At First BJJ, we are encouraged to compete early and often. The reasoning behind this mentality is to do a lot of smaller tournaments, so by the time you get to a big tournament, like Worlds or PanAms, you know what to expect and you don't adrenaline dump or panic on the mats. Instead, you can focus on your Jiu Jitsu and not get sidetracked by all the noise. You will already know what is best to eat, when to warm up, where to go, and how to pass the time in between rounds.
A lot of students jump right in, head first, but I never felt "ready." Last month, my teammate convinced me to go for it. She said, "Trust me, you're ready. We will get a big group together and take all the medals." So, with shaky fingers, I typed in my registration information and booked the hotel. Here goes nothing, I thought, with grand plans to train every day, push the sled at the gym, and work takedowns.
But things never go according to plan, do they?
As it turns out, I ended up catching a nasty case of strep throat that lasted for weeks and I needed antibiotics. By the time the tournament came, I was just getting a bit of energy back and had lost some weight, putting me under my weight class entirely. I had literally two days of training the week prior - no sleds had been pushed, no takedowns had been practiced. I was standing there, clueless, in Boise, Idaho, but at least my gi was on straight.
Lesson One: Why the F*ck didn't I warm up???
Women always get the shit time slots for tournaments. First thing in the morning, and I was the first fight on the mat. Within ten seconds of locking grips with this girl, and going from zero to "Crank: High Voltage" in the wave of a ref's hand, my mouth went dry and my lungs strained nauseatingly. My exploding chest was extremely distracting and I began to curse myself for not warming up beforehand.
Next time, I'm going for a fifteen minute jog or bike the morning of the tournament. Once my lungs are warmed up, I can hang. High intensity is one thing, trying to keep your coffee in your stomach, while some girl clamps down on her closed guard, is another.
Lesson TWO: The "White Belt shuffle" is for the birds
The first thing that happens is typically grip-fighting. Men tend to lock grips, release, and lock grips again, in order to set up a double leg or an ankle pick. Women, however - entirely different story. They grip to the death and start jerking you around in a frenetic attempt to get you off balance, or they pull to guard right away. And when you are a white belt, practically no one is confident enough for a flashy takedown. Two people stand as far away from each other as they can, while their arms are locked onto their opponents collar and sleeve, and they wing around, trying shitty Osotogari's here and there.
This lasts entirely too long. I was boring myself - in my own fight - because I had no real practice with takedowns, other than drills. I kept thinking, "Jesus, if I just sorta knew what to do, I could manage something better than wasting my energy stuffing and attempting shitty Osotogari's." Note to self: TAKEDOWN GAME.
Lesson Three: The Tournament Itself
The first two lessons were minor tweaks to my game, but learning how a tournament works was by far the most important thing I did all weekend. Knowing where to go, what to do, whose hand to shake and how much snacks to bring is really crucial to your performance.
I was at the tournament all day. There was a five-hour time span between gi and nogi. I didn't take care of myself properly and by the time nogi came along, I was stone-cold, exhausted and had a bad headache. When they said they were going to also put the 140 pounders with us (my class was 120-130, I was 118 with all my clothes on), I decided to opt out. It sucked because I do like nogi, but I like to remain uninjured more.
Next time, I am going to pay closer attention to the schedule, go back to the hotel to rest if I have to, or fuel myself more efficiently. I am also going back to lesson one and warming back up a half hour before the match. Something to do between is vital as well, be it music, games, a book - something calming to pass the time, so you don't have too long to spend spinning the wheels in your own head and burning yourself out.
All in all, a tournament is a great learning experience, whether you think you are ready or not. The goal at the end of the day should simply be completing a tournament. It doesn't matter if you win or you lose, especially your first time, so go in with your only expectation being to learn what it is like to compete. My very first fight was a loss by points and it didn't kill me, it motivated me to get back to the mat and learn the things I need to win next time. Or maybe the next time after that.