A summary of my approach to competition (for now)

What next? I smashed my goals and did what I said I was going to do. Time to set a new goal, no fucking about this time though. My next goal is to win a BJJ competition.

My suspicions going into this little experiment were that my head and my cardio would let me down. Only one of the two things partially let me down on the day and it wasn’t my cardio. There are definitely some new things I am going to introduce into my mental preparation over the next few months. For my sins, I have a small tear in my Meniscus so as much as I wanted to jump into the next competition on 1st May, I couldn’t for fear of fucking up the rest of my knee.

I am still able to train but my physio says until my knee recovers hard sparring and by default, competition is a bad idea. Meh whatever. I am still maintaining my fasting habit, keeping my cardio up and there’s a lot of new stuff I want to play around with in my game.

I thought it would be a useful conclusion to this series of articles if I set out the methods I used to get this done. As with everything on this blog, I want to leave a record of what I think is useful and has been tried and tested (even if it's only been tested once).  I will be continuing with this experiment over the next year or two and look forward to refining my preparation methods.  It is such an interesting journey.

Deciding to compete

It sounds cliched but I have to find my “why”. Why do I want to compete? What am I going to get out of it? How will I feel when I achieve that goal? I come back to Conor McGregor’s words “I have dreamt this so much, so clearly, so precisely and so frequently that it has manifested itself into reality”

You might get hung up on the word “manifested” in that quote – don’t. Sure, manifestation has a lot of woo-woo linked to it. I am not saying I need to become a born-again hippy, spend my life savings on crystals, and believe that the universe will provide… nope…

What I am saying is that I need to have clarity of vision and visualize myself being successful in my endeavor.  This helps me tap into my drive to succeed while I am on this journey.

Set a date when I am going to compete. Putting myself on the clock, seeing the sands of time passing by is galvanizing and a great motivator to action. Going one step further and publicly telling people what I am going to do and the date I am doing it creates accountability. It also gives me the pressure of the perceived judgment of others. I say perceived because the judgment of others is one of those things we all struggle with. Sure people judge me, perhaps for this preachy blog, perhaps because I am writing like I am the veteran of a thousand competitions, perhaps, perhaps, perhaps… BUT… it doesn’t matter to me anymore. Others will think of me what they think of me and there isn’t a damned thing I can do about it, apart from trying to be the best version of me I can.

Vocalize my fears. What am I afraid of? What part of this makes me shy away, afraid to look? If I don’t feel confident enough to tell people my fears about doing this, I write them down, acknowledge them outside of my own head. There’s a funny thing that happens when I publicly admit to weakness, to having doubts, to being afraid, I hear others say “me too” or vocalize their own struggles. Equally, I have found that when I write down on paper thoughts and fears that bother me, there is a cathartic release in doing that.  I find that writing them down and seeing them laid out like that changes my perspective on things, it is somehow easier to find the path of acceptance and overcoming them.

Starting to prepare – mental preparation

I think mental preparation and mindset is something that isn’t really covered that much in BJJ (perhaps it is but I haven't come across it). It seems to me that it is something you are left to figure out on your own. I also think that most people when they think of competing they think of the physicality of the endeavor, of having the best technique, cardio, and strength. Certainly, these are big factors that I cannot ignore.  Although, for me at least, I think the mental side of the competition game is the biggest thing I have to master. Perhaps that is because of my grade?  Perhaps I don't feel that technical stress because I have a well-established game due to the hours on the mat I've put in already?  Getting back to what I wanted to say here, there are certain facts I need to accept going into this journey. Firstly, I realize and accept that I will compete the way I train. That doesn’t mean I have to be a dick in the gym, going balls to the wall the whole time. What I take it to mean is that I need to insist more and accept the will of others less, for example, insist on retaining my guard, I do not accept them passing mine.

Secondly, I understand that with a harder training pace, higher intensity sparring (free or positional) rounds the probability of injury increases. I accept that I may have to compete with an injury or that I will get injured competing because of the intensity competition brings.

Next, what stressors can I remove? For example, I completely removed the need to cut weight. It took me six months but my walking around weight is lower than the weight I compete at. No fear of weight cut, no fear of the scales on the day.   I might be worried about a “name” in the bracket or the number of competitors in the bracket. Simple, I don’t look at the bracket.

