Tips for winning a Grappling Tournament
Submission Grappling/BJJ/MMA competition has been a massive part of my life over the last 7/8 years and I have lost track of the countless benefits it has brought not only to my development in martial arts but also to my life as a whole. After winning the Europeans and it being one of the hardest fought tournament victories I have faced, I sat down and thought about what fine margins had got me over the finish line compared to my opponents and my own previous failures in the bigger tournaments. I managed to list what I thought was some of the main things that have contributed to not just this tournament win but other tournaments and mma fights in the past. The points I have made are not all about physical preparation as I believe that mental training is an even bigger part of winning. This list of key points are things that work for me and maybe not everyone but it may be useful to anyone who is in a more premature stage of their competitive careers and looking for an added edge.
Before stepping on the mats....
0. Competition Goals - I put this one in at the end but feel it is one of the first things you should decide. What is your overall goal? I have entered competitions to win and also to make a move work that I really wanted to hit like a flying kneebar. Both situations are different. I'm not trying to hit crazy submissions in a tournament that I really care about winning. Most of the time my goal is to win by any means necessary but sometimes I want to just be in entertaining fights.
1. Preparation - Before a tournament I need to get in the best possible shape I can. Sounds obvious but for me it gives me a mental edge. On the day when the demons in my head start to ask if I did everything I could to prepare I need to honestly answer yes. It doesn't mean I have to be fulltime but if I can say that I turned up to every session available to me and did everything I could then I can be happy going in to a tournament not worrying about what more I could have done.
It doesn't stop there though. On the day before my match starts I get a sweat on and then do every stretch I can think of so that every part of my body is awake and ready to go in the very first match. I don't want to have to use the first match to get warm as it may be the only match I get.
2. Know what your strengths are - In line with my preparation I should begin to understand what my best moves are before I fight. It could be the moves I hit the easiest, the moves that are most natural to my body type or the moves that put my opponent in the most danger but I should know what my 'A Game' moves are through my day to day sparring and believe in them at competitions.
3. Play to the rules - You should always have a good idea of what the rules are and what will score you points and how many. When I won the Europeans my game plan was to score points for sweeps (using my 'A Game' moves) and then stall once I was in front (as my goal was to win at all costs). I may not have been the best BJJ technician on the day but I knew how to win at that rule set.
4. Expect every fight to be hard - It would be nice to imagine winning a tournament and easily breezing through every opponent with 1 minute submission victories without breaking a sweat but reality is far from this. At the end of the day you are going to be in a fight. Your opponent wants to win just as much as you and will do everything in their power to stop you beating them. I have had fights in the past where I expected to win comfortably and when it became hard it was a shock to the system. Now before a tournament i'm prepared to go the full length of each match and use every last drop of energy so that I am exhausted at the end. If it turns out it isn't that hard its a bonus.
5. Treat fights like a job - I remember hearing Chael Sonnen say that if he wasn't exhausted after a fight then he hadn't given the fans value for money. This has really stuck with me and follows on from the last point. I try my hardest in all my matches to give 100% for the entire time limit. If i'm winning 8-0 with a minute left I will keep fighting for that whole minute, if i'm losing 8-0 I keep fighting my hardest in the last minute. Lots of things can affect a fighter such as the referee not giving you points, your opponent cheating etc but your there to do a job no excuses! My mentally in a fight doesn't change if I was being paid to do a job for 8 hours a day I would be expected to work for 8 hours. Same in grappling. If i'm there to do a job for 6 minutes then i'm doing it to the best of my ability for the whole 6 minutes no matter what happens during.
6. Focus but stay loose - Before stepping on the mat the nerves usually start to kick in when you know your match is approaching. It's really important to focus on the moment and what you are about to do. It's easy to be drawn in to the occasion and focus on who is watching or what other competitiors are doing but all I need to focus on is me and what I'm doing. That said just before starting my fight I continually shake my body out to stay loose. The last thing I want is to focus so hard that I stiffen up and get stage fright.
During the fight.....
