How to Prepare for your first IBJJF tournament

For one brief, shining, day, I was a Cub Scout. There are pictures. As it turned out, there were elements about it that I couldn’t abide (conformity) even though, paradoxically, I really liked the uniforms. Yeah, yeah, I’m a paradox.

The one shining lesson from scouting that has always stuck with me from those glorious few hours is simple: be prepared. With the IBJJF’s first trip to North Carolina coming up in a mere 10 days, I know that many Triangle Jiu-Jitsu students are competing with the federation for the first time. Others, presumably, are in the same boat. Hence, a quick post designed to help you not be nervous, not be flustered, not be scared, but to be … well, you know.

Much of this advice applies to any tournament, and I encourage you to check out my Getting Ready For Tournaments 101 post as well. There are particular aspects to IBJJF competition, though, that merit some attention. So even though we’re fewer than two weeks out, let’s start there and proceed.

TWO WEEKS OUT

Make sure you know the rules and scoring system, especially the legal submissions for your belt level. Note: the IBJJF has different rules than US Grappling or NAGA, so while there are overarching similarities, don’t go for that wristlock unless you know it’s legal.

Train hard. Work your cardio. Focus on the moves that you know are your best moves, that you’re most likely to need and use in the tournament. I’m a huge believer in high-rep drilling, so when the time comes, your body legitimately doesn’t know how to do the move any way but the right way. I do a drill called “Perfect Match” where I drill every move on my partner in order, as if the match went perfectly. Then I change my drilling based on circumstances that might occur (I end up on bottom, he gives me his back, etc.). But I drill my best 1-3 moves for each common position. This isn’t the time to learn new tricks, but to sharpen the tools you have.

Eat clean. Drink tons of water. Cut out alcohol, sugar and junk foods, especially if you’re close to weight.

This post isn’t about cutting weight — that could be an entire series — so I will only say two things about that. I don’t recommend cutting much, if any weight. I think you should compete at your natural weight, with you healthy. That means fueling your body with healthy food and lots of water. If you’re close to a particular weight class, though, and want to drop a few pounds, the single most effective method I’ve found is eliminating any beverages from your diet except for water and green tea. Drink a ton of water — I drink 1.5 to 2 gallons a day — until a few days before the tournament. This way you’ll be nice and hydrated, you won’t eat junk calories, and you can shed a few pounds easily without compromising anything.

ONE WEEK OUT

Keep eating clean. You’re eating for performance. If it’s worth doing, it’s worth taking seriously.

competitorscreed

A week out, it’s time to taper down your training. Some schools, including Robert Drysdale’s, have suggested competitors not train the week before the competition — that way, you’re hungry and excited and your body has recovered from the hard work it’s done. I don’t go that far, but I do mostly drilling and only roll light rounds, and then only with people I know and completely trust. This is another lesson I’ve learned the hard way: Don’t roll with that guy who sometimes goes too hard. Don’t roll with the guy you don’t know. You’ve put in time, effort, financial resources — don’t let an ill-advised sparring session jack you up 2 days before.

Personally, I drill light on Thursday, run through my perfect match, and then do nothing on Friday. If I’m close to weight, I’ll do yoga. (Hot yoga will take water out of you fast, but it might also deplete you if you’re not used to it.)

If you’re worried about weight, cut down on salt intake a few days before, and water intake 24 hours before. Note: be careful of ibuprofen. I’ve learned that hard way (after gaining four pounds overnight) that it’ll make you retain water. Otherwise, eat wisely, don’t over-exert yourself, and don’t take unnecessary risks.

AT THE TOURNAMENT

Bring:

* a bag of healthy food (fruit, nuts, protein bars) and water
* your ID
* at least one complete spare gi
* music or a book to get lost in if you like

Get to the tournament as early as you can. This isn’t because you’ll need to be there all day (although you’ll probably want to watch your teammates, too): it’s because you want to be familiar with the environment, acclimate yourself to the surroundings, and just get relaxed and comfortable. There will be many mats going, and it can be overwhelming. Give yourself time to get used to it.

Well before your division is called, if you’re close to the weight limit, go to the bullpen — an area blocked off with yellow barriers — there is a practice scale there. You can check your weight. Be sure to do so in your competition gi, so you can be assured of an accurate reading. This will give you an idea of how much food or water you can consume beforehand. If you’re thirsty, your teammates can get you water after you weigh in. More on that in a second.

The schedule will have a rough estimate of when your division will be called. Plan to be in the area an hour before, just to be sure: schedules change. When your division is called, you’ll go to the bullpen. Bring your ID with you.

When it’s time, the mat coordinator will call your name and check you in. Shortly after that, you’ll go to the line to have your gi checked. A worker will make sure your gi meets the IBJJF legal requirements for length and for patches. This is why you need a spare gi: they might disqualify your gi, or your belt, or make you tear patches off. This probably won’t happen, but it’s best to be prepared.

After they approve your gi, you’ll go to the scale. You only get one chance to weigh in, so be sure you’re on weight before you step on that scale.

Assuming you’re on weight, they’ll take you right to the mat that you’re going to compete on. Your coaches and teammates can join you there — and hand you water if you’re thirsty or get dry mouth.

From there, you’ll win your first match. You’ll get a break before you have to compete again. After that, if you have a second match, you’ll win that one too. This continues until you win your gold medal match, and decide to compete in Absolute (you have to medal to qualify for Absolute). Then you win Absolute too.

