Nerves before my first matches
My first competitive match in a one on one sport came back in 2000. Even though that was nearly 14 years ago I still remember it like it was yesterday. I was terrified. I didn’t feel like I was going out to wrestle, I felt like I was going out to my execution.
About 3 years and well over 100 wrestling matches later, I had my first BJJ match. I had been training Brazilian Jiu-jitsu at this time for around 2 weeks and was given a crash course in the rules of the tournament 2 days before the competition. You’d think that the years of wrestling competitions would get rid of the nerves before a match, but it didn’t. I was still very anxious and my mind found itself in its normal irrational state, where the only thing I could focus on was the next match. Maybe it was because BJJ was new to me?
Last year was no different. While I was warming up at various tournaments, regardless of whether it was a local or big IBJJF competition, I felt the nerves. It might come as a surprise to some, that after 13 years of competition under my belt I’m still not free from pre match anxiety. But I’m not and I’ve actually grown accustomed to, and in a strange way, sort of enjoy it. It makes me feel alive.
A lot of BJJ practitioners have never done a one on one sport before.
Competition is something that is deeply entrenched within Brazilian Jiu-jitsu culture and many newcomers have never competed in a one on one sport. Because of this a lot of practitioners have never learned how to deal with the nerves before a match. A common question I get from students is,”how do I get rid of the nerves before a match?” They’re also surprised when I say you don’t and that I still get nervous. Fun fact; students think they’re black belt instructors are superhuman and somehow void of natural occurrences.
The tournament I didn’t have any pre match jitters
I remember only one tournament where I didn’t get my pre-match jitters. I had just finished 3 MMA fights and when I got to the tournament I just felt super relaxed. I didn’t have my customary bubble guts (In case you’ve never heard the term, I’m talking about that funny feeling in your stomach). I came in with the outlook of “no matter what happens, I’m not getting punched in the face.” Needless to say, that tournament didn’t go so well. When I got out on the mat I was just flat and lacked that urgency needed to win a competitive match. I’ve lost matches before, but during this match. . . It’s hard to explain. I’ve been beaten plenty of times but I’ve never felt unable to fight back. This was, by far, the worst performance I can remember, ever.
Some nerves are good
You definitely wouldn’t want to get rid of your nerves completely. Your body can do some super beneficial stuff for performance when it’s stressed. But I get it, being nervous isn’t enjoyable. I remember early on in my grappling career I used to want the same thing. I thought no nerves would be helpful. Now I understand that having nerves before a match is a good thing; it gives us our “edge.” It is important though, to have a way of dealing with the jitters. If we don’t keep our pre match anxiety in check, it can leave us exhausted before we step out on the mat.
Below I’ve listed some ways that I have personally learned to deal with the anxiety leading up to a match. This includes BJJ and MMA competitions. Keep in mind that I am probably slightly more anxious than the average person. Oh and if you’d like to read about some of the interesting things your body does when it’s stressed. Do a search for “fight or flight response and sports performance,” and you’ll find some really fascinating stuff.
4 Things I do to deal with nerves before the match
- Simply accept that the anxiety you feel before a match is your body’s way of getting ready –
I tell my students, “It’s simply your body getting ready for battle” when on the subject about their nervousness before matches. I’ve found personally and through the experiences of others, that by accepting, and anticipating that your stressed body is going to go a little haywire you can more effectively control it.
- Focus on yourself - In my experience the most important thing to help channel my heightened focus prior to a match, is to zero in my thinking in on myself. While I am in an irrational state of mind brought on by the stress of an upcoming match, it’s very easy to build my opponent up and become fixated on the negatives. Going down a slippery slope of “what if’s”. Instead, I reel it in and concentrate only on my techniques and abilities. I visualize myself successfully using my techniques in the match and having with my hand raised. If I execute all my techniques perfectly, I win, right? This has always helped me over the years. Especially in MMA where bodily harm is a high probability and in recent years as a black belt when every opponent is a beast in their own right.
- Music - I try to keep myself as calm as possible before matches. When the match or fight is hours away I will listen to something that calms me. In most cases I listen to a lot of classical music. Then as the match gets close I start my warm up routine and listen to something that gets me pumped up. I find that listening to music that gets me excited long before the match ends up making me tense and leaves me exhausted by the time my match finally is up. Staying relaxed till its time leaves me with more energy for the match.
- Practice mock tournaments with your friends in the gym - Military manoeuvres and war games are used to prepare units for battle. It gives the armed forces of a country the chance to test strategy and get an idea of how things might work without actual warfare (Sorry, military history nerd coming out again). Mock tournaments in a gym are a great way to get a taste of what it’s like in a competition without having to go to an actual tournament. We do these often in my gym. Having that clear “win or lose” situation with points involved and people watching really helps prepare us for upcoming matches. We can also test out strategy by placing ourselves in unique situations (such as being down by points with a short time limit to mimic the end of a match).
So get out there and compete! Tournament season is winding up!
Thanks for reading.