consistent work.  One of the biggest benefits of a tournament is that the preparation you go through actually improves your Jiu Jitsu permanently!

Jiu Jitsu Tournament Tip #2: Have A Game Plan

Tournament Tips - Have A GameplanThere are some best practices in game plan creation and implementation for tournaments that set a grappler up for success.  The goal of a tournament isn’t to see which competitor has the best overall Jiu Jitsu, but to see which competitor can pull the other into their dominant game.  You can learn more about Crafting A Jiu Jitsu Game Plan here.

Now that you have a game plan structured, you should be working that plan in the gym at least 3-5 weeks out EVERY time you are on the mats.  This is where you are going to get super sharp with your reactions to possible counters so that when the tournament comes you are going to feel very confident when you get to your positions. This phase of training may feel boring.  That is normal.  The time to try out the fancy new worm guard sweep you saw on YouTube isn’t now, it is sometime after the tournament when you aren’t gearing up for performance mode but are in learning mode instead.  Confidence in your game keeps you motivated to push to get to where you need to be instead of settling for a position that isn’t part of your plan.

Jiu Jitsu Tournament Tip #3: Rehearse ALL Parts Of A Tournament Performance.

We are used to doing Jiu Jitsu, but we should also be comfortable with shaking the referee’s hand to start a match.  A small surprise is all it takes to start a match in a deficit and I have lost matches because of the running out and shaking the referee’s hand part.  This tournament and the last, I ran our newer competitors through the entire set up for a match.  This includes standing on the side of the mat, the referee waving them out, shaking the referee’s hand, shaking each other’s hand and the referee signaling “Combate” (“Fight”).  I would run each competitor through this a dozen or so times.  After a few times, I would also have the competitor drill part 1 of their gameplan (the takedown or guard pull).  The opponent offered no resistance, so they could feel the best case scenario match start.

When the ref calls you out, be excited to shake his hand.  Think how it feels when you look over and see your opponent dragging their feet on the way to shake the ref’s hand.  They don’t want to be there.  That gives you confidence.  Get right after it and try to beat your opponent out to the referee.  This can be one small mental battle on a larger battlefield.   If you were eager to get out there and your opponent beats you to the referee, it isn’t the end of the world because you weren’t dragging your feet still.  This same principle applies to after positional resets.  Be eager to get to the spot first.  Notice your opponent moving slowly and tiredly into position.

Jiu Jitsu Tournament Tip #4: Be Prepared For The Adrenaline Dump.

Jiu Jitsu Tournament Tip - Adrenaline DumpIf this is your first tournament, you are probably going to experience a version of adrenaline dump.  The more nervous or anxious you are about performing in front of people the more severe this will be.  You will feel instantly winded, your body won’t move when you tell it to, your grip strength will feel fried, and your whole body will feel shaky.

One of the main ways to minimize this response is to be able to stay fluid and relaxed when rolling in the academy.  If you are tense during friendly rolls, how tense do you think you will be in a tournament with your family watching?  When you get amped up and tense, focus on relaxing the tension again instead.

Recognize that tournament matches are more tiring than rolling matches in the gym.  In the gym you are in your comfort zone.  The rule of thumb that I follow is that a tournament match feels like 2 rounds in the gym, and sometimes 3 if your nerves are especially bad.  So in a typical local tournament you have between 3-5 matches, so you should prepare by feeling pretty good doing at least 6-10 rounds in the gym.

Update Begins Here (Tips 5 – 10 added on 1-31-17)

Jiu Jitsu Tournament Tip #5: Warm Up Properly.

How one of the simplest concepts can be so easily overlooked is beyond me. I literally have to stalk down and hound some of my competitors and force them to warm up, and stay warm, prior to their matches.
 A proper warm up the day of the event is absolutely necessary for optimum performance. Many competitors are slow starters and don’t get into the zone until mid way point in the match, by then it may be too late.”

Chris Herzog
Chris Herzog (10th Planet Watch Article)

Just because many other competitors aren’t warming up DOESN’T mean that is the right answer for you.  It actually means it is a really easy way to get an edge.  I like to compare this to a car.  It is way harder to go from 0-60, than it is to go from 30-60.  I want my competitors to have a light sweat going, almost be at the beginning of their “first wind”.  

If you are skipping this step because you are fearful to use up your cardio, then you didn’t prepare enough.  You shouldn’t fear for cardio after a few minutes of warmup.

