You don't have to compete to get good at Brazilian Jiu Jitsu! The Third Lie in BJJ.

A previous post introduced my idea of writing about the 5 lies that helped shape my view on BJJ and grappling. In that same post, I talked about the first of the 5 lies of BJJ: To avoid pain, just tap when you get caught! and my oh my did the post receive a massive response. Within a couple of hours there were over 20 comments (now over 35! all very valid and extremely well written) on Facebook and I'm sure there are more now. I thank everyone who took the time to read the post and comment on it and Graham for taking the time to write a post inspired by mine on his excellent blog.

Later on that week I talked a little about the second lie that helped shape my view on this amazing martial art of Brazilian Jiu Jitsu and that lie is:

-BJJ / Grappling is for everyone!

Today I will give you my opinion on the third lie in BJJ that, ever since understanding it, changed my outlook and enjoyment of the sport and art of Brazilian Jiu Jitsu:

-You don't have to compete to learn, enjoy and improve in Brazilian Jiu Jitsu and submission grappling!

Prize Podium at the Eurpoean BJJ Championships. Age division? Senior III (46-50 years old)

Most BJJ instructors will tell you that you don't have to enter public competitions to learn, enjoy, improve in and get good at Brazilian Jiu Jitsu and submission grappling. I beg to differ.

While there are no rules against staying a competition virgin, like the famous Renzo Gracie Black Belt John Danaher*, if you plan on making the best of your BJJ / grappling journey, you have to compete and by that I mean enter public competitions. Yes, training in BJJ is competitive and it is an alive art but you shouldn't make your rolls on the mat at your BJJ gym or academy your only outlet for competitive energy. They are primarily there for learning, not locking horns.

Please note that I am not saying you have to compete often or that you have to win all, most or even any of your competitive BJJ bouts. What I am saying is that:

1. Deciding to compete and doing it for you and your own reasons
2. Preparing for a BJJ / no gi competition, both physically, strategically and mentally
3. Sharing this experience with your coach(es) and fellow grapplers
4. Doing research on competition strategies, rule and point systems, common injuries...etc.
5. Learning about weight management
6. Dealing with the nerves of having a physical altercation with another person
7. Dealing with the oversights of referees, point scorers, event organisers...etc.
8. Dealing with time and resource management needed to fit in extra training, diet changes, recovery...etc.
9. Learning to negotiate with a spouse, manager, children, training partners...etc. to make you preparation possible and manageable
10. Dealing with the unknown that competing in BJJ / Submission grappling / MMA brings such as great/new/terrible/illegal strategies by the opponent, matches getting interrupted and restarted, getting stood up...etc.
11. Dealing with competition defeat in front of peers, friends, family and strangers
12. Dealing with competition victory in front of peers, friends, family and strangers
13. Dealing with accidents and events outside our control when much is invested
14. Learning to compromise and switch grappling gameplans under stress
15. Learning to re-calibrate quickly between competitive matches
16. Learning to come down after a competition
17. Learning to train after a competition
18. Learning what you were really good / crap at as opposed to what you thought you were good / crap at.
19. Learning to plan for the next event, based on lessons learnt from the previous one
20. Learning the difference between good and bad mat-side coaching
21. Sharing a competitive journey with friends and mat colleagues
22. Seeing your friends grow (or crumble) under stress and knowing exactly what they are going thru.

I could go on.

All these things are a fundamental part of the history and evolution of Brazilian Jiu Jitsu as a sport and as an art and to not ever participate means you are not learning all that Brazilian (or Gracie) Jiu jitsu is.

So when you hear an instructor say to brand new beginners "No you don't have to compete to get good at BJJ" smile and know in your heart that that's a BJJ lie. It might be a white one, but a lie nonetheless.

*check out Megan's awesome Personal Brand Review of John Danaher.
Liam "The Part Time Grappler" Wandi

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JJ said...

I've been really enjoying these posts, Liam. Haven't had much time for responding. But I couldn't resist on this one.

I can't speak for other people, but competing has been a vital tool in my own personal development as a BJJ practitioner. I actually HATE competing because it makes me a nervous wreck, but I do it anyways because it helps me in the following areas:

1) Showing me clearly where I need to improve.

2) Showing me how I would react in a high stress/intensity situation.

3) Forcing me to face my pride. That has been the biggest one. For so long, I put pressure on myself to place first. I didn't want to let my coach or team down. But I realized my coach and team would still support me even if I lost. Being able to let go of that need to win has actually freed me up to do better Jiu-Jitsu.

4) Competing helps you become more a part of the larger BJJ community. I have met some good friends through competing. As a woman, this has been really fantastic because there are so few of us doing BJJ.

JJ said...