At least, that’s what I hope for you. Now go forth and have fun out there.

What Were The Top Submissions of 2015?

There are two reasons I wanted to analyze all the matches from US Grappling‘s points tournaments last year. The first: examining big-picture trends can tell us a lot about what works in practice, what people are doing, what we need to be drilling and what we need to be alert about defending.

The second reason is that I am a giant nerd, and I love data, and I wanted to talk about data on the year-end Cageside ConcussionCast. I go way more in-depth over there, and you can listen to the archived show here or subscribe on iTunes. What follows is a breakdown of all the matches for which we have information in 2015.

To get this, I went through all of the scanned brackets that were available (thanks, Brian & Chrissy Linzy) and put the results into a Google Spreadsheet for ease of data manipulation. There are some caveats about this data, but only super-nerds care about that, so I’ll save them until the end. What you really care about are the results, so let’s get into them.

SUBMISSIONS ARE SLIGHTLY MORE LIKELY THAN POINTS
Generally speaking, about half of US Grappling matches go to points. Of the 2091 matches I analyzed, about 1100 ended in submission, so slightly more than 50 percent end with taps. If you’re betting on whether a match will have a submission or not, you’re slightly better off betting “yes,” but keep in mind that you’re better off betting on points than on any specific submission. Even the armbar. But if you’re going to bet on one submission …

ARM BARS RULE, & SO DO HEEL HOOKS
The arm bar is the most common submission in every division group except one, which is 30+ men’s nogi, where it runs a close second to the Rear Naked Choke (RNC). The armbar is still king in the Men’s Purple to Black belt gi divisions, but it’s close: the arm bar beats the bow & arrow choke by a narrow margin.

(To avoid confusion on something I say below, when I say “division group,” I mean “Men’s NoGi, Women’s Gi,” and those larger groups. The arm bar isn’t the top submission for Men’s Advanced NoGi, for example, but it is the top submission for Men’s NoGi generally. I broke the data down this way for sample size purposes.)

Here’s the chart of all the most common submissions, in order, with the top 15 in red:

US Grappling submissions

Of course, the arm bar is allowed in every division, so that gives it an advantage in terms of pure numbers. We’d expect the main submission to be something that every division, gi or nogi, white belt to black belt, can do. We wouldn’t necessarily expect the arm bar to be this far ahead of everything else, though, so that feels significant.

A related point: chokes using the kimono can only be done in half of the divisions, so they’re way more powerful than they look from this chart. The good old-fashioned collar choke performs very well, as does the bow & arrow, especially in the upper belt divisions. The same applies to leg locks. Aside from the straight ankle lock, only upper belts get to use them.

And if you break the data down into specific sub-divisions, you see how powerful the heel hook is. It’s only allowed in adult advanced NoGi, and yet there were 22 heel hook submissions — more than twice the next-most common submission. By the way, there were also 10 toe holds and a couple of calf slicers, so hide your feet in adult advanced.

FUNDAMENTALS WINS TOURNAMENT MATCHES
Here are the top five submissions. Let me know if you see a common thread.

Armbar: 279
Rear Naked Choke: 105
Triangle: 102
Collar Choke: 88
Guillotine & Kimura (tie): 68

That’s right: the most common submissions are all moves you’re going to learn in the first six months. That stuff doesn’t stop working. Keep drilling it.

Yes, fancy stuff happens. We had an electric chair submission (what’s up, Marcel Fucci?). A gogoplata (what’s up Alec Cerruto?). And two Peruvian neckties, in the beginner division and white belt division (stop watching YouTube, guys). But for the most part, it’s the basics that get it done.

To give you an idea about this: the 6th most popular submission is the bow & arrow choke. There were more bow & arrows than the bottom 17 submissions combined, including all the funky stuff.

MORE POPULAR THAN I THOUGHT
Wrist locks. The dandy is back with a vengeance, getting 13 submissions. That’s twice as much as the baseball choke. Cutter chokes are also more popular than I would have guessed: there were more cutter submissions than the North South choke and the Anaconda choke combined.

LESS POPULAR THAN I THOUGHT
Three omoplata submissions all year. Yes, most people use the omoplata as a sweep. And maybe this is because it’s one of my favorite moves, but there were as many bulldog chokes (3) as there were omoplatas, which surprised me.

UNDER PRESSURE
There were four taps to pressure last year. The surprising part about this: three came from blue belts, one from a purple belt. There were more taps to pressure last year than taps to clock chokes (3, two by Jake Whitfield) or loop chokes.

30+ MEN GET HURT AND WOMEN ARE TOUGHER THAN MEN.
I rolled injury, default and disqualification into one category (and there was only one DQ that I remember counting) so this number tabulates matches ending in injury and people not showing for the next match, either due to injury, fatigue, or whatever.

The realities of our bodies: they get more fragile as they age. Another reality: one gender pushes out babies. Thus, it should be no great surprise that older guys (like me) get hurt at a higher rate and women just don’t default from matches at anywhere near the rate guys do.

Let’s start with the old guys: of the 47 total men’s division defaults, 17 were 30+ men. There were 441 30+ men’s matches. One in 26 of those matches had an injury default. This is still not a huge rate, given that we try to bend each other’s joints the wrong way, but it’s far and away the highest rate of the groups I looked. By contrast, the total injury rate for men is one in 38.5 matches.

