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Preparing for a competition - Comp Day and After

Comp day has finally arrived and you are at the venue. Your last few month's preparation has all been for today.

You have your fight schedule and should have at least an hour to prepare. This time, and the time you spend between matches, is critical to success. You have to ready your mind and body for the task at hand.

You can't treat competition with the same regard as rolling at the gym. When you roll with team mates you know how they respond to your techniques, you have had plenty of exposure to their A-game and know which techniques you can utilise for advantage. This is missing from competition, thus removing a safety net.

Another complication with competition is the desire for victory. Rolling with your friends is more about learning and pressure testing your moves. There are no repercussions for tapping out, but doing so at comp ends your campaign for gold. This is why people go harder, hold out longer before tapping and refuse to give any ground.

This can increase the odds of injury so your training camp should have prepared you for it with strength, flexibility and conditioning. Mental preparations are a bit harder to train for, however we can fuel each other with the right mindset and lead by example.

So to get in the right frame of mind I do the following when I arrive at a comp.

  • Find a seat that is furthest from unknown people. I don't want to talk to anyone other than my team mates and spectators that are there for my team. This helps stay in the training mindset and removes distractions. I remain comfortable with my crew and remove any awkward social interactions that may distract my focus.

  • Familiarise myself with the venue such as exits, toilets, drink fountains, change rooms, weigh in and warm up areas. I want to know where everything is so I am not scrambling in a panic trying to find the toilet a few minutes before my match.

  • Due to my rank, age, and size I generally compete at the end of the day so I help my team prepare. For this initial time I aim to lead by example. Attitudes are contagious, so if I'm calm and focused I influence my team mates to be the same. I could be a ball of nerves internally, but I don't let it show externally. The easiest way to do that is to stick with what you know and talk jiu jitsu.

Coaching others

As a senior student I am either assisting our head coach, or if he is unavailable I'll act as coach for the team. We've had a dozen competitors in the one comp before and it's impossible for a single person to coach them all. Because we are a team, anyone should be able to step up and guide team mates through their warm ups and matches. But there are key things you should do and others to avoid.

While this guide is for what you can do to ensure optimal performance, I will also impart knowledge on how you can assist your team in staying calm and focused to reach their own peaks and beyond.

Good coaches will teach you the techniques to win at sport. Great coaches will teach you techniques to win at life. They will assist with preparing your mind and body to handle any situation you find yourself in. They are psychologists that mould your thinking into a winner, and help you out of the rough times. They are a friend when needed. They are the carrot and the stick. They will motivate you to great heights and pick you up when you fall.

If you don't see these qualities in your coach then go looking for a new one. I may seem biased here but John Campbell at Infinite MMA in Ballarat ticks all these boxes and more. I have trained in eight martial arts schools across a couple of decades, experiencing multiple coaching styles along my journey. John has sailed so far beyond all others that they can't even see his wake.

Loyalty is one thing, but if your coach isn't helping where you need it then move on. You are doing yourself a disservice by staying.

This is why we strive to have the entire team able to step in. We not only teach BJJ but teach the skills to be a great coach.

Before your division is called

Most competitions announce each division at least 15 minutes prior to commencing. This time is usually for weighing in and warming up. You should know approximately when you start. Most comps have a fluid schedule, however you generally won't start before the scheduled time. So if you are scheduled to start at 1pm, change into your comp gear at 12:40pm at the latest. Go to the toilet as well. You don't know when you will get another chance and it will drop your weight a little. Don't forget to wash your hands either.

Once changed, you should do your pre-warm up. This is the same as prior to your normal training sessions. Do this with the weigh-in area in sight so you can proceed directly to it when called up.

If there is a delay in your scheduled time, then repeat the pre-warm up every few minutes making it progressively harder. We want you loose enough to warm up and having extra time isn't a bad thing as it helps avoid injury.

Take this opportunity to confirm your finger and toe nails are trimmed. They will be checked at weigh-in, as well as your uniform adherence. Checking it yourself ensures you get through as quickly as possible so you can prepare sooner.

