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Competiton Anxiety

A few weeks ago, I competed in the Atlanta Winter Open. This tournament experience was a bit different than others because this time, I had the opportunity to talk with other students at the academy who were planning on competing. We discussed issues like how they were preparing to compete and their thought process that they were going through in the weeks leading up to the tournament.

A few common topics that arose were the issues of dealing with stress both before and during the tournament, uncertainties about deciding to compete, and instructors pushing students to compete.

Based on these discussions, with this post I’d like to examine what kind of thought processes occur amongst competitors leading up to the big day and also what drives some people to compete while others avoid it at all cost.

Also, having talked with some students before, during, and after this most recent anxiety inducing experience I will also give a few suggestions on how students can handle their anxiety and more importantly, how to overcome it.


A lot of Jiu Jitsu practitioners do not like competing and will avoid it at all cost. This could be for a number of reasons including:

  1. Not feeling in good condition

  2. Not training frequently enough

  3. Injuries

  4. Recently promoted

With beginner students, a lack of experience and confidence in their technique is often what keeps them from competing.  When it comes to more advanced students and higher belts, however, the issue of avoiding competitions becomes more complex. They might have all of the necessary skills and techniques to succeed in an competition and even if they are out of shape, a few weeks of conditioning will make them more than ready for most local or regional tournaments.

So what keeps these guys from going out there and tearing it up?

A popular BJJ saying can sum up this phenomenon, “A lion in the gym but a housecat in the tournament”.

Coming from a more competition-oriented academy, there is almost little choice about whether you will compete or not. Everything from schoolwide tournament preparation to charismatic speeches urging us to do our best in representing our team, all are aimed at pushing us to compete.

This approach works really well for the select few, avid competitors and those looking to make a name for themselves through tournament success. However whenever you focus on one subset of your school, you will begin to alienate the other students who are not in that minority.

It’s important to note that there will be times when it is unwise to compete, especially when it comes to rehabbing injuries or conflicting obligations. But when these reasons become non-factors, then the situation changes.

There will always be a sizable number of students that will never compete and there is nothing that an instructor or coach will be able to say or do to convince them otherwise. However, there will be a few that you will be able to motivate to at least give it a try. Competing, while stressful is a great way for your students to test their technique in a safe environment against similarly aged, sized and skilled opponents. That’s as fair as it gets folks!

Later I will go over ways that you might be able to motivate those who avoid competition to step outside of their comfort zone, but the choice should still be an individual one.

Competing Not to Lose

If you force students to compete (competition avoiders and non-avoiders), you might be leading them to compete for all the wrong reasons.

As an instructor, it’s difficult to figure out when it is the right time to motivate your students to compete. On one hand you want to be supportive and let your students do tournaments because you know that the more that they compete, the better they will become. However, if you push your students too hard, you might run the risk of putting them off of competing entirely.

Many times during the preparation for this competition I heard a few of the students, ones that were training hard consistently and with a good chance of actually doing well, putting themselves down as if they had no chance of winning. Even though their instructor reassured them of their abilities, I believe they lacked confidence in themselves because they were ultimately competing for the wrong reasons–competing to please their instructor, competing because they had to, competing not to lose.

If this isn’t a self-fulfilling prophecy then I don’t know what is.

Competing not to lose or because your instructor forced you to sign up might seem doable at first. But once you step out on the mat against an opponent that you have never seen before in a packed gymnasium, the initial confidence doesn’t really hold up.

All it does is ensure that you won’t ever want to compete again, or if you do, that it will not be an enjoyable experience and worsen your competition anxiety.

I’m not saying that you need a super strong reason to motivate yourself compete like some cheesy 80’s movie plot but the reasons you have should be your own.

Do it for yourself

If you decide to compete, it should be for your own reasons and motivations. Competing has many positive benefits such as forcing you to clean up your diet, pushing your training outside of your comfort zone, and most importantly, putting your skills and abilities to the test.

When you compete you are out there by yourself

One important thing to remember is that when you compete, you are out there by yourself….no coach, teammates, or significant other will be out there with you. When you step on to the mat with your opponent on the other side of you, you really get to see what motivates you to compete. If you were just trying to compete not to lose, your mindset would be closed off because you are already thinking about losing. This might force you to play it safe and not open up your game to its full potential.

Compete for yourself because you want to compete. For years, I thought if I competed and won a lot of tournaments, people would respect me more and my instructor (s) would be proud of me. Soon enough, however, I got to a point where I realized that none of that mattered. I learned that my reasons had to come from within myself. As long as you have some reason driving you, be it wanting to win your first tournament or hitting that new sweep that you have been drilling for the past two months, the you’re on the right path.

Handling Anxiety

Everyone views competition in different ways. It’s safe to say most people experience some kind of anxiety when a tournament is coming their way. I wish I could say that it gets easier the more you compete, but that’s dependent on you as an individual. Some competitors thrive under pressure while others might have a harder time dealing with it.

While there are a few quick remedies that one can make use of such as medications, massages, etc, I believe that the most reliable and actionable treatments happen the weeks leading up to a competition.

One of the most important methods in dealing with anxiety is preparation. Not only do you need to prepare your body through hard training, drilling and conditioning sessions, you also need to prepare yourself mentally. A great resource to help with your mental preparation are sports psychology books and the autobiographies of famous athletes. Study how they were able to perform at the best of their abilities when faced with mounting odds and do or die situations.

Reading, absorbing and applying the lessons that you get from these books will take time so you will have to start well in advance of any major tournaments.

Visualization is also a major key to preparing yourself that takes little investment on your part…this can happen in as little as ten minutes each day. It’s important that you visualize with a purpose. For example, if you know that you tend to become really nervous before a competition, then use visualization by envisioning yourself at a competition during warm-up or the match itself and reminding yourself to stay calm and confident. If you’re able to do this say 500 times, or even 1000 times leading up to your competition, then when that magical day does arrive, you will be more than ready to deal with your anxiety because you will have already have “experienced” the tournament.

Outside of visualization, actual tournament experience is the best way to get over any uncontrolled anxiety that you might experience. Compete multiple times during the span of a few months and you will see that it becomes much easier each subsequent tournament and you will be more relaxed and natural.

Conquer anxiety through proper preparation and by putting yourself in those uncomfortable, uncertain experiences until you learn to thrive and succeed.


During any sporting event, the outcome will be uncertain. No matter the level of competition, some days you will be on fire while other days you will have to struggle for an average performance.

I’m sure you remember the first time you started live training or your first time rolling with a really good upper belt. Did you feel any anxiety leading up to those moments?

First, it is obvious that competitors will start to feel anxious before a big tournament. Anxiety is a feeling of worry, nervousness, or unease, typically about an imminent event or something with an uncertain outcome.

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