Preparing for a competition - The Build Up
I have had a lot of success in BJJ competition. I generally come away with a medal in any comp I enter which is in large part due to my coach John Campbell, and how I prepare myself.
I have known a lot of people that don't do any preparation for a comp. They train as they always have at classes and don't speak to their coaches about filling the holes in their game. They don't orient their diet to cater to the high demands of competition. They don't improve strength, cardio or flexibility and they rock up to the competition with no game plan. These people don't have much success and they usually don't review the fight to determine why they performed the way they did ie lost.
A competition is a process that should start months in advance. Pro fighters have training camps for a reason. They need to train in specific methods to handle whatever is expected from their opponent. For BJJ comps you rarely know your opponent in advance but there are still ample things to focus on that can cover all game plans and help you excel.
Selecting a Competition
Not all comps are the same and there may be some that are not practical for you to attend. If you are a martial arts oldie and the comp only has one age division you should re-think entry. You might do well however you will likely go up against opponents half your age. Every 10 years of age advantage you give away is almost equivalent to a higher belt. The younger fighter should have more energy, can move faster and generally has fewer niggling injuries. An 18 year old probably doesn't have a mortgage and kids to worry about, or a full time job that cuts into training time. I would love to quit my job, train for half the day and write novels for the other half. If I did that I'd have to sell my house and car, have bugger all in the bank and share rent with several people. I have worked hard to not have to do that but financial success comes with less time to enjoy it. As soon as I figure out how to have all the stuff I want, get paid and not work, I will write an article about it so we all can train longer.
It may not seem that big a deal but age plays a big factor when you are at the disadvantage. I've been lumped in with fighters more than 10 years younger at smaller comps. I won, however I was far more fatigued from keeping ahead of them by a finger nail. I missed training for a few days afterwards while I recovered. When in the senior divisions I could train again that afternoon.
Most competitions that do have master or senior divisions have them well advertised. Ensure that you select a comp at least three months ahead. That will give ample time to prepare.
What Weight Class
Now you know where and when you are competing you need to select a weight division. A lot of people will simply look at their normal weight and select a division that it falls into. While that isn't too bad, you want to be in the best physical shape you can be to compete. You should have three months to drop weight so I'd recommend setting a goal of dropping down a weight class. So assuming you walk around at 95kg it would be of benefit to drop down to 90kg to compete. This will give you an advantage of being at the top of the weight bracket, and the lost weight will improve several aspects such as speed, power and general health.
This is especially important if you are heavier and older. Cutting weight gets much harder with age but with plenty of lead time you can make it. I'm currently in the process of cutting from 98kg to 95kg. It isn't much and I can take my time, but it'll allow me to focus on a goal. I am also building strength so gaining muscle and reducing fat will benefit greatly on the mat. This is in preparation for the World Masters in August and I won't go all the way to Las Vegas to come away empty handed.
Ensure you speak with your coaches about how to cut weight safely. You may need to alter your diet or use a sauna. While cutting 10kgs in a week is technically possible it is extremely unhealthy; you'll likely be dehydrated to critical levels and won't have the energy to compete. BJJ comps have you weigh in on the day, often within 30 minutes of your first match so you have no time to build your fluids and energy back up. People have died with extreme weight cutting so DO NOT attemp this without professional or medical assistance.
Regarding absolute or open weight divisions. Unless your belt is extremely dark or you are in the heaviest division I would steer clear of them. Having a guy that is 30kg heavier and without the control of experience is a recipe for injury. It isn't worth the risk.
So you are entered in the comp, now its time to train for it. As a bare minimum you need to turn up to as many BJJ classes as possible. If you normally can only come in twice a week, make room in your schedule so you can train three or four times. You only need to do this increased training for a few months to ensure you are the best version of you for this competition. Ideally you'd keep it up after the comp, however other commitments may encroach on your time. That's OK as long as you can step it up when required.
Assuming your gym has a BJJ comp team ensure you are selected to be a part of it. Some gyms have this as invite only, others allow all comers as long as they are registered for a comp. If your gym doesn't have such a team then get a personal session from your coach once a week to build a game plan and fix any issues. Speak to your coaches and senior students after every class asking any questions you need answering. If fellow students are countering a technique ask someone senior to watch and see how you can prevent or counter it. If your coach says to watch specific videos and takes notes then do so as soon as you can and ask any questions in the next session.
You should increase your intensity to competition level. This is a much harder level where all your effort is going into dominating your opponent and leaving them no space, and no time to recover. We call this comp pace. Most of the time in normal classes we go at a much slower pace to cultivate our skills. But with comp pace we are lions taking down a wildebeest. This is why we need a comp team or at least a partner to train with that is also competing.
Ensure your fundamental skills are up to scratch. A lot of matches come down to solid core principles. I've lost count of how many times I've been saved simply by returning to basic defences. Without them, any fancy technique will fail. Work on controlling your opponent above all else. If they can't escape it is so much easier to trap a limb or expose their neck. Many people fail because they rush a submission.
Take this opportunity to improve your flexibility and core strength. A strong neck helps avoid many complications. Once these are taken care of, if you have time work outward to arms and legs. I'm not saying to avoid doing a full workout but if you have minimal time for training you need to focus on where you will get the most benefit.
I'd work on the squeeze rather than a particular muscle group. Using a wall to lean your back on, get into a deep squat with legs parallel to the floor. Place a swiss ball between your legs and squeeze hard for a minute. Remember to breathe. If you feel your squeeze slacking off, then reapply it harder than before. Only give out when you physically can't hold it any more. Break the mental barrier and don't give up because you're tired. Stop when your legs fail to react to your commands. At this point you can use the wall to stand upright, give yourself a few minutes break and go again.
Another great squeeze technique is to "choke" your knee. Sit with one leg out in front and the other with heel as close to your butt as possible. Wrap your arm around your knee as if it is your opponent's neck and apply a rear naked choke. Squeeze at about 40% of your maximum for 20 to 30 seconds. Increase the squeeze to 60%, then 80% then to maximum, each time holding for at least 20 seconds. This will hurt but is worth it when opponents tap out while you are still only at 60% power. Switch legs and go again. Repeat.
Injuries during comp camps
While we can work at strengthening our bodies to prevent injury, it isn't always enough. An injury can slow you down but it doesn't necessarily mean you can't train. Not all injuries are created equal. A torn ACL will prevent training. A cracked rib will limit training. A torn elbow can be worked around. First off listen to the medical professionals. If they say you can't train for a week then don't train for a week.
I have had a lot of different injuries and with help from my coach have found ways to work around them. No sport is injury free and the more senior students have likely had a similar injury as you. Ask them for advice on training and not hurting yourself further.
Strapping tape could be all you need to get back on the mat. If your leg is injured then avoid using it. Work on defending and attacking with the other leg. There will be times you can't move a limb as your opponent has it trapped. This is the perfect time to figure out how to get around that. Use your injury as an advantage to train what you normally don't.
When I cracked my ribs I was unable to go 100%. I couldn't roll but I could still do techniques. I could still apply chest pressure by using the other side. I was able to slow everything down and really grind out rough edges to perfect techniques. Working out how to move without harming a certain body part provides a deeper understanding of human movement. This can help immensely when you are back at top form.
Remember you are not alone in competition. Your coach will be in your corner shouting advice during your matches. Senior students can answer your questions and pressure test your techniques in live rolling. Test out new techniques on students with less experience than you, and once you understand it test on people that are at your level. If you are successful on them most of the time, try it on the advanced students. Be there for others in your team just as they are there for you.
There is a lot more to cover here as the comp gets closer, I'll do so with future articles. In the mean time please share your training tips and issues in the comments.