After your division is called

Weigh-in immediately. I am generally first in line to get weighed as it gives me as much time to warm up as possible. You often only get five minutes to get warm so every additional second counts. Here is where you can rely on your team mates. Have your partner time you doing star jumps, knee raises, heel kicks and squats. Do thirty seconds of each one, then repeat with more intensity.

Once done immediately start pummelling with your partner for a minute. Keep the pressure light so you can move faster. This gets the heart rate up without much chance for a stray injury.

These exercises should cover five minutes and get you at the minimum level of warmth to compete. Sometimes this is all the time we get so we have to make the most of it. If you have more time to warm up, simply continue to the next stage. If you keep it between three and five minutes per stage you can increase your readiness without getting fatigued. Ensure you take a break between each stage of at least a minute but no more than two.

These are some suggested stages.

  1. As above, ie star jumps, knee raises, heel kicks, squats 30 seconds each X two, then 1 minute of pummelling.

  2. Star jumps for 1 minute to get heart rate back up. Pummelling for 30 seconds, then shuck the shoulder to take the side or back. Repeat for a few minutes. Finish with 30 seconds of squats.

  3. Sprawls for 30 seconds. Pummelling for 10 seconds before shucking the shoulder. Repeat for a minute and ensure you go left and right. Now work on arm drags and two-on-ones for a couple of minutes each, again working on both left and right sides.

Remember we are using this to warm up and align our mind with timing. We are also trying to focus on the first stage of the fight. We need entries into take-downs so doing these in the warm up keeps them foremost in the mind. The ones included here are common and have a lot of branching attacks. They will be the most successful as you should have practised them in your training camp.

It is rare for you to need more than the above stages. These three should take you around 20 minutes including rest periods. If you find you have more time and are starting to cool, repeat from stage one.

For the training partner it is imperative you take any non-critical thinking away from the competitor. Hand them their drink after each stage. Ensure times are kept. Keep an ear out for them being called up. Reassure them. Don't give them detailed strategies as it will ruin the mental side of the warm up. They should already know what to do, but nerves can destroy focus. Remind them to simply grab a wrist and work from there. Ensure they have their mouth guard and water with them for when they are called to the match area.

If possible, training partners should have already competed, or are students that are not competing on the day. This is usually the case when competitions go for a few days, or someone is too injured to compete. Don't help someone warm up if you are scheduled to fight soon after them. You may be called away in the middle of their warm up, and you might overexert yourself.

The Pre-Match

So you are warm and are finally called to the mat. This doesn't mean you are going up next. The organisers prefer to have the next three or four matches lined up waiting. Your entire division may even be in the match area waiting for their pairings. You are generally away from any of your team during this period. This is the hardest part mentally. Unless you're careful, this is the part where you begin to make excuses for failure.

These are common things competitors want to do, but should avoid.

  • Sizing up your opponents
  • Look at opponents and think they might be trouble
  • Speak to opponents and be friendly
  • Start to cool down to conserve energy
  • Try to speak with spectators

All of this needs to be avoided otherwise you will psych yourself out and lose focus. I guarantee your opponents are going through this as well, so we can use that to our advantage.

As a heavier fighter, and about 1.9 meters tall I pose an intimidating image. People expect me to be strong, slow and inflexible. So when I get to the match area I take the opportunity to find a vacant spot and stretch. A man my size going into the double lotus pulls a lot of attention, and I've seen more than one opponent shrink away at the display. They will begin to question their own flexibility and skills. They don't usually have to worry about flexible opponents as the bulk of the heavy weights don't need it as much. Fighting a flexible smaller guy is easier as weight and pressure is on your side. But put that flexibility and speed into someone of their own size and it becomes daunting.

Even the smallest things here can fuel your opponent's mental demise. You want to ensure you remain warm. Twenty quick star jumps will do nicely whenever you feel yourself cooling. Not only does it keep you warm but it shows you mean business and have energy to spare. The others will generally react in a few common ways:

  • A lazy fighter will likely look away, not wanting to look at the effort he should be making.

  • A fighter lacking confidence will generally watch on the sly, and think he should do the same but doesn't want to appear as if he is copying you.