7. Be First - I hate watching fights where two guys who are clearly uncomfortable in the stand up department grip up and make half assed attempts at takedowns for the first 4 minutes of a fight. The way I see it is that you have a limited amount of time to get your 'A Game' in to full affect. I dont want to mess around in one of my weaker positions and maybe have a minute to work my best stuff. I would rather start the fight and straight away go to the position that I have the most 'A Game' techniques from and give myself 90% of the match time to work from my best position. A feeling out process is okay but anymore than 30 seconds of this in what is already a short fight time is wasting time spent on my best techniques.
8. Breathe - Really easy to forget and stiffen up in the heat of a tense physical battle but focussed breathing at certain points of the fight will keep me loose and relaxed as well as making my cardio last a lot longer!
9.Reject everything your opponent does - Everytime your opponent places his hands on you remove them straight away. Most people want to know how to escape a submission they always get caught in but if your opponent can never get the grips he needs he can't start the process required to reach the end goal. If you can't remove the grip use it against them, i.e if you get your wrist grabbed use the arm drag to counter.
10. Give nothing for free - This one is very important in competition. Whilst training I may let my partner pass my guard as the level can be more playful and there isn't that much of a competitive element to training and I could be working my escapes or bad positions. In competition I would never allow an opponent to easily progress through his/her game. I'm not saying it can't happen, if the opponent is much better than me then yes they can pass my guard but even if this is the case I don't let them have it for free. I fight to make sure that they have to use as much technique and energy as possible to get to their desired position or submission so that when they get there they may need to take a break or rest. All my opponents have to know they have been in a tough fight with me even if they go on to beat me.
11. Keep Moving - Not to the point where my elbows are coming out and I make big mistakes at the risk of moving for the sake of it but enough to keep my opponent on his toes. Even if i'm in a bad position I don't allow my opponent time to think about his next move or take a rest. I actively look to keep him using his cardio throughout the whole match even if it tires me out. It is harder for your opponent to settle in to positions and submit you when you keep moving. It doesn't even have to be a lot. I strongly believe in 'Inch by Inch' to make progress. In fact that concept ties in with my favourite before comp speech from Any Given Sunday, (click) well worth a listen.
12. Take calculated risks - If my goal is to win no matter what happens then I probably won't take many risks during a competition. If I am in the gym training or my goal is to be in an exciting match then I would take many risks so there is a balance. I would be inclined to take more risks when I am winning by a large points score or in the dying seconds of a match but the margin for error in high-level matches is so small that one mistake could ultimately lose me the match. I would never try to perform techniques for the first time in a competiton without prior drilling in training. At the same time a higher risk technique could be the difference in winning so there is a balance with taking risks but make sure they are calculated first as to what is at stake.
13. Give everything at the end - As a rule I try to prepare my body beforehand to be able to perform at a high pace throughout the given time frame. I want to be able to reach around 85% of my capacity for most of the match and save just enough so that I can hit 100% for the last minute and ensure that I finish strong. Going too hard early on would mean limping over the line. That said I don't save energy from the start as I may run out of time when I need to be stronger. I want to put everything in that I can and be exhausted at the end so if I can maintain a fast pace throughout then get stronger as the fight finishes I can hopefully break my opponents spirit at some point. This does take preparation and being in good shape beforehand though but you can't teach heart, you either want it or you don't.
14. Do your best - It's cliche now but you really can't change the outcome of the match. A poor refereeing decision, a mistake, a formidable opponent or a bad judging call could mean you don't win that particular fight. If you've given your all and know you couldn't have performed any better than you did then that is all that matters. If you know you didn't perform then you learn from it and aim to perform better next time. Once you string enough great performances together the medals will come.
15. Use competition as learning - The worst thing you can do after competition is forget about what happened. Dean Lister famously said that his opponent is his best teacher. I film all of my fights win or lose so that I can assess my performance at a later date. I want to know if the techniques I've been practising worked, what I would have done differently without the pressure of competition, was I listening to my coaches, what techniques my opponent used on me that maybe I can steal or learn the counters to. Without doubt this method of learning will progress your game the quickest.
Hopefully these points will help people out who are thinking about competing or have just started out. These tips have worked for me over the years but may not be for everyone as we are all on our own journey but hopefully my experiences will count for something. If anyone has any questions or would like me to expand on any of my points let me know.