What about the women? 282 matches, four defaults. FOUR. That’s about one in 70 matches. And it gets more impressive: I was reffing the tournament where two of those defaults took place, and at least two of them were closeouts. That’s when two teammates meet in the finals and choose not to compete against each other, meaning those were non-injury defaults as well. In reality, that number is more like 1 in every 140 matches.

Granted, this is a small sample size. But still, it’s worth noting. Women of jiu-jitsu, Kathleen Hanna and I tip our caps to you.

ADVANCED DIVISIONS SHOW MUCH THE SAME TRENDS, BUT WITH LEG LOCKS

So, when you break the data down further to just a few advanced divisions, the picture changes slightly. I grouped the information from adult advanced NoGi and brown & black belt gi divisions.

The results: armbars are still powerful, but leg locks really change the game. Heel hooks are very common, and toe holds aren’t far behind. (Also, big surprise: in 219 matches, zero rear naked chokes or straight ankle locks.) Consider this, too: advanced grappling matches are slightly more likely to end in submission than other matches, from this sample. Out of 219 total matches, 131 ended in submission. Interestingly, in a fairly small gi sample of 51 matches, there were twice as many taps as there were matches that went to points (34 to 17).

US Grappling Advanced Division Stats

To close this out, let me show you the broad division groups I put the numbers into. I combined them this way for sample size purposes.

Here are the top five submissions for each broad division group:

 

Men White & Blue Belt Gi  Men Purple to Black Belt Gi  Men NoGi Women Gi Women NoGi 30+ Men Gi 30+ Men NoGi
Armbar Armbar Armbar Armbar Armbar Armbar RNC
Collar Choke Triangle RNC Collar Choke Americana Collar Choke Armbar
Triangle Bow & Arrow Guillotine Americana RNC Bow & Arrow Kimura
Kimura Ezekiel Heel Hook Bow & Arrow Guillotine Triangle Guillotine
Bow & Arrow Collar Arm Triangle Ezekiel Kimura Kimura Arm Triangle

By the way, if I put “Default” on here, it’d be the No. 3 submission for men’s 30+ in the gi.

FINALLY, A NOTE ON THE DATA
Any project has limitations, and I want to acknowledge them. For one thing, this only tabulates the points tournaments, not the US Grappling Submission Only tournaments. If there is enough interest, I’ll do a post about those as well. Also, some data is missing: the majority of table workers did a great job with writing down results, but there were many brackets with either no information about how someone won, or the information was vague (“verbal submission,” but not what submission). So I didn’t include the information if it wasn’t reliable.

There are also issues with terminology. Some of this is easy. I rolled “keylock” and “Americana” into one category, which is obvious, and “Darce” and “Brabo” into one category. But there is also the more vague “shoulder lock,” which ended up getting counted as a kimura. And the whole “collar choke” category includes all collar chokes, because the brackets don’t specify from mount or from guard. That’s information I’d like to have, but we just don’t have it. Then, you have the possibility of transcription errors, so we should take this for what it’s worth: a fun look at big-picture data.

I guess I’m saying this: Before you use it for your master’s thesis, maybe hit me up with an e-mail. Thanks for reading!

What Makes a Good Tournament?

Competition is valuable. The experience you get from standing across from another combat athlete who is going to try assiduously to choke you or bend your joints the wrong way is hard to replicate.

A tournament can either be a winning experience or a learning experience, or ideally both. Apart from the matches themselves, though, whether you have a good time at an event really depends heavily on how the tournament is run.

Since I starting training almost five years ago, I’ve been fortunate to compete at a ton of different events run by different organizations. During this time, I’ve developed some fairly firm thoughts on what makes a tournament a good experience for competitors — and by contrast, what undermines a competitor’s experience.

Yes, you want to win medals. But other things go into making a tournament a good experience!

Yes, you want to win medals. But other things go into making a tournament a good experience!

Follow me through my list, which is organized into “you’ve got to have these things” and “it is nice when tournaments have these things.” Continue reading

Preparing for BJJ Tournaments 101

It’s tournament season, and with both the IBJJF New York Open and US Grappling’s Grapplemania in North Carolina just a few weeks away, I’m sure many of you will be competing — and some of you will be competing for the first time.

Since I did my first competition a little more than four years ago, I’ve learned a great deal. This includes a bunch of material I wish I’d known before my inaugural voyage into choking and being choked for medals. Hence, I wrote several posts designed to help my friends and the other students at the academy get ready.

We’re long overdue for lazy re-packaging of previous content some judicious aggregation and curation of past posts. Here are some of the posts that I think might be interesting if you’re relatively new to tournaments:

 

The Great Cobrinha

Right before Rubens “Cobrinha” Charles‘s match with Osvaldo Quiexinho at this year’s worlds, I told some friends that the match could be a sleeper.

Quiexinho is a rising star who beat Paulo Miyao last year, and he has a strong competition game. With everyone expecting another final between Cobrinha and Rafael Mendes, I said, Quiexinho could create problems if Cobrinha is just looking ahead to the final.

One of the best ever.

One of the best ever.

This assessment was wrong, and I should have known. Cobrinha isn’t just one of the best ever, he’s one of the most consistent elite jiujitsu players ever. Quiexinho has a bright future, but Cobrinha is still right there with Rafa Mendes as the featherweight top dog.

While I don’t think Cobrinha is underrated among people in the know, I think it’s worth reflecting on exactly how much this legend has accomplished in his tremendous career. We’re getting to watch one of the greatest of all time in the midst of an epic rivalry. Let’s step back and appreciate it.