  • A dedicated fighter will already be doing the same as you.

With the first two types you have begun weaselling into their mind and sowed the seeds of their defeat. For the dedicated fighter you are showing you are on equal footing and he has his work cut out for him. The reverse can also be true so don't let those thoughts enter your mind. Instead concentrate on your goal of victory. We want to shake the mental foundation of our competition while remaining focused on the task at hand. We let nothing distract us. Just as we can influence others with our attitude, when it comes to fighting we can use the same technique to weaken our opponent's mind. If we defeat the mind we easily defeat the body.

I never lock eyes with anyone in this area. All to often people will try to stare you down to intimidate you as a poor man's mind game. Not playing their game throws them off it. I ensure I'm focused on my stretch or the match that is in progress ahead of me. Showing that I let nothing distract me from the task at hand slips the wedge of defeat into them a little deeper.

I never speak and simply sip at my drink when needed. Many fighters forget their drink and my simple act of hydrating breaks their focus. They are reminded of thirst and grab their team's attention to bring them a drink. Depending on the team that may mean a few unfocused minutes. While they're distracted, I'm focusing everything on the moment I step onto the mat.

Once I am the next match and just waiting for the previous one to conclude I often stalk the edges of the mat like a lion, moving back and forth with barely restrained energy waiting to pounce. This can unnerve your opponents, and helps build your own focus further.

People that train in BJJ are usually a friendly bunch. While there is nothing wrong with being nice and having a chat with other gyms, it is dangerous for competition. I've known several people that befriended their opponents before the match, and failed to give it everything in the moment because they thought he's a good bloke. After the gold medal has been decided feel free to talk to as many people in your division as you want. But right now they are the enemy and will exploit any advantage they can.

The Main Event

This is the moment you've been building for. For me all nerves disappear the moment I step onto the mat. I am comfortable on the springy surface. The mat is my home turf and my opponent is an intruder. Depending on the comp, your coach will either be near the scoreboard or on the sidelines with the crowd. There is no need to look for them, trust he is there to help defend your home.

During your matches your coach has several duties for all fighters. You have two: listen to your coach's instructions; perform to the best of your ability. You don't need to worry about anything else.

A lot of competitors fail in the initial take-down because they are too worried about all the possibilities. So narrow it down to simply grabbing their wrist. From there you know all your entries and set-ups. We reinforced them in the warm up. Take what the opponent gives you and exploit it. As Sun Tzu said "Opportunities multiply as they are seized".

Your coach will remind you to breathe. He will monitor points and the clock so you don't have to. I've seen a lot of matches where one fighter is up by a couple of points with 30 seconds left. They think they have won so ease off and simply try to pin their opponent to stall. That is an opening for counter-attack. Ignore the clock and points and always strive for the clear victory by submission. I've won gold medal matches with 3 seconds to spare when my opponent was ahead on points and decided to relax.

Your coach should let you know the half way mark, when 1 minute is left, the final 30 seconds and last 10 seconds. Use each of these points as a flag to step up intensity.

As mentioned earlier, listen to your coach or whomever is your corner-man for the match. It is not their job to fight for you. It is not time to teach you an escape you have never done before just because it's what they would do. The coach can see opportunities you may miss for a number of reasons. There isn't enough time to think why the coach's advice is sound. As coach, I'm not going to yell out "his base is disrupted behind his left leg". Apart from giving the enemy time to fix the error, the moment has likely passed. Instead I might yell out "hip bump sweep". I know you have trained that technique and now is the time to apply it. Trust your coach as they want you to win just as much as you do.

Assuming your head coach is not available, perhaps because another fighter is half way through their match, someone from your team needs to step up. Generally that is a senior student but that may not be the case. A white belt can still coach a purple belt in competition. It is the coach's role to keep you calm above all else. Reminders to breathe are important but so is constant chatter. Hearing a familiar and friendly voice goes a long way to avoid nerves when in front of a crowd and under pressure. Generally you know what needs to be done, and keeping calm allows you to do that.