Also, Liam, this is Allie. I accidentally posted this from my husbands account. lol. That's what happens when you share a laptop. ;)

slideyfoot said...

Hmm: there is a difference between "get good at BJJ" and "making the best of your BJJ."

I don't think you need to compete to get good, depending on your definition of good: lots of purples and up who don't compete, not just the famous Danaher example. I'm a purple belt who doesn't compete, although I wouldn't call myself 'good.' ;)

However, you could certainly argue that competing is important to "making the best" of your BJJ. It's an important experience, and I'd agree it is something everyone should try at least once (which is what I did, but haven't tried it again since).

Longer response here, though we've argued on that before. :D

BJJ Judo said...

Wow, I am betting this one tops the comment count of the 2nd lie.

The Part Time Grappler said...

Thank you Slidey for a very well thought out response. I personally feel that competing is one of the legs (I'm going for the table metaphor) of this wonderful art of jiu jitsu. With one less leg, you have a slightly less stable table (hey it rhymes!).

You are right, it does depend on how you define "good" and, subsequently, "bad" but I thought if I went too much into definitions this be less of a blog post and more of an article :). I believe that, as far as the majority of people who seek the ultimate benefits of jiu jitsu, in order to get good at BJJ (however they define it) then their journey and training would be incomplete without competing, say, 1-2ce per belt.

I believe that, irrespective of how you see jiu jitsu and why you do it, it will always put you face to face with yourself. What you make out of that is the real benefit (and core) of the art and without competing I don't feel you can get good at either facing yourself or dealing with what you see.

In your excellent article you talk about how competition was central to the success of both judo and jiujitsu. Back in those days, however, and even in the early UFC this was competition against other styles with very little (to my knowledge) cross-training or cross-knowledge of what the other stylists are good at. Competitors often felt they were fighting to prove the art's validity and effectiveness. Nowadays (while some venues to do that still exist) BJJ & No-Gi comps are not about proving the validity of or effectiveness of one school's methods vs. those of another. I feel it's much more personal/individual nowadays.

As an aside, I think the Gracie Academy in Torrance claim that pressure testing is vital, but that modern BJJ comps provide the "wrong" type of pressure for what they see as the "ultimate" raison d’être of Gracie Jiu Jitsu - survival in an all out 1-on-1 altercation, but that's a discussion for another day :)

The Part Time Grappler said...

Haha Allie, the way these 5 lies work, if one doesn’t get under your skin the other 4 will :o) I created this blog because I realised neither I nor what I go thru is unique. PTGrapplers unite! :o)

Up until the last competition, I used to hate them too. Part of me still hates the waiting around and long days away from my wife and more chilled out weekend activities but I no longer hate competing per se. I think it has a lot to do with my current team, instructor and colleagues at Fighting Fit and The Labs.

As for the benefits, I completely agree with everything you’ve written. While there are other ways to achieve these individual benefits, competition kinda lumps them all under one roof :o)

The Part Time Grappler said...

@BJJ Judo, competition is a hottie topic :)

I must admit my own feelings about it have changed over the years and I am sure they will change again but that's the evolution of jiu jitsu :)

slideyfoot said...

The main argument I hear for competition, which you've repeated in your carefully considered piece, is that it will help your game by exposing what you need to work on. Personally, the one time I competed did nothing of the sort, though it was a useful experience nonetheless.

I find that due to my abnormally obsessive approach to analysing every BJJ class, I already know exactly what I need to work on. I also find that due to the way I have trained all over the place, and regularly do drop-ins, I also get the benefit of experiencing different games that I don't get at my home academy.

However, I definitely agree competing is a good way to see how you cope under pressure, and again like I said in the article, it is the most reliable way to get a true picture of where you're at (the other being trusting in your instructor's judgement, which is what us non-competitors are left with).

I'm glad I did at least try it once, so I could experience what it is like to deal with adrenaline, the pressure of my friends watching me, how people try to coach, etc. I'd disagree that you need to compete once or twice a belt level, though I would again agree that everybody should try it at least once.

I'd also agree that BJJ tests your ego, which is a very good thing. Still, I'd argue you can get that aspect of the sport in class as much as in competition. Perhaps even more so, with major ego tests like getting tapped by a white belt, seeing people who started after you get promoted faster, long plateau periods etc.

I should emphasise that as I said in the article, competition is essential to BJJ, so I'm grateful there are plenty of people who do compete. It just isn't something in which I see any further benefit for me personally, especially given factors like cost, time and increased injury risk.

Having said that, I might be tempted to try something like the US Grappling submission only comps, once I finally manage to go visit the cool people in Virginia, like Chrissy. :)


In regards to that last aside about the Gracie Academy, I find that argument deeply flawed. Unless students regularly go start fights in bars or are perhaps employed as door staff, they are never going to experience that pressure unless they have resistance in training (i.e., sparring and preferably competing).