Let’s start with the world championships. Only three men have won four or more featherweight Mundial gold medals: Cobrinha, the aforementioned Rafael Mendes, and another all-time great, Royler Gracie. Cobrinha has three nogi world championships as well.

He’s also an Abu Dhabi Champion, having beaten (you guessed it) Rafael Mendes in the 2013 final:

Those accolades alone would make him an all-time great. But consider how things might be different had Rafael Mendes never existed.

In winning worlds this year, Mendes became a five-time world champion, the first featherweight athlete to earn five such titles. All of these gold medals came during Cobrinha’s prime years.

Consider that Cobrinha beats everybody other than Rafa — including accomplished competitors like Quiexinho — and beats them, in most cases, without a great deal of trouble. In a world without Rafael Mendes, there are six potential world championships on the table for Cobrinha.

In this alternate world, even if Tanquinho still wins in 2013 and another title slips away from Cobrinha somehow, we’re talking about eight world championships instead of four, and a reign of utter dominance from 2006 until now. (That number could be nine or even 10, but let’s be conservative). Keep in mind, too, that Cobrinha isn’t done by any means, and if there were no Rafa Mendes, he’d have breezed to another world championship last month.

In that world, this period of sustained dominance could have him in the conversation for greatest of all time, right up there with Roger Gracie and Marcelo Garcia . The alternative title for this post was, in fact, “A World Without Rafael Mendes,” but I thought that took the focus away from Cobrinha’s achievements.

Cobrinha also has an awesome dog, and is by all accounts a great guy.

Cobrinha also has an awesome dog, and is by all accounts a great guy.

 

We can take a pause here to consider what this says about the otherworldly skills of Rafael Mendes, but just for a moment. This post is about Cobrinha. Think about all that Cobrinha has achieved — and then think about how good a guy has to be to do this to him.

You can’t talk about one of these men without talking about the other, though — the rivalry is that significant. Mendes acknowledged this in a Facebook post after his win, saying “because of Cobrinha I became probably ten times better than I would ever be if he was not there.”

Cobrinha will turn 36 in December. He’s still performing at an elite level, but time has a way of passing.

If he retired today, we’d still remember him as one of the greats. But Cobrinha is not retiring today, so let’s be sure to appreciate what we’re watching while we have the chance.

Mundial Black Belt Predictions

The brackets are out for the Mundials, and since I’m not competing this year I have a little more time to think about watching as just a fan.

Some years, I try to do a pool where people predict the champion in each weight class. Maybe I’ll do that again this year. In the meantime, here are my thoughts on each division: I’m going to take a stab at picking the winner and then say a little something about the reasoning.

MEN

Roosterweight: Bruno Malfacine. Bruno is one of the best competitors ever, so he has to be considered the favorite. I’ll be interested to see Joao Miyao after another year of experience, though, and I hope for a rematch of last year’s final.

Light featherweight: Paulo Miyao. It looks like a Samir Chantre-Miyao final here, and although Samir is one of my favorite people in jiujitsu, this looks like Miyao’s year.

Featherweight: Rafael Mendes. Still the best.

Lightweight: Lucas Lepri. I was tempted to pick JT Torres (another of my favorite guys) here, but Lepri has the experience edge. Plus, he’s in North Carolina now. I will say that I’m very excited for this potential final.

Middleweight: Murilo Santana. This is one of the upsets I’m picking. Murilo Santana is probably the most underrated competitor in jiujitsu: Gracie Mag didn’t even list him among their top 5 likely winners of this division. And it’s true has a tougher road to the final than last year’s champ, Otavio Sousa. But I think Santana vs. Victor Estima, which is the potential quarterfinal matchup, is a great match that Murilo can win. I don’t think there’s anyone in the field Santana can’t beat, and I’m looking forward to watching him compete.

Medium Heavy:  Leandro Lo. No Keenan Cornelius in this division as a last-minute surprise makes Lo the favorite, I think, with Guto Campos a potential opponent for the final.

Heavyweight: Xande Ribeiro. This was an interesting division even before Keenan entered, with veterans (Ribeiro, Lucas Leite) alongside younger competitors like Jackson Sousa and Tim Spriggs. Xande is timeless. I think he’s the favorite.

Super Heavyweight: Bernardo Faria. Faria’s game is tough for anyone to deal with. Even if some people don’t like watching it, I imagine it’s way worse competing against it.

Ultra Heavyweight: Marcus Buchecha Almeida. An ultra heavyweight that moves like a lightweight and doesn’t get tired? And no Rodolfo?

Absolute: Marcus Buchecha Almeida. See above.

 

WOMEN

Light featherweight: Gezary Matuda. Matuda is a boss, and has no Leticia Ribeiro or Nyjah Easton in a small division this year.

Featherweight: Michelle Nicolini. Nicolini and Mackenzie Dern have awesome matches, and I expect another in the final. To be the women, you gotta beat the woman. And watch for Dern-Tammi Musumeci in earlier rounds!

Lightweight: Beatriz Mesquita. Last year’s absolute champion is still, in my eyes, the pound for pound queen. It’s tough to see anyone beating her in this division.

Middleweight: Luiza Monteiro. It’s an excruciating pick between Monteiro (one of my current favorite athletes) and Luanna Alzuiguir (one of my all-time favorites). Alzuiguir signed my belt when I met her at the worlds in 2011, a year in which she took double gold. But Monteiro has competed more recently, took silver to Mesquita last year, and I think she breaks through here. Assuming this happens, it’ll be an epic final.