“When you step on the mat you want your body to feel as if your all ready 2-3 minutes deep into the match. This will definitely help those that are slow starters.” – Chris Herzog

I also want to address any problem areas my body has and get them feeling ready.  Maybe in tournament preparation I got stacked up and my lower back is feeling it.  I make sure to spend some extra time focused on warming up those muscles to get them activated so they don’t lock up and block me and to prevent injury.

Stretching To Warm Up For Jiu JitsuTournament

You should practice your warmup series that you are going to use for the tournament by warming up for class with that same warmup series the few weeks leading up to competition.  That way you get lots of feedback to know what parts of your body will need to be warmed up more or less.  Finally, many Jiu Jitsu tournaments don’t have mat space to warm up, so figure out what you can do in these spaces!

Keep warm between matches. Make sure you have sweatshirts, pants, socks, even a skull cap to keep the heat in your body.  Sometimes venues and tile floors can make you cold and stiff.

Jiu Jitsu Tournament Tip #6: Put The Pressure Into Perspective.

Lucas Vs. KidThe only difference between a tournament and any other day on the mat is the entry fee and the medals. Too often competitors put immense pressure on themselves to perform. They feel that if they make any mistake in the technical application of a move that they have brought disgrace to their gym.  They bring all this negative pressure and weight into the match and it stifles their creativity and limits their options.  Feeling some tension and nerves is normal, and the more you compete the easier this part gets.

You have to have work hard in your preparation and then have faith in the outcome.

Being tense only increases energy output.  Just feel confident that your Jiu Jitsu will flow when you turn on the spigot, just like in class.  When you step on the mats to train in your gym, do you have to say “OK, Jiu Jitsu, do your thing”? or does it happen naturally?  The same thing will happen at a tournament.  A good way to prepare for how you will do on the mat your first few Jiu Jitsu tournaments, is to assume that you will compete like your worst day of rolling in the gym ( that day where you make silly mistakes, and feel a little off.)  Hopefully your tournament day won’t feel like that, but if it does, you’re prepared.

Think of a Jiu Jitsu match as just another day on the job.  You packed your tool bag for your day before you left the house. If you get to the job site and really need a screwdriver, but you only have a hammer, you’re going to have a long day.  Maybe you can be creative and find a way to make it work, but you are definitely working out of a deficit.   If you don’t have the answer to escaping a certain variation of side control they are playing, you just have to do your best in the situation.

If you find out you don’t have a needed tool at a tournament, you have just been given a project to learn those answers after the tournament.  I don’t like losing, and I definitely don’t like losing by repeating mistakes.  It is OK to get stuck in a tricky variation of side control, but by the time the next tournament comes around, I better have the answers for that type of side control in my tool belt.  They will have to find ANOTHER way to beat me, and once they do, I’ll also patch that hole.

Jiu Jitsu Tournament Tip #7: Listen To Your Coach.

A few minutes before your match time and when Brian Stuebner Coaching BJJyou are on deck, briefly visit with your coach.  Stay focused on you and your gameplan during this time.  Hearing them speak will help you tune into their voice when they are coaching you in the match.   There will be lots of noise going on during the match, so you are going to be able to latch on to that connection of hearing your coaches voice like a bloodhound on the scent if you do this step.  Often a good coach can take a look at your opponent and based on their body type, gym, warmup style, or previous matches make a suggestion as to what to watch for in the match.

Good coaches aren’t yelling out “Triangle!” They focus on the flow of the match and give the competitor the information they are too busy grappling to notice.  “Keep good posture.”, “2 minutes left you are up by 3”, or “1 minute left, you are down by 2, you have to go!” are common examples.  A coach can’t teach you a new move on the mats in the middle of the tournament by yelling out each step to you, but they can help you untangle a stuck position sometimes.

Listen To Your Coach, Caio and BrianYour coach may repeat the same thing over and over.  You may not be able to complete this task.  You aren’t obligated to tell your coach “I can’t, he has a grip.”  Just do what you can.  Most competitors will listen like a zombie their first tournament (if they can tune in the coaches voice) and do spectacular.  A few tournaments later, they stop listening to the coach thinking they know better in the moment.  This is when coaches feel like their remote control batteries are dead.  Eventually, competitors will blend listening to their coaches and making judgment calls in the way that is best for them.

Jiu Jitsu Tournament Tip #8: Get Your Points.

