by JJ Montanino
My first tournament. Exciting. Nerve-racking. I had been training in Jiu-Jitsu for about five months when a friend suggested that some of us go compete at the BJJ All-stars Tour in Santa Cruz in three weeks time. I had just started asking upper belts about when and where might be good for me to get started in competition. But rather than wait for the perfect little in-house tournament to pop up somewhere as had been recommended to me, I jumped at the opportunity to compete at a larger venue. It was a wild ride and one that I wouldn’t change for anything. Before I even stepped out on the mat in Santa Cruz I was so grateful for all that I had learned training with my coaches and Jiu-Jitsu buddies. I knew that even if I lost I would cherish every moment of my competition training.
Those of us who intended to compete trained in earnest as often as we could, but with all that life has to throw at us everyday it was not always as often as we would have liked. I found extra motivation in the face of the impending test of my abilities, which helped me to creatively incorporate my training into the rest of my life. For example, I simultaneously amused a toddler and added extra resistance for myself by setting him low on my chest while doing hip bump sweep sit-ups. While my children played in the backyard, I did burpees and sprints in five minute increments to help condition me to last through numerous five minute all-out battles. I trained with as many different, but highly experienced people that I could and found that there were a couple of people who were especially excited about helping me prepare and tended to suggest techniques that I was able to pull off more readily than others.
I was nervous in the weeks leading up to the tournament. I waffled between a zen-like acceptance of all possible tournament outcomes to a panicked sense of doom that I was in way over my head. Ultimately, I decided to embrace the calmer outlook and view the tournament as an experience above all else–win or lose. I decided that no matter what happened I was going to gain valuable competition experience. Even if I lost, my coaches, training partners, and I had taken my Jiu-Jitsu instruction to a whole new level. While I had been told that Jiu-Jitsu was akin to a game of chess, I had only just begun, during competition training, to be able to really piece together strings of technique that could vary at each step. I began to be able to close my eyes and feel and see myself battling an opponent from start to finish. Every spare moment I got that I wanted to practice but couldn’t I would close my eyes and work through techniques–imagining vividly the last time I had successfully pulled off a particular move and then trying to vary my opponent’s response. If I couldn’t make it all the way through with absolute confidence that it would really work on the mats, I was sure to ask to drill it the next time one of my coaches was available.
I got really nervous, though, when a training partner accidentally popped one of my ribs out of place while we were rolling. A few weeks prior, an overzealous brand new white belt had taken umbrage at being submitted in a guillotine and explosively smashed me into side control. At the time, I felt my rib pop, but I just kept rolling and it seemed fine. The second time weeks later, it was much worse. I just barely made it through the rest of practice. It was difficult to breathe, but I didn’t want to let on to anyone that I was pretty busted. Putting my back pack on to ride my motorcycle home caused my breathing to turn more to gulps. About an hour after I got home, my rib popped again and it felt much better, but not amazing or even normal. I thought I was going to have to back out of the tournament. I really didn’t want to abandon my team or look like a coward, so I resolved to try to take things light and just see how my body felt. The injury prompted me to redouble my efforts to protect myself from even ever getting smashed down in side control like that again. Because I was hurt I started keeping my arms in so much tighter than I had before–it really improved my Jiu-Jitsu game.
We rolled, we drilled, and we rolled some more. And then the day came. I had been warned to be wary of what they call “adrenaline dump.” My coaches warned that I might get a big rush of adrenaline right away, which would pass quickly leaving me completely exhausted and ineffectual. I was careful to keep my thoughts from running away from me. In the bull pen, I chatted and made friends with people in other weight classes. I just ignored the crowd. Just before my first match, I stretched and sipped water. I took deep, calm breaths and thought nice thoughts about arm bars and triangles. I only had one match as a female middle weight white belt in single elimination, so I had it pretty easy in comparison to the people in some of the other brackets. We slapped hands and then I felt her grab at my gi for grips and it was just like a normal roll. I executed a take-down, went straight to mount, and held mount until I locked my lapel choke. She fought like hell and then she tapped. I was shocked. I couldn’t believe that I had just won. I usually lost on the mats at my home gym. It was at that point that I was overcome–I almost cried I was so elated. I taught my opponent the lapel choke after posing for pictures on the podium.
I learned so much from my first tournament. I learned to unabashedly use whatever I possibly could to condition and hone my skills–even an injury. Mostly, though, it taught me to believe in myself and always roll with the biggest, baddest Jits guy I can find. Lose enough times (in training) and you will probably win when it counts.
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