And you get smoked.
You gas out almost immediately after the match starts, your mind goes blank and you forget how to do even the most basic of moves, and worst of all - you realise that your jiu-jitsu just doesn’t hold up to an opponent who by all means should be your equal - after all, jiu-jitsu competitions separate competitors by age, weight and skill.
What went wrong?
There are several correct answers to this question. Firstly, competing is a skill in of itself that must be honed. It’s all very well to perform your favourite moves in the training room, when there’s no pressure and your partner isn’t going at you with 100% intensity, but to execute them in the heat of competition is another thing entirely.
Secondly, you may not be getting an accurate assessment of your ability in the training room. Your training partners may not be going as hard on you as you think they are (it’s not always easy to tell). You may have gotten familiar with their game, and therefore you’ll be rolling better against them than if you didn’t know them. When it comes to getting an honest look at your ability, there is no substitute for a random opponent who you’ve never rolled with and is actually trying to win with all their power. Competition is the ultimate diagnostic tool to expose your flaws and truly test your jiu-jitsu. And besides, why build a race car if you don’t take it to the track at least once?
You’ll probably suck the first few times you compete. That’s okay. As I mentioned before, competing is a skill, which means it can be trained and improved just like any other skill. Competing early is extremely beneficial for your development, because it allows your competing skill to grow in tandem with your actual jiu-jitsu skill. By training and competing simultaneously, you’ll both develop your skills and receive realistic feedback on what you need to work on, meaning you can get better exponentially faster than if you just trained. The intensity of competition just can’t be replicated in training.
And the benefits of competing extend beyond jiu-jitsu. Even if you’re a hobbyist with no aspirations of winning Worlds, there is huge value in taking yourself out of your comfort zone and throwing yourself into the hellfire. Becoming comfortable in the stressful environment of competition carries over to other stressful situations in life. Have to give a speech to 100 people? Want to ask your boss for a raise? Tell the girl you’ve been seeing you don’t actually believe in star signs? At least no one’s trying to choke you to sleep. Our primitive brains haven’t quite caught up to our modern environment - they don’t distinguish between the stress of running from a saber tooth tiger and the stress of asking the cute girl at Starbucks out.
Fast forward to where I am today - you actually look forward to competing. Aside from mild butterflies which is attributable to excitement more so than fear, you find the whole experience enjoyable. In extreme cases, you find yourself laughing with your opponent mid-match about something funny that happened.
It’s one of those things you’ll only really understand once you’re there. Frequent competitors have a certain calmness about them that carries over into everyday life. If you can be calm while someone’s trying to rip your arm off, what else is there to be stressed about?
I’m sure you have some objections to competing in the back of your mind – you’re worried about getting injured, it sounds like a lot of work, can’t I just go an open mat, the list goes on. All of these are valid concerns, but for most people they’re just placeholders that their mind puts in place to prevent them ever leaving their comfort zone. Sure, the injury risk is slightly higher due to the intensity of competition, but as long as you’re diligent and ready to tap, you’ll probably be fine. Is it a lot of work? Not usually, assuming you’re currently eating and training reasonably well. And no, unfortunately an open mat is not a sufficient substitute, due to it still being by and large training.
At the end of the day, there’s two types of people. Those that feel fear and make excuses, and those that feel fear but do it anyway. Try it once, and if you don’t enjoy it all then you never have to do it again. You risk nothing by giving it a go, but you risk never knowing what could've been, by never trying.