How to prepare for a BJJ competition

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Competition preparation is a hard beast to conquer: it’s like preparing for a high-stake blind date. It cannot be compared to any regular conditioning neither in terms of physical nor mental preparation.

The preparation work starts when the thought of enrolling to a competition has matured into action. Even by browsing event calendars and their intro pages, you’ve already stepped into a different mental space when you are starting to be curious about how your progress and achievements compare to others. You prepare to go public with your knowledge.

If you’re enrolling for the first time, this is a great milestone. You become a part of the ‘comp team’ and your competition avatar has been born – the journey has begun.

Due to the long lead time for competitions, most enrolment gives you an estimated 2-3 months to get into the right condition (with a couple of smaller events in between). This is usually long enough, although the first time doing so will still feel a bit overwhelming, as you need to pick up every single basics.

There are three aspects of preparing for a BJJ competition that need your attention as neglecting any of them can bring disappointing results.

#1. Logistics

  • First and foremost, get familiar with the competition rules. What are the accepted techniques at you belt level? What do you have to wear, what can you not wear, what you can bring on the mat, what can you not? Make sure to read through all the rules because not all of them as intuitive as it seems. Getting denied entry or disqualified for something you weren’t aware of would make all your other preparation work a waste. You can find links to the rules of a couple of bigger event organisers in the Further Reading section.

  • Familiarise yourself with the competition format, such as single elimination, double elimination, round robin, quintet, submission only, etc. as this, along with the scoring system, fundamentally defines what would deliver a gold in that competition. Not all formats fit everybody, you’ll find out along the way which competition format allows the best use of your energy.

  • You also need to arrange your responsibilities, as you will be absent for most of the day. For example, if you’re caretaking someone, this requires a lot of preparation and the cooperation of the family. A lot of walkover in competition happens because a fighter overbooks themselves. In situations like these, competition rarely takes priority over family events and responsibilities. 

  • You must also be prepared for a long, noisy day. In grappling competitions, the brackets have the tendency to move as the original schedule is based on the assumption that every fight will take the full bracket length. In practice however, a lot of fights ends sooner and one’s own bracket can shift to hours earlier. That means you have to be there significantly earlier than your scheduled bracket. Most fighter spend at least half, sometimes a full day in the venue. This means you must learn to cope with crowed, noisy, competitive environments so as not to be drained before you even step foot on the mat.  

  • You need to learn to keep yourself cosy and well nurtured. You need to be packed with food that gives enough nutrition but doesn’t make you heavy. Similarly, stay hydrated but be careful not to fill your stomach with water (throwing up commonly comes with disqualification). You also need to be prepared with a change of clothes for between fights, including spare undies, warm layers, slippers and so on. Any inconvenience such as a wet sock or hunger will be a distraction and impact your performance.

#2. Physical condition

  • You need to have good stamina as BJJ bouts are very intense and the fights are very dynamic. You can find guidance for a research backed training program in the Further Reading section.

  • Strategic energy management is also crucial. It’s a very common issue in competitions that the fighter puts all their resources into the first bout, due to the fact that if they don’t win that one, they have little chance for the gold in most competitions. But that significantly lowers their chances in the second round. The half an hour or hour they have to rest between rounds is not enough to fully recharge. It’s only enough to have the stress settle a bit and the muscles regain functionality, but the general fatigue won’t go away. Fighting is very expensive for the body, so doing 2-3 fights in one day is very exhausting. You have to be energy savvy to stand a chance in your next fights.

  • You also need to be knowledgable about the common techniques your opponent will likely know. Know the curriculum inside out, and have a response prepared to all relevant takedowns and submission attempts. There is always a likelihood that you’ll encounter an unknow technique but having your curriculum well-practiced drastically minimises the chances of this.

  • Be realistic about the weight division you enroll to avoid having to do a hard diet close to the competition date. A weight loss diet costs a lot to the body as it keeps it in constant energy deficit, which would leave you quite week if stretched to the competition days.

#3. Mental condition

The mental condition of a fighter when stepping onto the mat is the main difference between regular sparring and competition. This stress level is not comparable with usual work meetings or presentation preparations, it contains the risk of physical and mental injury. You fight to stay intact while a stranger tries to choke you and while spectators stare at you from behind the cordon. The stress this evokes is on a very different scale. If you don’t know how to handle that, the stress of the tournament will eat you alive.

Accordingly, the methods used to alleviate average daily stress, like deep breathing and meditation, will not solve this issue. Mental preparation for a competition, especially for a BJJ competition due to its intensity, requires a bulletproof mental strategy. That is what the Introduction to ‘The Brain and combat: brain science in grappling competition’ docu series is about. As explained in the series, the body does what the brain tells it to do, be the message a conscious order or a stress triggered emotion. By the 3rd chapter of the docu series, you’ll understand that due to the impact of this, you’ve won or lost a bout way before the fight has even started.

For your first couple of tournaments, however, this likely won’t be your main concern, as most fighter around that time is busy catching up with the physical demands of the competition. Further down the road, when you have experienced your performance fluctuating and have started to take your competition goals seriously, that’s when mental preparation takes precedent. How you finetune your stress response then becomes your main competition preparation strategy.

Summary

In summary, preparing for a BJJ tournament has its own focus topics that include awareness of the general rules of the tournament, being physically prepared for the intensity of the fights and having a mental strategy developed to cope with the stress. As you kickstart your competition journey, the game rules take precedence so you can gain a clear picture what exactly you’re getting into. When you progress, the physical preparation takes over to be able to take on more competition opportunities, then later the mental preparation takes precedence with the aim of optimising your performance and achieving a higher win rate.


Further reading

An Evidenced-Based Training Plan for Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu

IBJJF Rules

Allstartsbjj Rules

Grappling Industries Rules

Polaris Grand Prix Rules

About the author

M. Leblanc

Trainer, martial artist (Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu), avid self-improver