Medium Heavy: Ana Laura Cordeiro. Last year’s champ. Another all-time great. Another small division.

Heavyweight: Dominyka Obelenyte. This is a small but very tough division with Gracie Barra’s Tammy Griego and GF Team’s Vanessa Oliveira as well. But Obelenyte, of Marcelo Garcia’s team, was a monster at brown belt and continues to perform at a high level. Watch out for her in absolute as well.

Super Heavyweight: Venla Luukonen. Without Gabi Garcia, last year’s champ remains the favorite. But watch out for Talita Nogueira, a former world champ and current Bellator fighter.

Absolute:  Beatriz Mesquita. The argument against Mesquita repeating as absolute champion is primarily size-based. But remember how she was able to keep matches even against the mighty Gabi close, and don’t bet against her.

 

Those are my initial impressions: take them as you will. And remember there are always surprises, so I’m looking forward to watching people I’m not as familiar with.

Life is one long training session

Why does it matter if you win or lose?

This is a semi-rhetorical question. I want to acknowledge right up front that I am a competitive person, and so it matters very much to me whether I win or lose. By offering up the question I hope to provoke a thought experiment rather than to imply that it doesn’t matter.

For most of us, the answer is that competition is a measuring stick. It matters whether we win or lose because we are testing ourselves. This is, incidentally, why it’s important that we take on opponents for whom we have respect: if we win over competition that is sorely lacking, we have failed to challenge ourselves. Our achievement, such as it is, is much less valuable against lesser competition.

Simply put, we want to win because it means we’re on the right track, and we want to beat good competition because it means more than beating easy competition.

But let’s go a level deeper. Let’s say you achieve a primary goal, whether it be to take gold at a US Grappling tournament or beat a specific opponent. You’re not going to retire from jiu-jitsu. Presumably you’ll set new goals: you will ask yourself, “What now?” This is exactly what you should do. You’re also not going to quit after a disappointing loss. You’re going to analyze where you need to improve and aim at another goal.

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The best I’ve ever prepared for a tournament was for last year’s worlds. I lost in the first round.

 

When I was playing poker regularly, the best players all advised me to treat your poker experience as one long playing session.

The bad players chase losses during single sessions: if they have a bad run of cards, they’ll stay at the table all night trying to get even. This is a terrible idea, since your sharpness will suffer and you’ll play worse than you would have otherwise. The good players realize that over the long run, the cards even out. The better players will get more money over the long run, and the worse players will lose it.

Instead of pushing to get even if you’re down money, you should play for as long as you planned on, stop, and start fresh during the next session. That way you’ll play your best, and if you really have an edge against your opponents, that will come out the longer you play. The bigger sample size will show you the way. Instead of viewing Saturday as one session and Monday as another, the best viewed all their time spent at the poker table as one long session.

Life is like that. Life is one long training session.

A win doesn’t matter if I stop training. A loss doesn’t matter if I keep training. My answer to the semi-rhetorical question “Why does it matter if I win or lose?” is this: my goal is to have the best possible jiu-jitsu I can have over the long term. I’m less concerned with one big win or one big loss that I am with constantly working to improve and refine my skills. I want to keep my focus on the Jeff of 2025, not the Jeff of Wednesday, March 25.

Getting triangled as a no-stripe white belt.

Getting triangled as a no-stripe white belt in 2011. Experience is the best teacher: if you get frustrated after losing, you don’t learn as well.

It matters if I win or lose because if I keep training, I keep improving, and if I keep improving, the wins will come more than they would have otherwise. Again, I believe strongly in the value of competition: competition is a system that we use to provide motivation and focus, and by and large it works. I know it works to motivate me.

I’m thinking about this lately because I have a gi match against Ze Grapplez at this Friday’s Bull City Brawl. I’m looking forward to it for many reasons: he’s a great competitor, it’ll be a good, tough test for me, and it’s a cool opportunity to compete in the cage in front of an audience. Tim’s someone I respect a lot for his approach — he trains all the time, competes regularly, and whatever outcome happens, he’s back on the grind the next day. (I also share his antipathy for the term “superfight” as applied to jiu-jitsu matches, by the way).

This is a terrific opportunity for me, and I’m training hard to take advantage of it. Generally speaking, I train like crazy for tournaments. I’ll never cop out and tell you I wasn’t giving it my all. If you’ve beaten me in a tournament, you got the best I had to offer on that day, so congratulations. I’m always glad I put myself out there, win or lose.

Winning is affirmation and losing is information, as my instructor likes to say, so both competitors get something out of the experience. Ideally, you win and learn, but no matter what happens, you’re better off than the timid souls.

Won a gi division at no-stripe white belt. Was never tempted to "retire undefeated."

Won a gi division at no-stripe white belt. Was never tempted to “retire undefeated.” Also, yes, I am as tired as I look.

Jiu-jitsu is like life. It’s one long session. However important one day is to us, to focus too much on the results of any one competition is a mistake. If your goal is to win the worlds and you fall short, of course you’ll be disappointed. That’s normal. Such luminaries as Saulo Ribeiro, Felipe Costa and Caio Terra had far less success early in their careers at lower belts. All became black belt world champions.

It’s not the short-term disappointment. It’s what you do with it over the length of the long session. You can win every competition you enter, but if you’re not challenging yourself, you’re losing the long session.

