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The Road to Valhalla: The Fear, The Glory and The Reality of Competition

The Road to Valhalla: The Fear, The Glory and The Reality of Competition


When it comes to the battleground of competition, most competitors aspire towards the appearance of invulnerability and of a battle-tested warrior in the classical sense. We envision ourselves strutting around the periphery of the competition mats with the nonchalance of George C. Scott’s character, PPPP, in Apocalypse now, shouting rhetorical questions about whether our teammates can smell the victory in the air. In reality, like in war, the most common scents that waft are those of fear, vomit and sweat. And yet, most practitioners of Brazilian Jiu Jitsu find themselves matside at least once in their journey, and for many, it was once too often. Competition is simply terrifying for anyone new to the sport, but it is also the most important tool you have to find the weaknesses of your techniques and approaches. It is a bitter pill that will truly set you free. 

I have my eleventh competition in three days, and despite ten other kicks at the can, including World Masters and the Canada National Pro, I remain nervous and wary of my opponent. I have seen feet dislocated, arms broken and men go unconscious. I have had larger men attack me with beserking madness. I have tapped and I have held out until the time has run out. Every match has proven to be completely unique, even though I have fought one opponent three separate times. What has remained as a common indicator of success can be taken down to one word and its four components: preparedness [sleep, training, diet and mindset].

Developing a Growth Mindset by Tom DeBlass


Sleep is a challenge for me. To put it simply, I think too much and my mind loops through my plan and every single possible technique my opponent might use against me at every single moment in the match. It is a prime example of futile, wasted effort from my brain. Jiu Jitsu simply has too many possibilities and infinite combinations for such thinking to be of use. I know this, other players know this, but it is a common reality for many competitors.

Some nights I choose to give in to the looping and attempt to enjoy the learning that can occur as my brain puzzles over all that could happen, but probably never will. Other nights I subscribe to the process of visualization, and force my brain to follow through with a singular outcome such as “I will Collar Drag to the Back and then proceed to perform a Bow & Arrow Choke for the submission and six possible points. I will win gold tomorrow.” So far, visualization has not manifested itself into the real world, but it has calmed my nerves and allowed me to plan one possible outcome to share when coaches and teammates ask me if I have a plan.

Under pressure you will always default to the lowest level of your training. Therefore, it is critical that you earnestly train both your “A Game” and your “B Game” in the weeks before the competition. In my case, my “A Game” is my top game and it comprises of three takedowns, two specific passes, three transitions and two submissions.  It is simple, it is effective and I can access the pathway after a sweep or scramble from my “B Game.”

Sharpen your Mindset with Tom DeBlass! Click Learn More!


My “B Game” is the harder game to develop, and the one I do not like to train, but it is perhaps the more important of the two. It involves three distances of guard [Grilled Chicken, Lapel and Half Guards], multiple sweeps and multiple escape pathways to get back to my “A Game” when my opportunity occurs.

I feel that BJJ Fanatic Chris Haueter offers excellent advice when he asserts that one should “Be the guy on top. Stay on top. When on the bottom play a dynamic, attacking guard. Beware of the seductive nature of guard.” Especially for the lower belt, it is tempting to use the guard as a resting position until the end of a match. We play Spider Guard for far too long. We close the guard and simply try to hold our legs shut. We lie in Half Guard and use our shield to protect the kingdom of our Ego.  Instead, we need to move and we need to attack or we will eventually falter and end up in negative bottom positions. 

Old School Efficient BJJ Trailer with Chris Haueter


In terms of improving your “B Game”, I can highly recommend Chris Haueter’s Old School Efficient BJJ videos. Not only is Chris entertaining, but he shares a few priceless gems from his many years of competition experience. If you are in the Masters era of your journey, then he can also be a wise mentor for mindset and specific techniques that use your old man strength to your advantage. 

When it comes to escapes, guard retention and the principles of the Back position, no other instructor offers as much as John Danaher. The great value of Danaher’s teaching is that he uses principles, concepts, dilemma and essential elements to move students through his Enter the System and Go Further, Faster series. The value comes when under pressure, when your opponent is about to take four critical points away, but you remember the requirements for him to achieve and hold the position, so you have a way to defend and possibly escape. You learn the essential movements of escapes and can apply those to techniques you may not be familiar with in your daily training. You may forget exactly where to put your knee as the opponent attempts to secure side control, but you will remember that joining your knee to your elbow is an essential element of escaping side control. 

How to Do the Perfect Side Control Escape by John Danaher


You are what you eat, and I have yet to find any better instruction when it comes to dietary considerations for the lead up to competition that Lockhart and Leith’s 30 Fighter Challenge. I seldom need to follow all of the suggested techniques, because three or four of the essential concepts around when to eat certain foods, how to discover your daily caloric needs, and what to do the week before a competition have become mantra for my own training. I had plateaued at 173 lbs, and in three months I am easily at 163 lbs with significant energy and power improvements.

The siren song of dehydration and starvation as an easy way towards the next weight class is a dangerous one. Dehydration means your organs and brain are more susceptible to damage, and a lack of protein, fat and glycogen in your system means that you will be struggling to keep up with complete competitors. Make sure you have a plan for nutrition and hydration as early as two months before any competition and you will thrive when the battle occurs. Remember that an army marches on its stomachs, and so must you. 

Finally, mindset is often the actual decisive factor. A gritty, undying belief in the process and the work you have done leading up to any competition will help you deal with the inevitable pressure on your body that is attempting to steal your soul and spirit. Finding the balance between either confidence and foolish egotism, between fear and courage or between positive outcomes and unrealistic demands will be what makes your competitive experience a productive, positive learning experience versus a depressing, futile exercise in self-loathing and deprecation because you did not achieve X [fill in your own blank].

One technique I use to focus my mindset going into competitions is that I write three to four ranked, measurable goals for every single competition based on what I struggled with in a previous competition. For instance, in my first competition I lost by 20 points, so my first goal was to lose by fewer than 20 points and not be submitted. My second goal was drop a weight class so that I would not be facing a giant monster again. My final goal was to win my first match. Each of these were reasonable expectations, whereas “smash all humans on my path to Absolute gold” would have only led to disillusionment and made learning from the experience an unlikely outcome. If you want to gain some insight into competitive and training mindsets, then Tom DeBlass has an excellent ebook and audio download that can serve as a guide to return to many times throughout your journey. 

Black Belt Mindset by Tom DeBlass

In the end, competition can be an invaluable method towards discovering the truth about the efficacy of your jiujitsu, whether it is a local tournament or an international event. Competition can shave months of futility off from your training. Like many quests we all face, competition can be daunting and demand more from you than any other facet of your training, but like all heroic journeys the rewards can be worth more than gold medals and mythical swords.


Old School Efficient BJJ by Chris Haueter will add that essential “Old School” feel to your game. Jiu-Jitsu isn’t always about flashy back takes and flying submissions. Sometimes what you need is a grounded well-rounded approach. Chris Haueter is the EXACT type of instructor to engrain that Old School Efficient BJJ!



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