Another good one is my perceived performance in the gym during sparring. Measuring myself by gym success isn’t a great measure in my opinion (and trust me I did this for years), my team-mates know my game really well, they know my habits, preferences, weaknesses, etc; typically my opponent won’t and if I have faced them before then it will be on a handful of occasions.  In a nutshell, I don't get hung up on my performance in the gym, the true measure is the competition I am undertaking.

Finally, what is my competition pace? What is the sweet spot where I am expending the right amount of energy to bring the right intensity to compete? I don’t want to blow my wad in the first couple of minutes, coming out of the gates at 100% is a bad idea.  Instead, I need to find that balance of intensity while conserving my gas tank.  I can only find this through experimentation during sparring in the gym over time.

Sensory mindset training

At this point, I have a goal and clarity of vision. I have accepted what I need to accept and vocalized my fears. Now comes the visualization. There are a number of ways to do this, I visualize all sorts of things and scenarios.

From a technical standpoint, I visualize the execution of my A-game. See myself in the match implementing my shit and with that visualization, I focus on how it feels. I visualize my competition pace, the intensity I am bringing, the adrenalin buzzing in my ears. I see myself in different positions, good and bad. For example, stuck in mount, escaping, scrambling, and coming out on top OR hitting a takedown, getting to side control, and finishing an armbar. Whatever my A game is, I see myself doing it in that match context.

From a general standpoint, I visualize the weigh-in, the day of the comp, see myself in that calm confident headspace. I visualize driving to the comp, walking into the arena, remaining calm. I visualize warming up in the bullpen before the match, walking to the mat. I visualize the aftermath, what does victory taste like? What does it feel like? I see myself on that podium in first place, accepting the medal.

The next step is to find a song or audio track that I visualize with. For example, I use soundbites of my heroes and role models saying things that inspire me. I put this track on in dead time e.g. when I am commuting; and visualize. I listen to this playlist before I train, I visualize my mindset, intensity, and how I am going to insist. I try to remember that my subconscious (apparently) cannot tell the difference between imagined situations and real ones. I think this works, it’s the tool I use the most to learn and achieve. 

To sum this section up, it all sounds very serious and intense. Yeah, it kind of is but the part I left out and didn’t make clear is that I visualize myself doing this from a place of positivity. I still want to win but copying Vagner, I see it as putting on a show, going out there, doing my best, and having fun. Base, negative emotions, anger, malice, etc don’t feature.

Physical Preparation

What is my body's tolerance for hard sparring? For a lot of us, age is a factor and it just isn’t realistic to spar hard every single day. Furthermore, I don’t think I need to and if I do my training partners will get pissed off with me if I can’t turn off my competition pace in class (we all know that guy, I don't want to be that guy).

I choose to do my hard sparring one day a week for two and a half to three hours. That’s it. Before those sessions, I visualize using my musical trigger to lock in that mindset. I focus in on my competition pace, I aim to work at that tempo in those classes. I ask my teammates to call me out when I'm getting tired to make me push harder until the tank is beyond empty.

While I am doing these classes, I remember that these are my teammates.  I get tired with them, I lose to them, I laugh with them, I improve with them. Fatigue makes a coward of us all but it is also our best teacher. To bring in my all-time favorite quote:

“Ignis aurum probat, ad miseria fortes homnes – As fire purifies gold, misery strengthens men” – Seneca

Coming back to hard sparring.  I train my A-game when I spar in comp classes. Now is the time for me to refine it and sharpen it, identify weaknesses in the pressure of the competition class and improve.
My personal approach is always ready because there is less to think about and I have been building up to that for over a year now.  That slow gradual pace is key, I didn't just start doing this I introduced it over months allowing my body to adjust.  The balance to hard sparring is recovery, making sure that I have enough time to recover from those sessions.  A lot of classes I go lighter classes and focus on learning and growth.
This balance is really crucial because im in my forties, not my twenties. I set myself a training schedule that includes normal classes, comp prep, and recovery, for more on this see my earlier article “Aging gracelessly – the importance of conditioning and mobility after 30”  

My last thought for this article is an area that I use extensively and haven’t really mentioned in this summary – breathing and meditation. I haven’t covered it here because the topic is vast and I am still learning and refining my understanding. I think in the future I will write a series about this topic. For a taste of what I am referring to check out my earlier article “Striving to be like Yoda – Breathing and Meditation


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