It is exactly the same diversionary tactic many discredited martial arts use: "we're too deadly for competition, we fight for t3h str33t!" That results in students who rely upon anecdotes of imagined efficacy, rather than actual experience of that efficacy.

Something I babbled about further in my Gracie Combatives review.

The Part Time Grappler said...

@slidey. Thanks for the comment and the kind words. It is a difficult subject and I did indeed try to keep it "considerate".

I know pretty well what I suck at it before, during and after the comps :) I don't do it at my young level in the sport to find that out. Maybe when I'm a good black belt and not sure what I need to work on I will compete for that reason but at the moment a roll with any one at The Labs will make it very clear where I'm struggling :)

Which brings me to the reasoning behind competing 1-2ce per belt. The reasons we train BJJ evolve with time. The way we train BJJ changes and evloves with time and therefore the way we expreience competitions changes with time. As I mentioned, up until the previous competition I couldn't stand them. I had such a great time at the NWOpen and made so many new friends that the experience as a whole made me fall in love with competing and realise why I didn't like them before: it was a combination of my attitude and the attitude of the people I trained with / competed alongside.

As for the ego test, comps are far superior to rolling in class, unless your class rolls are:

1. competitive
2. timed
3. include screaming coaches
4. include fans
5. include a referee

These are all factors that add to the competition stress and I learn a lot about myself and how I handle these things. As I grow and evlove as a person the way I react to these changes and that's why I compete again :)

As for the Gracie academy, what I meant is that I think they subject their students to what they deem to be the right stress by sparring Jiu jitsu vs striking. That's what I interpret from their website.

slideyfoot said...

I'd agree that competition is a great pressure-test, but I'd disagree that it is a better test of ego.

If I enter a comp and get beaten, then I can easily come up with loads of excuses to soothe my ego. For example, I could tell myself the opponent was more experienced at competing, that it was because of the adrenaline, they were in better shape, they have been a purple belt for much longer, etc.

However, if I got legitimately tapped by a white belt in class, IMO that would be a much tougher test: excuses aren't so easy to come by. It would also be a healthy test, preventing people putting too much store in having a higher belt.

I enjoyed myself at that one competition I entered, except for the actual fighting part. The camaraderie, cheering team mates etc is all great fun. The fighting part doesn't currently tempt me. :)

The Part Time Grappler said...

@Slidey: Funnily enough, and based on your last comment, I would say that the competition is the better test of ego. It squeezes you better and reveals a lot more about the ego.

After I've made my excuses, I sit down and realise they were eall bull crap and laugh at my sillieness :) that helps me grow :o)

slideyfoot said...

Heh - fair enough. Agree to disagree then, I guess. ;p

matthewfreedman said...

Gotta disagree with you on this point Liam. I know too many excellent grapplers, including black belts, who have never competed. And I have certainly watched them have very "competitive" rolls with training partners who DO compete. Great food for thought though!

Liam H Wandi said...

Hi Matthew and thanks for reading and taking the time to comment.

I agree that the title was more of an eye catcher than anything however I stand by my point that no matter how good you are without ever competing, if you compete you will get better.

I know there are tons of really good BJJ players out there at every level who have not competed but I still say that if and when they do compete it will add tons to their capability in BJJ.

Pasquale said...

I can appreciate this article, as well as some of your others. But I don't understand why it has to be positioned so adversarial, by referring to these as "lies" about BJJ. What works for you, doesn't necessarily work for another. And there are different motivations for all different people for why they train. Competing might help accelerate your *performance* to a certain degree, but that doesn't mean it's required to continue through BJJ. And being a quality instructor has almost zero to do with ones success as a competitor or whether one ever even competed at all. Just like in everything in life, sometimes the best teachers are the people who may not have the biggest motivation for "success" in their field. Being a great Mathematician doesn't make you a great Math teacher any more than being a BJJ world champion makes you a great BJJ instructor.

I think a better way to put these types of articles is simply to say that competition can help you a lot. It isn't required, but boy can it help. But if it stresses you out too much, doesn't feel right for you, or doesn't fit into your lifestyle -- then who cares? If you love BJJ, whether it's just for a hobby or to eventually open a school, you can still progress to greatness just training normally.

But, I understand that this type of reasonable moderation doesn't get hits.

Liam H Wandi said...

Hi Pasquale,

Many thanks for the comments. I'd have to respectfully disagree. Without competition experience, you will never reach your full potential. Winning, losing, nerves. None of that matters. I don't care if you never win big, but if you've never competed, then you will never know what it means to push yourself against the pressures of competition and these are not (or at least should not) be repeated in the academy.

To reach your full potential within jiujitsu, you must compete.