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.

Demian Maia and complete jiujitsu

Demian Maia is, by any measure, one of the finest representatives of jiujitsu. You probably already know this, especially if you watched his most recent fight with Carlos Condit. It was a masterful performance against an accomplished opponent where, despite Condit knowing precisely what Maia wanted to do, Maia achieved a submission victory while taking virtually no damage.

One apparent lesson from this: despite what you might hear in certain circles, jiujitsu is a complete martial art. One less-readily apparent lesson, which is no less important: fundamentalism in any form is dangerous.

To explain what I mean, let’s start with self defense. True self defense means we train to protect ourselves from harm. This means avoiding bad situations, but also preparing for when dangerous situations arise. Being locked in a cage with a UFC-caliber fighter certainly qualifies as “dangerous.” This is why Royce Gracie’s performances in the early UFCs so animated martial artists: here was living proof that, during a no-time-limit fight with effectively no rules, a smaller opponent skilled in jiujitsu could defeat huge, dangerous attackers.

During Maia’s last four UFC fights, he’s absorbed 13 significant strikes — fewer than four per fight, against the best mixed martial artists in the world. That’s protecting yourself. That’s further testament that jiujitsu — original complete Gracie jiujitsu — is still effective.

Just listen to Maia himself, ever humble about his own achievements, explain why it’s the art that’s doing the vital work of protecting him:

Most of us will never fight in the cage. But there are lessons there for each of us: jiujitsu a complete art composed of striking, grappling, takedowns, and standing self-defense, along with a philosophy of self defense. Inspired by the Maia-Condit fight, the past day I’ve been re-watching Demian Maia’s DVD about stand-up techniques. It might surprise some people that Maia has an hour-long instructional of this nature, but it should only be a surprise you if you view jiujitsu through the prism of ground grappling. Original jiujitsu was designed to be a standalone martial art, and that’s the jiujitsu Maia does. As he says:

“I’ve always believed in Jiu-Jitsu as a martial art and not only a sport. That’s why I have always trained all aspects of the art. Despite being a competitor for years, I never stopped training self-defense or takedowns. I still do the same with my students today.”

This is a consistent theme in Maia’s interviews throughout the years. He’s a jiujitsu world champion, Abu Dhabi champion, and UFC title contender — but he’s never stopped training the self defense aspects of Gracie jiujitsu. He still does it all.

To me, this is an important lesson for those who are competition-focused to the exclusion of all else. Competition is fun, but — whether we’re talking about sport jiujitsu or MMA — winning awards in a setting with predictable, mutually agreed upon rules is just a part of what the art is about. It’s certainly a far cry from the early UFCs, where virtually anything went, and you had to be prepared to stand, to fight from your back, to be on top on the ground, or any other situation.

In some ways, the growth of sport jiujitsu has created incentive to specialize: one effective means to win a strategic game is to focus intently on a subset of that game, then force your opponent to play it on your terms. It’s why we see complex, ever-evolving aspects of the modern lapel guards: if you can trap someone into playing that game, and you know that game miles better than your opponent, it’s a smart way to win. This incentivizes people who are exceptional at the berimbolo, for example, to get into berimbolo-ready positions, and drill those technique to the exclusion of others. But if you’re going to do that, and only that, you’d better be able to get to that position in every situation where you might have to defend yourself.

Can you imagine a position, in grappling or fighting, where Demian Maia would be lost? I can’t. There are reasons that his jiujitsu is the subject of much study for the masterful way he moves through positions. I can’t help but think his completist approach is a reason why.

When I hear people complain about training self-defense, it’s usually because they’d rather be doing something else — like sharpening their sport tools. There’s nothing wrong with working on your favorite techniques. There is, however, something wrong with failure to develop a well-rounded skill set. There is also something wrong with failing to see self-defense techniques for what they are: techniques designed to give anyone tools to protect themselves in common situations outside of sport grappling.

It’s no secret that I love sport jiujitsu. What I dislike is fundamentalism: the attitude that what I prefer is the only pure way. It impedes learning and progress. To return to Demian Maia, he trains original, complete jiujitsu, including self defense — and finds a profound template for success there.

There’s a flip side to this, though. Many self defense purists are skeptical — or even out-and-out hostile — to sport jiujitsu. My own experience tells me that competition is one of the most powerful tools for improving one’s self defense abilities.