The Bull City Brawl match with me and Ze Grapplez is this Friday. One of us is going to win and one of us is going to lose. And we’re both going to be back in the gym the next day training, because we’re both going to be better in 2025 than we were in 2015.

The Top 10 Things To Think About Before Your First Tournament

Some of my training partners are competing for the first time at Toro BJJ Presents US Grappling Greensboro this weekend. This is great, and I’m proud of all of the people who are stepping on the mat to compete. Jiu-jitsu competition has real benefits for your training, as this article by Jake Whitfield shows.

Partially for my friends, and partially for other folks who will dip their toes into tournament waters in the future, I thought I’d put together some advice. When you’re getting ready for your first tournament, here are 10 things I think you should consider.

10. Registration

Seems like it goes without saying, but put some thought into what division you want to enter. Many tournament offer both gi and no-gi divisions, some offer age groups, and most offer “absolute” divisions where you can compete against anyone of any weight class. In general, I advise entering as many divisions as you can: you’re in this to learn jiu-jitsu, and the more matches you get, the more you’ll learn. Besides, you can always drop out if you’re exhausted after one or two divisions, but you can’t enter new divisions the day of the event.

9. Preparation

Not just physical preparation through training, either. That part goes without saying, and your instructor and teammates know what you’ll need to do in training to get ready. For your part, make sure you show up ready to compete. Get a good night’s sleep beforehand. Pack a bag full of healthy food, water and other fluids, and whatever gear you’ll need. You never know what the food options will be at the event, and it’s best to have healthy fruit between matches rather than a greasy piece of pizza.

Your teammates will be proud of you when you compete, but may not have food and water for you to bum. BYO Acai Bowl.

Your teammates will be proud of you when you compete, but may not have food and water for you to bum. BYO Acai Bowl.

8. Goals

Maybe you want to win every match (and good luck with that!). Maybe you have a lot of experience competing in other things and you know you enjoy the challenge. Or maybe this is your first real athletic experience, and you just want to see what it’s like. Your goals for the tournament depend on your own background and training. So be clear with yourself about what you expect from the experience.

7. Survival

If this is your first tournament, you’re probably a white belt, and if you’re a white belt, your focus should be to survive first. From there you can advance to the other aspects of the game. Jiu-jitsu is a defensive art, and surviving is a victory! If we look at success as a pyramid, with survival at the base and submitting your opponent on top, you have to start at the beginning. You can’t achieve success without surviving, so be sure your defensive game is tight.

Medals are awesome! It's tough to get them without good survival skills.

Medals are awesome! It’s tough to get them without good survival skills.

 

Most of the things I’ve listed so far are things I think that new competitors should think about and consider. The next few are specific techniques that work for me, and that I hope help you as well.

6. Best-Case Strategy

Have a plan for your match. While it’s unlikely that your match goes exactly the way you envision it, the very act of visualization helps. Multiple studies have shown that visualization improves athletic performance, and the practice of thinking through how you want your matches to go only helps remind you of the techniques you want to use.

For example, my first tournament I planned to do this: take my opponent down with a single leg; open and pass his guard with a stack pass; control him in side control; pass to mount using a knee drive; try to collar choke him from mount, and either finish, or force him to give me his back; and finally finish with a rear naked choke.

Exactly zero of my matches went this way, but I firmly believe that the tournament went better because I had a plan in place. What’s your plan in the ideal world? Even if we don’t live in the ideal world, you should be able to answer this question.

At least one match at my first tournament went kind of according to plan. And without a plan, that wouldn't have happened.

At least one match at my first tournament went kind of according to plan. And without a plan, that wouldn’t have happened.

5. Techniques For Each Major Position

Things go wrong. In the middle of life we lose a toe or we discover our girlfriend loves Nickelback. Jiu-jitsu matches are the same. So maybe you take your opponent down as you planned, but then she hip bump sweeps you, and whoops! You’re under mount.

Before my first tournament my goal was to have at least one, ideally two techniques that I knew from each major position. That way, even if I couldn’t escape the mount of a more skilled opponent, at least I wouldn’t feel like a flailing imbecile.

Because I’m proudly a nerd, I make spreadsheets of all the techniques I’ve learned broken down by position. This helps tell me what to drill, what I know fairly well and what I need to work on. For your first tournament, I’d suggest you get at least one or two good back escapes; mount escapes; side control escapes; guard sweeps; guard submissions; guard opens and passes; and submissions from the top. Again, focus on the defensive concepts and build upward.

Nerd alert. (And you should see the whole thing.)

Nerd alert. (And you should see the whole thing.)

4. Perspective

You’re going to be training a long time, and whatever results you get are just a small blip on that larger radar screen. Saulo Ribeiro is a legend, and he never won a tournament until he got his black belt. Don’t plan your UFC career if you win, and relax if you lose. Either way, try to improve next time.

3. Down Time

You should know that many tournaments will have you waiting for a long time before your division. This is especially true of white belts, who usually go last. This isn’t something you really plan for, unless you want to bring an MP3 player or a book, but something to be aware of.

2. Learning

Whatever happens, it’s not a wasted experience if you learn something — and you will. Consider having a friend videotape your matches, or at least take photographs. I’ve had perhaps 100 tournament matches, and was able to reconstruct what happened in most of them based on video and pictures. This will be very helpful to you down the road, so don’t miss that opportunity.