Some good general advice to give your fighter is:

  • Breathe
  • Elbows in
  • Clear the neck
  • Control the hips
  • Where's your base?
  • Drive in
  • Pressure
  • Shape-shift
  • Frames
  • Block his shoulder
  • Take your time

These are all short statements with clear instructions. They should also be used in the training camp so everyone understands them. As corner-man, give all instructions clearly and loudly. Use your voice and tempo to enhance your point. For example, by saying "breathe" in a drawn out manner over a few seconds it shows by example how they should be breathing. For more urgent advise like "pressure", repeat it three times rapidly and louder than normal. This relates urgency and intensity to your fighter.

Here are some comments to avoid as they serve no purpose and can hinder your fighter.

  • Yeah that's it
  • Don't do that
  • No!!!
  • Do that Japanese stuff you like
  • Try something else
  • Try winning
  • You're losing
  • Move your left leg onto his right hip, then circle your arms under his armpits and pivot

While a lot of that sounds like common sense to avoid, each of these are things I've heard coaches of other teams shout to their fighters. Each combatant given the above "encouragement" lost the match. The majority of these came from brown belts and above so they should know better.

I'll repeat from earlier, it's the coach's job to keep their fighter calm, and offer useful advise from an outside perspective. Individuals respond differently so the coach needs to understand them and alter the advice to suit.

Between matches

So you have finished a match and are waiting for the next one. A lot of people treat this as time to rest, which is a mistake. There are several things you should do.

  • Take a drink
  • Keep warm
  • Recover your breath
  • Watch the current match to find holes in your future opponent's game
  • Stay focused
  • Change clothes if required, generally after three or four matches

There is nothing worse for injuries and intensity than going at full speed, doing nothing for five to ten minutes then go full speed again. A comp is an endurance race not a sprint. Once you start you don't stop until after your final match.

Repeat much of the pre-match strategies. After multiple fights if you don't look tired and continue keeping warm, stretched and focused you will further crinkle your opponent's minds. At this stage many will see you as the likely gold medallist and mentally imagine you victorious with themselves in second place. Once that happens your path to victory is almost complete.

Once you finish all your matches, win or lose, ensure to thank your coaches and team mates. They have put in a lot of work to help you during the day, free of charge. If you are sharing a vehicle to get to the venue and splitting the cost of fuel and parking, then the head coach travels for free. If you stop for food on the way home, the coach's meal is covered by the team. These small gestures show your appreciation and help make you a better person.

Review afterwards

Regardless of your performance you need to review your matches with a more senior belt. Watch your videos yourself and take notes of what to ask your coach. A day or two after the comp make time to review the footage with your coach to figure out what you need to work on next. Even if you took the gold home, there are likely a few points you could have done better. We strive to only make a mistake once, and fix the problem so it never occurs again.

The week after the comp you will need time to rest. You've been training hard for a few months and now its time to let the body recover. The week after the comp should be light training, have a visit or two with your sports physiologist and maybe a massage. Don't forget getting a personal lesson with your coach to go over everything from the competition.

If you lost I recommend taking a few days off training to clear your mind. Speaking to gym members that couldn't make it to the comp can be draining if you have to keep telling them you didn't achieve gold. If you won however its important to keep the momentum going. You should be at the gym for the very next class.

Spend at least a month with your normal level of training before starting a new training camp. No one can train at a high comp pace all year round and expect to succeed or remain uninjured. I tend to aim for two or three comps a year to give my aging body time to recover.

Summary (tl;dr)

Arrive at the comp early and prepare mentally. You should be focused the moment you step inside the doors. Lead by example and be prepared to help your team mates. Do a pre-warm-up prior to weigh-in then get cracking on your actual warm up. Once warm never let yourself cool down until after your final bout. Use techniques to psych out your opponents but don't get swallowed into the game by others. Fight to the best of your ability and listen to your coach. Recover in motion between matches and keep hydrated and warm. Finally review your footage with your coach.

I hope these articles help open you to the process for competition training, and prepare you for the tasks ahead. It may seem daunting at first but your team is there to help every step of the way.

Please hit the comments with how you have gone in competition and any techniques you utilised to achieve success.

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© AJ Watson