I remember my first tournament match like it was yesterday. I’d trained tons of cardio, with lots of live rolling, Bikram yoga and Fight Gone Bad. In my gym, we go hard at each other during rolling, and I was able to do six straight rounds, no problem. I was in shape. I was ready.
My game plan was set, too. It was a no-gi match, so I was going to shoot, hopefully get a takedown, and work from there.
Everything went according to plan. Shot a single, got him to the mat. He shrimped out and recovered full guard. About 90 seconds into the match, I was exactly where I’d planned on being. We’re up 2-0, we’re in a good position. “OK,” my mind said, “let’s pass the guard.”
“Yeah …. about that,” my body replied.
What 30 minutes of straight rolling couldn’t do, a minute-and-a-half of a tournament match did. I was tired, and I mean tired. I’d experienced the dreaded adrenaline dump.
This came as a surprise, since I’d competed a ton in other pursuits. I thought I’d be prepared. The lesson I took away from the experience is that adrenaline dumps can be unpredictable, and it’s best to be aware of and plan for them.
So, how do we do that? I set out to do some research. The good news: my instructor had some great ideas that helped me a lot in my first big competition. The bad news: there is surprisingly little in the way of hard scientific research on adrenaline dumps in athletic competitions. Most of the studies relate to officer-involved shootings and other examples of stressful situations for first responders.
I could always have missed some studies — and if I did, please leave a comment, since I’d love to know more — but I searched the Physical Education Index, SPORTDiscus and a few other databases, and I couldn’t find much beyond the basics. Some blogs offer specific nutrition advice, but I can’t find any real scientific testing for this counsel. The best I can say is that improving nutrition isn’t likely to hurt. I don’t think there’s a specific catch-all formula that’ll solve the problem, though.
What I aim to do in this post is share some techniques — some you can use during training camp, some for the day of the competition — that helped me avoid problems with the adrenaline dump. If you have some of your own, please leave a comment: it’s something worth exploring more, for sure.
(Before we get started, some folks struggle with severe anxiety. That’s not what I’m talking about here, but it is addressed in this JiuJitsuForums thread. One poster suggests beta blockers for individuals with serious performance problems. Those are prescription level, can have serious side effects, and are not the tactic to use with the garden variety “wow, my arms and legs feel heavy and I’m gassing hard” dump I’m talking about here, but I feel like they’re worth noting.)
How do we train to beat the adrenaline dump?
Train Hard. Yes, this is obvious. Yes, you should be doing this anyway. But I feel like beyond the obvious reasons you should be doing this (improving technique, building cardio) lies a subtle anti-adrenaline dump factor: you give yourself less to worry about. Anxiety feeds the fight-or-flight response. The last thing we want to be doing right before we step on the mat is wondering if we’ve trained as hard as our opponent has. That feeds anxiety, which leads to a self-defeating cycle.
Ideally, I want to be able to say to myself, “I might lose, but if I do it won’t be because I haven’t trained hard enough.” Training like crazy gives you peace of mind and stops the brain from unproductive churning.
Pay Attention To Proper Rest and Nutrition. The blog post I quoted above has lots of specific diet and supplement advice, but I feel the same way this guy does: if you’re not getting enough rest, drinking enough water, and taking care of your training basics, then the other stuff is nice but superfluous.
Take care of the basics first, and then you can begin experimenting. It may be that B vitamins, choline and taurine are the end-all-be-all of anti-adrenaline dump nutrition. If you’re not sleeping well and aren’t properly hydrated, it won’t matter.
Simulate (As Best You Can) Tournament Conditions. When one of our guys is training for an MMA fight, our instructor will do this: he’ll dim the lights, play our guy’s walkout music, and have the guy walk out of the locker room toward our cage while the rest of us go crazy cheering. Yes, it’ll never simulate real-world conditions exactly. But the closer you get, the more prepared your mind and body are.
“Compete more” falls under this category as well. When you get used to something, it feels more natural.
DAY OF THE COMPETITION
You’ve trained as hard as you can. You’re prepared in the best way possible. Then they call your division. What do you do now?
Be In The Moment. This is an insight from my coach, who is great at helping students with the mental game. Because jiu-jitsu is so technical, focusing on details is important. Because we train it so much, many BJJ players are very comfortable breaking down techniques into particular movements. So why not break an intimidating task down into the sum of its component parts? “First, I’m going to slap hands. Then, I’m going to work for the takedown.” The specifics keep us focused.
Breathe and Stretch. I’m not just saying this because I’m a yoga guy: there’s a ton of science that validates the relaxation benefits of breathing deeply. We don’t want to be mellowed out before the match, but we do want to be relaxed and calm. Deep breathing and a regimented stretching routine can help. At least, it worked for me.
Focus on Enjoying Yourself. This sounds simple, but it might be the insight that helped me the most: this is what I do for fun. No matter what happens in this match, I just love training and improving. If I win, that’s the outcome I hoped for; if I lose, I’ll learn something.
To illustrate this, I’ll end with the counterpoint to the opening story.
At the Mundials this year, I was alone in the bullpen. This can be an intimidating place: 12 mats are going, you’re surrounded by the best in the world, and you’re about to go out there in front of hundreds of people in a win-or-go-home situation. You’ve trained for six weeks, spent lots of money, paid close attention to your diet, and sacrificed tons of time, energy and comfort just for a shot at this. Unlike local tournaments, your friends aren’t around and your coach can’t be in the bullpen with you.
By any measure, this is a higher-stress environment than the first match I described.
I did all the things described above. Sat by myself. Breathed deeply, stretched. Thought about each moment of the match and what I wanted to do. Whenever doubt or nerves would start to creep in, I’d ask myself “Is there any place you’d rather be right now?” The answer was always no.
This is what we do for fun. It’s not always easy, but not a lot of things worth doing are.
I was more relaxed for that match than I’ve been at a lot of local tournaments. I think mental techniques are different for everybody. But what I’ve described here worked really well for me, and I hope the same is true for you.