With luck, you will get some medals and not make a stupid face.

With luck, you will get some medals and not make a stupid face.

And the number one thing to think about before your first tournament is …

1. Nothing.

Just go out there and do it. Don’t stress yourself out too much: this is what you do for fun. As a wise man with ties to Durham once said: “Don’t think too much. It’ll only hurt the ball club.”

Good luck, have fun, stay safe, and go train.

The Thank You Post

I wanted to write this post before the tournament this past weekend.

It’s easy to be grateful when things go well. Besides, good decision-making is about putting a good process into place, not about results: if you make quality choices, quality results follow. If you’ve done all you can to prepare well, that’s really all you can hope for, so it’s appropriate to thank the folks that have helped you prepare no matter how the event itself goes.

The best laid plans go astray, though, especially where travel and making weight and living up to other responsibilities goes. So while I meant to make this post Friday, I’m making it now, and I can gratefully report that the IBJJF New York Spring Open went as well as I had hoped it would.

A longstanding goal, finally realized.

A longstanding goal, finally realized.

I took double gold, both in my light feather weight class and in Absolute. I competed in Master 2 blue belt, and got two really good, tough matches in. I don’t really talk about my goals a lot, for a variety of reasons, but I’d always wanted to win an IBJJF absolute gold. The closest I’d come was bronze at the NoGi pans last year, and I thought that might be as close as I’d ever get.

But I trained so, so hard for this tournament. Really tried to do everything as correctly as I possibly could. It took a lot of discipline, and I’d be proud of the way I trained even if I hadn’t gotten the results I wanted. You can’t control how your matches go, but you can control how you prepare, and I prepared harder and smarter than ever before.

Semis in absolute.

Semis in absolute.

No one does anything like this alone. There are a lot of people that I need to thank, and my Facebook friends have already put up with an enormous amount of jiujitsu, so I’m thanking them all here.

First and foremost I have to thank my coach Seth Shamp, who is black belt under Royce Gracie. Seth’s the best instructor a guy could ask for: technical, a gifted teacher and passionately devoted to his students. Best of all, Seth believes 100% in you. I think I could’ve been facing Cobrinha in finals and Seth would’ve said something like: “OK, Jeff. This guy’s truly great. A legend of the art. But I think you can do some things with him! We can do this! Here’s the plan.” That kind of support you can’t put a price on.

"Jeff, this guy is big. Don't sweat it. Here's the plan." -- Seth Shamp

“Jeff, this guy is big. Don’t sweat it. Here’s the plan.” — Seth Shamp

I also want to especially thank two other Royce Gracie black belts, Jake Whitfield from TJJ Goldsboro and Roy Marsh from Sandhills Gracie Jiu-Jitsu. Jake and Roy live and breathe Gracie Jiu-Jitsu, and each has taught me so much in the past few years, either directly (through instruction) or indirectly (through beating my ass while training). Along with Seth these guys make up my Holy Trinity of BJJ instruction.

Perhaps most importantly, I want to express my gratitude to every single one of my training partners at Triangle Jiu-Jitsu in Durham and Triangle Jiu-Jitsu in Goldsboro, North Carolina. Every day you guys and ladies work me hard, kick my butt and make me better, and I couldn’t possibly be more grateful to you.

I want to shout out two guys who especially inspire me from Roy Marsh’s school at Sandhills BJJ. One is my friend Brian Freeman, who needs to get out to Durham and train with us soon. The other us Alec Cerruto, who is a great young man with sick jiujitsu and an even better attitude. Alec is donating money for every match he wins this year to help feed underprivileged kids. I’m going to add to my own Charity Challenge this year and donate $10 for every match I win to Alec’s “Submit Hunger” project in addition to my own charities. 1546056_10203210941781386_331295106_n

Alec Cerruto, submitter of hunger.

Alec Cerruto, submitter of hunger.

Broadly, I’m also in the debt of all my brothers and sisters on Team Royce Gracie in North Carolina — Chapel Hill Gracie Jiu-Jitsu, Forged Fitness Raleigh and Cary. I appreciate everybody who took the time to help me train for this, including my friends at Gracie Raleigh and Pendergrass Academy of Martial Arts. We have a great jiu-jitsu community in North Carolina and I’m thrilled to be a part of it.

Just a couple of more important people to thank: I want to be sure to thank Boomer from Cageside MMA and Toro BJJ. Besides making great products and letting me design really fun BJJ gear, Boomer does a lot — behind the scenes and not — to help local fighters, BJJ practitioners and human beings generally. I can’t say enough good things about the gear he produces. I could say even more good things about him personally.

Finally, I’ve thanked Eric Uresk already multiple times, but for the first time I’ve been working with a nutritionist, and let me tell you — it makes an incredible difference. Eric’s a genius, and his WellFit program works. If you’re interested in taking nutrition seriously, let you know and I’ll put you in touch.

I am definitely leaving some people out that deserve thanking, but this is already long. I’ll have to leave it here and thank the rest of you in person. Rest assured, though, even if this is a one-time post, I’m grateful to all of you, all the time. So thanks.

You all make me make this face ...

You all make me make this face …

And do this when I walk through airport metal detectors.

And do this when I walk through airport metal detectors.

 

How Early Should I Compete?

This weekend is US Grappling’s first  tournament of the year, Submission Only Greensboro, which always gets the new folks asking: is it too early for me to compete?

