I often get asked whether competition is essential to BJJ, and if you need to have competed to get promoted to black belt.
(If you prefer to watch or listen to me talk about this this topic then just scroll to the bottom of this blog post and look for the video called “Do you need to compete to get your black belt“).
The quick answers are: no, you don’t necessarily need to compete. And no, you don’t need to compete to get your black belt.
You can definitely learn a lot and continue to get better just with concerted drilling and focused sparring in class.
After all, there are a lot of BJJ black belts who have never competed or have only competed a few times.
That all being said, competing at least a few times, is a really good idea. Let’s look at the main two big reasons why this is so…
Reason #1 to Compete in BJJ Tournaments: Self Defense
This might seem counterintuitive, but even if your main reason for training jiu-jitsu is self defense then it’s still a really good idea to compete in a couple of tournaments during your BJJ career.
Stepping onto a mat to face an unknown opponent in front of your teammates and a random assortment of spectators is stressful. That stress results in a ‘fight or flight’ reaction, where tons of adrenaline and other hormones get released into your system.
This hormone dump can be debilitating if you’ve never experienced it before. Common reactions include holding the breath, getting exhausted instantly, the mind going blank, fine motor skills disappearing, and a complete inability to formulate and follow through on a plan.
(All of these symptoms could have terrible side effects if you experienced them while fighting for your life in a real confrontation.)
The good news is that you CAN get over it. All you need to do is to expose yourself to it in incrementally increasing doses of stress.
In fact, if you’re training at all then you’ve probably already started this process…
You were probably scared when you were thinking about walking into your first BJJ school, but you eventually went in, right? Good for you! It was a small example of confronting your fears and dealing with adrenaline.
And you were probably a bit freaked out when it came time to spar, right? Sparring with your training partners and visitors to the school is definitely a form of competition, and just by doing it you’ve you’ve hopefully learned to deal with these stresses a bit better. After 3 to 6 months sparring probably even began to seem normal, didn’t it?
(Incidentally, as far as I’m concerned there is no real BJJ without sparring. Sparring against resistance is the secret sauce of jiu-jitsu and the key to making the art functional. So I think it’s supremely ironic, maybe even fraudulent, when schools claiming they’re self defense oriented don’t do any sparring.)
Handling the adrenaline dump, and learning how to keep on thinking in a stressful situation, is way more important than learning ‘the right techniques’.
Too many martial artists have trained for years only to have their minds go blank when confronted with a real attacker in a real situation.
Most of the time the key to surviving a bad encounter is to keep thinking.
There are so many different variables that you have to evaluate: maybe there’s a way out? Is there more than one attacker? Maybe you should fight, or maybe you should talk and defuse the situation? Is your attacker armed? Maybe you can grab a weapon? Maybe you should bite him? Should you scream or stay silent? Could it work to distract him and run?
The list of things you might need to consider is endless…
The bottom line is that every situation is different and there is no one solution. But if your mind is paralysed by adrenaline then you won’t be able to evaluate your options and make the right decision.
If your goal is self defense then going to a tournament or two is a great way to test (and improve) your composure under fire.
By exposing yourself to scary-yet-relatively-safe situations like a tournament then you’ll continue to get better at surfing the adrenaline wave and making decisions in a pressure cooker.
Reason #2 to Compete Occasionally: It Sharpens Your Game
Samuel Johnson said it best, “Nothing concentrates the mind like the knowledge that one will be hanged in the morning.”
If you have a tournament coming up in a month then inevitably you’re going to train differently.
Basically you won’t want to look like an idiot on competition day, so you’ll pay more attention during drilling… You’ll skip less classes… You’ll do additional conditioning… You’ll work on patching up your weak areas and sharpening your main weapons.
You can’t stay in competition mode all the time. If you do then you’ll overtrain and end up sick or injured – even the pro’s take it easier when they don’t have a big tournament to get ready for. But competition mode is a good place place to visit from time to time and it will definitely sharpen your game.
Also you can learn a lot at the actual tournament itself.
For example, you’ll run into people you don’t know and styles you’re unfamiliar with. This clash of styles can teach you a lot!
Maybe everyone at your school passes the guard on the knees, but at the tournament you notice how many people use standing guard passes. You might come home from that tournament with the knowledge that you need to work on your standing guard pass defenses.
Or maybe starting on your feet at the beginning of the match makes you realise that you either need to learn some takedowns or pay attention to the nuances of pulling guard.
Or maybe a tough match against a spider guard specialist makes you determined to develop one or two really good, reliable passes against that position.
Or maybe you winning your matches but being completely exhausted at the end of them makes you realise that you need to work on your conditioning.
You don’t need to compete every weekend, but even the occasional tournament outing can have a positive effect on your game.
To quote Erik Paulson, “Sometimes you learn more in one competition than you do in 6 months of training.”
Some Reasons Instructors Push Their Students to Compete
There are instructors out there who push their students to compete, sometimes going as far as to make their promotions contingent upon it.
I completely disagree with such heavy handed tactics. It should be up to each student whether they compete or not.
Now there could be several reasons that your instructor is so eager to have you compete…
Maybe your instructor was a big competitor back in the day and feels that the experience of competing really helped his own development. In this case he’s pushing you to compete because he thinks it will help your development.
However I’ve seen also instructors forcing competition upon his students to gratify his own ego, vindicate his own prowess, and prove that his team is better than the team of the rival instructor across town.
Like the worst kind of sports parent he’s basically using his students to compensate for a penis-size insecurity, and he may not have your best interests at heart.
Sometimes the motivation is just plain financial; I’ve seen cases where instructors host a tournament and then pressure all their own students to enter it. In this situation how can you discount the connection between ‘encouraging’ students to compete and the amount of cash he pockets at the end of the day?
I don’t know what the situation at your club is. But if your teacher is superduper gung-ho about you competing then it’s probably worth spending a few minutes thinking about HIS motivations in addition to considering what you might get out of the experience.
Competition can be a very useful tool to accelerate your BJJ development, but it should also be the student’s choice whether to do it or not. If you’re experiencing a ton of unwanted pressure to compete then maybe you’re at the wrong club.
You don’t need to compete at tournaments to get your black belt, but you’ll probably get there faster if you do.
Good luck with your training regardless of how often you compete!
Below is a copy of the original Snapchat video story that was the genesis of this article. Click play on the video below to see it, and/or follow me on Snapchat to see what’s currently going on at the Grapplearts HQ.