But this is about Demian Maia. Maia competed from white belt all the way through black belt, entering sport jiujitsu tournaments at every belt level and winning the worlds at a couple of them. Indeed, despite his status as elite fighter, he even said he’d like to take a gi jiu-jitsu competition match if the situation was right.

He’s not alone. In the upper echelons of MMA, most of the top-tier jiujitsu fighters also competed successfully in sport jiujitsu while wearing the gi. (Only Frank Mir stands out as an exception, although it’s possible I’m missing someone.)

The anti-competition argument goes that if you train sport techniques, you’ll be unprepared for a real-world confrontation. I disagree with this, both at the premise and the conclusion levels, and my reasoning could be the topic of an entirely different post. In the context of this post, though, I think both the arguments against training self defense and to competing can be answered this way: a well-rounded martial artist should at least explore both. We can learn different things from different experiences, and to reject out of hand certain experiences seems like fundamentalism.

It’s not my usual tendency to tell people what to do without being asked. We all have different goals, and success should be defined according to those goals. For those of us who want to have complete jiujitsu, though, we have to remember that the art is rooted in self defense. And for those of us that want to have the most effective self defense possible, we should consider that competition can help — not hinder — our progress toward that goal.

Demian Maia, a truly complete jiujitsu fighter, is an example of this. We could all do worse than to emulate him.

What Is A Competition Mentality?

As a visitor to another academy, I never expect high-level black belts to roll with me. They’ve earned the right to train with whoever they want to. But Fernando Yamasaki had heard that I was competing at a major tournament soon, and he wanted to help me.

“Come after me,” he said. “Really kick my butt.” (Yeah, like that’s going to happen.)

My philosophy on sparring with people who outclass me is simple: I try to be as technical as possible, to try to do correct movements. I try not to use much strength or athleticism — partially because I don’t actually have those things, but mostly because this person is going to beat me anyway. I might as well be cerebral about my beating so I can learn from it, instead of risking hitting them in the nose and really taking a whooping. I rolled as well as I could against Fernando, but I wasn’t trying to go at competition speed and he knew it.

After the round was over, he put my hand on my shoulder and said this:

“You’re a very nice man,” he said, not meaning it as a compliment. “But that doesn’t work for competition.”

(It sure didn’t work here, but this was still a fun match)

***

If you asked people I train with to describe me, I think that word would come up, nice. I certainly try to be. I also try to be realistic about my own level — I’m 41 and do this as a hobby, often in the 30+ division — and this type of realism creates humility, because realistically, there are a lot of people that are better at jiujitsu than I am. This isn’t something I have to be convinced of: it’s just naturally how I think and who I am.

Which brings up another story about another badass black belt scoffing at me. When I came out for a major tournament, I got pulled out of the bullpen and went to stand by the mat where I’d compete. Jason Culbreth saw me smiling and laughing and waving to people. He tried to give me a lecture about getting into the kick-that-guy’s-ass mindframe. But I just couldn’t stop smiling. This is what I do for fun, I said, and shrugged.

“Well,” he responded with a mix of amusement and disgust, “you’ve got to be who you are, I guess.”

Part of the way I act before the match is rational, and part of it isn’t. The rational part of my mind says that both me and the other guy have prepared as much as we can, and either I’m better than him or I’m not. There isn’t much I can do about it at the point right before the match, so why stress about it?

The irrational part is something that I don’t admit very often, and now I’m going to admit it in public. What I’m about to admit is odd, and it makes me very fortunate.

Once the match begins and we slap hands, I think I’m going to win. Always. No matter what. No matter who the other person is, no matter how badly the match is going. The other person could be a world-class black belt, and I just wouldn’t think about that during the flow of the match. My opponent could be up 25-0, and I’d believe that I was going to catch a neck or a foot and submit him. (This happened to me at the Worlds, when I was down something like 13-2 and I never thought I was going to lose until the timer went off).

Lost this match, too.

Lost this match, too.

This isn’t something I’ve trained: it’s just something that happens, which is lucky for me, because I think the mental aspect of jiujitsu is critical.In order to compete, you have to get rid of doubt.

By itself, this isn’t even very unusual. Most of the successful competitors I know describe something similar, a preternatural confidence.