I’ve had a couple of these questions already, so I wanted to explain my own philosophy on this. It’s different for every person (more on that below), but here are the general principles I start from.

1. Competition Is Very Valuable Experience For Everyone. 

Even if you don’t plan to be a regular medal hunter, I think you — and everyone — should give a tournament a shot.

It’s a different intensity from daily sparring, and it’s hard to find that intensity elsewhere. It gives you the opportunity to roll against people that you know nothing about, so you can’t predict what techniques are likely to come at you. And it gives you the chance to set a goal, train hard for it, and go all-out for victory once the day comes. That’s great training!

Take it from the great Royler Gracie: everyone should compete at least once.

Apart from the standard benefits of competition, consider this: your training partners probably like you. Unless you are a jerk, but if you are reading this blog, then you are not a jerk. That means even if you roll hard, like we do at my academy, they are probably trying to be technical when rolling with you and avoid doing overly terrible things to you.

My training partners are very technical, have great cardio, and are relentless. We roll hard against each other. But if I get a collar grip and there’s hair in there, I’m not going to keep my grip and pull that person’s hair. If someone gets a choke on me, but it’s not a clean choke and they can’t finish, that person is probably not going to just facecrush me and give me gi burn.

… probably.

Where medals are at stake, though? Against someone who doesn’t know you? All bets are off. Facing off against someone who has no stake in you personally, knowing that person is trying to choke you or bend your joints the wrong way — and surviving that — is a powerful thing.

When a match ends, you know that person has done their level best to beat you up. And you made it out the other side. Competition gives you that satisfaction.


2. Have The Right Attitude About Competition

Especially during the first stages of your jiu-jitsu career, you’re there to learn. Period.

Thus, I don’t generally think new people should put tremendous pressure on themselves to win when competing. Don’t misunderstand me: You should always go out there with the goal to win every match, and the attitude that you’re going to win every match.

But you should also be able to put the tournament in perspective. If you lose every match, you’ve still gained valuable knowledge and experience. Now you know what it’s like to be around the hustle and bustle of a tournament, make weight, hear someone shout your name and push you out onto a mat to grapple against someone you don’t know.

That’s a huge win for you, even if you enter four divisions and go 0-4. Very few people compete their best during their first tournament. Getting the first one out of the way is a big step. 


3. In General, People Should Compete As Early As Possible …

Don’t get me wrong, I don’t think you should register for the Pans after your second class. But assuming you know one or two things to do from the major positions, I say go for it.

Personally, I competed very early on — my first tournament was after I had trained for a month. I think that was good for me. I won some matches, I lost some matches, I made some cringe-worthy decisions that I look back on with laughter, and I learned a lot of things not to do. And I was hooked.

Danger: No Stripe White Belt Trying To Pull Guard

This is my first ever gi match. Danger: No Stripe White Belt Trying To Pull Guard

This part is significant: I don’t even notice the hustle and bustle and excitement of tournaments anymore. After that first one, I started competing as often as possible.But I had a huge adrenaline dump after my first match at my first tournament, and wow, was I unprepared for that. It can be overwhelming your first time.

Yes, I have video of that match. No, you can’t see it.

 

That doesn’t happen to me any more, and I’m glad it happened a month in instead of a year in. Getting your first time out of the way early on means you’ll be all the more ready for the next one.

 

4. … But If You Don’t Feel Ready, It’s Better To Wait.

I always tell people that if they have any doubts about whether they’re ready for the experience, they should wait to compete. Feeling comfortable is important! This is what you do for fun, so you should enjoy it. Being unsure if you’re ready isn’t fun.

Now, there is a balance to be struck here. Everyone gets nervous, and it’s easy to find an excuse. How many people tell you they’re going to start training “as soon as they get in shape,” and then never get in “good enough” shape?

Part of the value of competition is challenging yourself to get out of that comfort zone. It’s hugely empowering to feel overwhelming nerves, to not be sure you should even be doing something, and then come out the other side.

Here’s how I resolve the balance. Anything that keeps people training is a good thing, in my view. If a competition risks robbing someone of the joy of training, that’s too early. So if you feel like you can handle losing, and it won’t discourage you, I say go for it.

As long as you enjoy yourself, you’ve won, even if you’ve lost every match.

 

5. Competition Gives You The Individual And Team Experience

You step out on the mat alone. No one is going to take that guy down for you, pass his guard, or choke him for you.

But you’re not alone. You didn’t train alone. You aren’t at the tournament alone. Your coach can’t armbar your opponent, but he or she can tell you where to move your leg so that you can do it yourself. And your team, if it’s anything like mine, will scream their heads off for you. Or, when your muscles are spasming right before the semis of absolute, they might even massage your forearms for you.

You can use this picture to guilt your teammates into massaging your forearms. You have my permission.

You can use this picture to guilt your teammates into massaging your forearms. You have my permission.

Why do I mention this? Because I believe jiu-jitsu competitions give you the best of both worlds. You get both the individual competition experience and the team experience. If you stink up the joint, like I did at the Pans in 2012, you still get to root for your friends and be thrilled when they medal.

If you do well, all the better. You stepped on the mat by yourself and did something most people will never do. Then you stepped off the mat and got mobbed with support by the people you train, sweat and occasionally bleed with.

Your team might not do this, exactly. But still.

Your team might not do this, exactly. But still.

 

It’s a special experience. And you can have it! So set a goal for when you’re going to compete, train hard for it, and remember: no matter what happens, you’ll have won by the end of the day.