BJJ Self Help IBJJF Points Jiu Jitsu ScoringThere are few things more frustrating as a coach than seeing someone passes up free points and lose.  When you are passing the guard and sweeping, make sure you establish the position to get your points before moving on.  Too often competitors, either don’t know the rules or get overly excited and zip through positions too quickly.

Many people pass the guard, then go right to knee on belly, then mount, then to go for the mounted armbar, and they miss the armbar and are now on the bottom side of closed guard and got 0 points because they never established any of those positions.  If they had slowed down each step by a few seconds they would have had 9 points!  Being on bottom, with a 9 point lead, or on bottom in a tied match is a huge difference.  Being up by 9 means the opponent has to work which opens up sweep and submission attempts.

The flip side of this, is that if your guard is being passed, don’t just lay there and think about what type of side control escapes you are going to work.  Move, scramble, fight, wiggle, do whatever it takes to stop them from solidifying the position and getting points.  I can promise you that however much energy it takes to escape in this transition, it is less than when you are locked down in bottom side control and they are up by 3 points and just have to hold you to win.

Links To Jiu Jitsu Tournament Rulebooks (will open in a new tab):  IBJJF RulesFUJI RulesAGF RulesNAGA RulesGrapplers Quest Rules.

Rulesets are constantly evolving, so the links posted could be outdated.  Also recommended to verify weight classes.

Jiu Jitsu Tournament Tip #9: Don’t Stop Until The Match Is Over.

jiu jitsu Timer for BJJ RoundsAcross all sports it is a pretty widely acknowledged rule that you should continue play, until the referee stops you.  This is no different in Jiu Jitsu tournaments.  When your opponent taps, you can slow your submission application to keep them safe until the referee stops you, but don’t let go right away.  I have seen plenty of “ghost taps” where the referee is on the far side of the action, the submission is released and the match continues as if some miraculous submission escape just happened.

Some opponents simply won’t tap to locked in submissions, and you must be prepared to FINISH.  With chokes most competitors don’t have a problem, but joint locks are different.  We are all reminded daily in training that we have to take care of our training partners and this enters our mindset.  In training if I have a partner who should be tapping to an armlock but isn’t and is actually moving in a way that could make it tighter, I loosen up on it to let them out and prevent them from injuring themselves, and discuss with them later that this is what I did and the didn’t just “flex” out of it.

At the Jiu Jitsu tournament, it is most important to finish the submission.  If they don’t respect their body enough to protect themselves, you can’t either.  I have seen competitors be too “nice” during a submission, not wanting to hurt their opponents arm, only to have the opponent escape and minutes later injure them!  In a tournament protecting yourself is your first priority, and the quicker you finish the match the better.  I believe in always giving your opponent a chance to tap, but if they don’t take it, then it is on them.  The referee will stop you when you are going out of bounds or when a match is over.  Stopping prematurely is a horrible way to lose a match.

Finally, leave it on the mats.  If you are going to lose, at least lose tired.  Don’t walk off the mats feeling fresh thinking, “I could have done more.”  Keenan Cornelius says that if he is going to lose a match he wants to make his opponent work so hard to beat him, that his opponent loses the next match from exhaustion.

Jiu Jitsu Tournament Tip #10: Finally – Get In As Many Matches As Possible.

John Sharkey Million Matches Jiu Jitsu TournamentTournaments aren’t just about winning in the short term, but winning in the long term.  Especially the newer grappler will benefit by doing as many matches as possible.  I spoke with lots of students who signed up just for the gi division because they were worried about being tired.  I told them ALL to sign up for gi and no gi.

The more matches, the more you learn, and the more psychological principles you get to experience.  How do you react when you beat someone in gi and now have to compete against them in no gi and know they are coming for you.  How do you modify your strategy when you have to rematch someone who you lost to.  This helps competitors dig deep and learn more about themselves.  Just like deliberate repetitions of a move increase ability, deliberate competition makes competing easier.

Also there is always the possibility, the match starts, you slip on some sweat, get guillotined, and the match is over.  If you only signed up for one division, your day is now over.  If you signed ups or no gi at least you get another chance to try to get some mat time in.

Which Jiu Jitsu Tournament Tip are you most excited to focus on next competition?FUJI Springfield Group Photo

One Comment

  1. […] I think that the intense part helps me, because if I just go to the big tournaments or something that I really plan to win or do well, with like a p… […]

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