What makes my experience strange is that, outside of that few intense minutes on the mat, I think I’m very conscious of where I stand. If you were to ask me about certain guys I compete against, I have no problem saying who I think is better than me (which drives my instructor crazy sometimes). During tournaments, I’ll find myself in a situation where I’m in a match with someone who, objectively, should smash me. But that thought won’t even occur to me. A few minutes after his hand gets raised, I’ll think … “wait a second, how did I think I could beat that guy?”

I don’t have an answer to that question. I don’t know why it happens. And I don’t feel like this is something I can take credit for, since it’s just happened for me, the way some people are naturally strong, or fast.

This works both ways, of course. We all know someone who is an absolute beast that, for some reason, doesn’t realize that they should be beating up everyone. I know a lot of competitors these days have mental coaches, which makes sense. Mental attributes are just like physical attributes. We all get dealt a hand by nature, and then it’s up to us to maximize what we’ve been given. You might be naturally strong, but you have to do work to maintain and enhance that. A competition mentality is the same: some people are born with it. Some people need to develop it, just like physical strength.

And maybe you’re strong, but don’t have a lot of flexibility: truly training to be the best you can be involves addressing weaknesses as well as strengths. Even top-level competitors admit to competition nerves. It’s unproductive to complain about the guy in the gym with monstrous muscles: it’s more productive to honestly analyze what your own gifts are, as well as the traits you have to improve.

When I compete seriously, I try to visit as many different academies as I can. My own school will always be home, but if we don’t have class or if I’m traveling, it’s valuable to train with people who do techniques differently, who have different strengths than I do, and people who are just plain better.

I’ll keep rolling with whoever will train with me. And I’ll continue to be as nice as I can. Most of all, in terms of competition, I’ll adhere to the advice of Fernando Yamasaki — modified by the maxim of my favorite philosophy graduate from NYU:

For every job, there is a perfect tool. Life is about taking the tools you’re given and applying them as best you can in the correct situations. I’m grateful for the odd little mental switch in me that flips when the match starts, even if I don’t fully understand it.

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.

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.

Why I Am Rooting For Royler Gracie

Today, Royler Gracie headlines the third Metamoris Pro jiu-jitsu invitational in a high-profile match. Although I’ve never taken a seminar from or trained with Royler, I will be cheering hard for him today.

Because his opponent, Eddie Bravo, can be a controversial figure, this matchup has been polarizing. But when you look back on what Royler Gracie has accomplished during his storied career, this much is clear: it isn’t necessary to say anything negative about an opponent when there is so much positive to say about Royler.

Simply put, Royler Gracie is one of the best there has ever been.

Royler was the first truly dominant featherweight. During a run of dominance from 1996-1999, Royler won gold at the World Jiu-Jitsu Championships (Mundials) for four straight years. At the time, this was a record. Who did he beat in the finals? Only guys like Shaolin, Leo Vieira and Draculino.

In 1997, Royler took a bronze medal in the Mundial absolute division. He fought at 70 kilos. The gold medalist, Amaury Bitteti, outweighed him by 40 pounds. He always competed against the best and usually won.

All told, Royler Gracie has nine black belt gold medals from Mundials, ADCC and the Pans. Nine! In 1999, he took gold at the worlds ADCC and the Pans in the same year.

 

He also took a moment to let a random blue belt get a picture with him at the 2002 Mundials.

He also took a moment to let a random blue belt get a picture with him at the 2002 Mundials.

I’m listing mostly sport jiu-jitsu achievements, but Royler also made his mark elsewhere. Royler has 11 professional MMA fights. He is also a renowned teacher, developing a next generation of jiu-jitsu talent as leader of Gracie Humaita.

What we’ve just discussed is a complete body of work, a legacy that encompasses all aspects of the martial arts: training, competing in multiple formats and rulesets, doing the open weight divisions, fighting, teaching. That’s a legacy worthy of great respect.

Royler Gracie turns 50 next year. He looks like he’s in his early 30s, so sometimes people forget or misjudge that. As someone who turns 40 this year, I also appreciate his willingness to put it on the line when he really has nothing to prove to anyone.

Here’s the crux of it: for the same reasons I am rooting for Royler, I ultimately do not think it matters what happens today. No one can take nine gold medals from the most prestigious tournaments away from him. A body of work is completed over a lifetime, and for years, Royler has created a resume that few can even approach.

No matter what happens today, Royler Gracie is one of the absolute greatest of all time. I will be rooting for him to add another win to his resume at Metamoris.

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.