You don’t have to compete to get better, but it does make you better to compete.
Your JiuJitsu Will Get Better Faster
Improvement can and does happen every single day that you step on the mat if you allow it. However, I do think that competing accelerates the process. It puts a magnifying lens on your game both mentally and physically. There is a cycle of intense sparring and drilling that ebbs and flows around tournaments. During this type of training, individual weaknesses are more immediately addressed than in general classes and open mats
I have encountered some extraordinary jiu jitsu players that have never competed and continue to improve themselves and everyone they roll with in this way. One of our black belts and best instructors out of the Portland, OR gym has competed maybe once in his many years of bjj. Individuals that possess this level of self reflection are truly rare. For the majority of us, the process of preparing for a competition, the event, and the after math allow a mental and physical transformation that may not happen otherwise.
You Grow as a Person . . .If You Allow It
I travelled with a team of 18 members to a couple weeks ago to Seattle. The highest and lowest aspects of human emotion are on display even a local grappling tournament. This is particularly true in the kids and teens divisions. Competitors will be elated after one match and then on the same day sobbing, sometimes less than ten minutes later. They are learning to win the fight with their own ego. This has to happen at some point in life. When I see it happen to adults who have never competed, the process is often much more difficult. The more experienced competitors typically don’t have these extreme reactions; they know that they will have other matches and chances to prove themselves. They also know that the matches don’t define them as people, they have developed a sense of self confidence and stability.
I watched two of my female students compete for the first time a few weeks ago. They were terrified, they were focused, and they most definitely improved in terms of physical and mental resilience. Here is a quote from one of the parents:
It was such an amazing experience to have watched these kids train for the past year and then see them compete. They are Fierce. They are strong. They are compassionate. Their coaches walk the talk and I believe that this is the core that fosters extreme success.
– Kim Kessler, Parent of First Time Competing Teen
As humans we need to grow to be comfortable in our own skin. This means being at ease with our strengths as well as our weaknesses. It is just as important to learn and improve from wins as it is to apply those lessons from losses. Those who avoid putting themselves in a position that they may lose or be out of their depth will never improve. There is a point in jiu jitsu where I see players make that choice. It may be conscious or unconscious. Some will avoid hard rolls in the gym or a public stage such as a competition because of the ego damage that they may take. I think it is the number one reason people initially quit jiu jitsu. They take each loss personally.
Competition Removes All Excuses
Excuses are comfortable, safe, insulating nests for our egos. When we lose a match in the gym or even more publically, at a competition, we can explain it away. “I lost because I wasn’t feeling my best that day. I lost because they were heavier or more experienced. . .” By creating these explanations in life and in jiu jitsu we stunt our own growth. Rather than work to improve those areas that were not up to the level of the test, it is possible to recede into complacency. It is also the reason that many traditional martial arts allow practitioners to be sheltered from such a process. There is no competition or actual resistance in cooperative drills or Kata (solo routines). These arts are beautiful in many respects, but also become another way that our delicate human egos can skip the self improvement loop. Honest self reflection will be the fastest path to getting better at anything. I really feel that competition provides the best stage for this.
No one will push you like a person who is your same weight, rank, and gender.
This competitive scenario removes all of the excuses. When you lose, there is no explanation other than you were not as good as that other person in that moment. To get better you must go back to your gym and improve yourself mentally and physically.
It is possible for men to find these partners within their own gym. You might have a nemesis that shows up and trains multiple times a week. You even learn each other’s games and start to have a bit of an arms race. This is definitely helpful and fosters improvement. It is still a different type of test to have a match with someone the same size, rank, and gender who does not know your game.
For the ladies this rarely, if ever, happens. I need to travel to California or elsewhere and compete in a fairly large tournament to have a match with someone my own size and rank. I have some outstanding male training partners that I go back and forth with. However, the opportunity to roll with a truly equal opponent has always been a big reason that I personally compete.
If you train at a gym with a community of women and there is one that is your similar size and rank, thank your lucky stars. The sooner that you see that woman as a teammate and not your competition, the more quickly you will both improve.
Enjoy the Ride
In short, competition is a way to improve your jiu jitsu, resilience, and force you to reflect on your own mental state. The process of improvement can radiate out to the rest of your life if you so allow it. You will get better at jiu jitsu and end up positively influencing those around you.
At the end of the day competing should also be fun. If the process isn’t enjoyable, then find a way to recreate the feedback loop in your own gym. Is it absolutely critical to compete? Not at all, but I do think it helps.