Mats Don’t Lie: Reflections Before (and After) My First BJJ Comp


“I can’t wait for your tournament,” an online acquaintance told me, “So I can see a six page blog post about how it’s not about winning it’s about the experience you get along the way.”

“What I’m hearing from this,” I responded, “Is that you read my blog.”

But hey– when you’re right you’re right, so let’s kick it off.

I just got home from my second of three twelve hour shifts. The house is quieter than it’s been in months. My wife, daughter and dog are at the lakehouse in which I spent most of last week. So I have lots of time to reflect on my plans for the weekend.

Waiting for me at the end of my work week is the Newbreed Georgia State Open. I signed up a month ago because I wanted to get some rounds in before the IBJJF Summer Invitational in September. It seemed like a good idea.

It still is a good idea.

It seemed like it was a long way off.


It’s no longer a long way off.

I don’t know why I’ve been nervous, to be honest. It was over a decade ago, but I’ve competed in combat sports before. I remember sitting in the locker room with my gloves taped on. I remember the feel of the gut check of sitting in a room, alone, waiting to get in the ring. I wasn’t the best boxer, but I never froze. I always did the best I could do.

I’m less nervous about the prospect of BJJ competition than I was about boxing. I’m unlikely to get knocked unconscious on Saturday. I’m unlikely to be hurt at all, truth told. So why have I been nervous all week? Upon reflection, the sources of my anxiety (and my answers to them) are as follows:

  1. I don’t want to let my coach/team down- I’ve been busting my ass at this, and want to make a good showing for my school. But I know that everyone loses, and I know that especially for the first few competitions, it’s likely that I’ll lose as well. One of the things I love about Jiu Jitsu is that everyone loses. If I lose, no one will think less of me for losing– they’ll think more of me for trying.
  2. I don’t want to let myself down- It’s fair to say that I have an obsessive personality. When I get into something, I get all the way in, and before my injury (and since I’ve returned to training) I’ve been trying to digest as much Jiujitsu as possible. The stakes Saturday are entirely self created. I’m an over-30 white belt competing in a local tournament. But I want to know when I leave on Saturday that I did my best Jiujitsu, and I have no way of knowing if I’ll do that. This leads me to
  3. Fear of the Unknown: I’ve never been to a BJJ competition even as a spectator. I have no idea what to expect or how I’ll react to it. That’s part of the ride, but it’s natural to fear what we don’t yet know. That’s why I wanted to do the tournament in the first place.

For better or worse, Newbreed uses Smoothcomp, which shows brackets, rings, and times for competitions. It also shows results from other competitions. Unable to help myself, I looked at the bracket, and the other competitors in my division. There was good news and there was bad news. First, the bad news:

I got the toughest possible draw. 

I’m in a division with five people total. Three of those people got a first round bye. I am one of the two that did not. Should I win my first match, my second round match is the only person with logged competitive experience in my division. He’ll be fresh since he got a bye. I ran this by a friend of mine (who is himself currently preparing for the IBJJF Master Worlds), joking that a bye would have been nice since a single win would put me on the podium.  He offered some salient advice:

“Never hope for the free ride. Hope for the deepest toughest division you can imagine, then see yourself crushing it.”

Reflecting on that, I realized the good news:

I got the toughest possible draw.

Part of the “Fear of the unknown” I mentioned above fell away when I saw the bracket and had a moment to take it in. I fell in love with Jiu Jitsu because it offers me a chance to test myself. I entered this tournament because it offers me a chance to test myself.

And Saturday I’m going to make the most of it.


Twelve hour shift three of three with plenty of time to reflect on tomorrow, though I’m trying not to let it dominate my day. I’m still getting some jitters, but they come on randomly, in waves. Like any other anxiety I’ve experienced in my life, I acknowledge it, take a few deep breaths, and wait for it to pass, which it does in a few seconds. Unlike other anxiety I’ve experienced in my life, I take a moment while I’m in that space to review my game plan. I know that psychological stress can have a huge impact on performance, so I’m trying to mitigate that some by taking the jitters as they come and doing something useful with them before they pass.

I still find myself cursing my luck a little bit about the bracket, but I know that there’s just not much to that. Random draws are random draws. When I’m not doing BJJ, I make and publish Tabletop RPGs (like a NNNNNNNNNERD) so I know very well that sometimes you don’t get a great dice roll. But while a win would be nice, I’m honestly not that worried about it. At this point, so long as I don’t freeze and curl up into a ball on the ground as soon as the bell rings I’ll be happy with myself. I’m reminded of this passage from “The Way of Chuang Tzu” by Thomas Merton:

When an archer is shooting for nothing,
he has all his skill.
If he shoots for a brass buckle,
he is already nervous.
If he shoots for a prize of gold,
he goes blind
or sees two targets.

He is out of his mind!
His skill has not changed,
but the prize divides him.
He cares.
He thinks more of winning than of shooting.
And the need to win drains him of power.

My goal tomorrow is not to, as the poem says, shoot for a prize of gold, but rather to shoot for nothing, maintain all of my skill, and do the best Jiu Jitsu I can.

Saturday Morning

Ah, shit.

Why the hell did I pay for this?

Nah, I’m kidding. I’m doing okay. Honestly, my prevailing thought is the old Tom Petty song: “The waiting is the hardest part“. I have an hour and a half until I need to leave the house, and four hours until my division starts. I would have loved an earlier start time. With the wife and kid and dog out of the house, the worst part about competition day is sitting around the house waiting to leave with nothing to do.

Well, it’ll be here and gone before I know it. Time to watch a movie or something.


I won’t keep you in suspense. I came in third. I lost my first match and won my second.


Saturday Afternoon: Before Match 1

It’s finally time. After being pushed back from 12:30 to after 2, I’m finally through the bullpen. I’m nervous, but not nearly as nervous as I thought I’d be. After sitting around all day (and for hours at the event), I’m ready to go. I see a coach sitting in a chair across me wearing a shirt that says Mats don’t lie. I guess it’s time to find out what the truth is.

Thoughts: I was talking to one of my buddies who wasn’t competing today (there to support his son/the rest of us) and he commented “isn’t it amazing how when you put hands on someone in competition they’re the strongest person you’ve ever laid hands on?” That was my first impression. This dude was strong. The mats then taught me a good truth: my takedowns suck.

My collar drag fell on its ass and I pulled a bad half guard.

The rest you can see on the video. I was never really in danger of being submitted but, besides that deep half guard sweep (I’m as surprised as anyone that I hit that, even after we drilled it for weeks) but I gave up a kimura. It wasn’t enough to submit me, but the pressure did let him have a sweep. Him getting those points, and denying me mine for the guard pass, cost me the fight 7-4. It was a tough fight but one I could have won for sure. As I hugged my opponent afterward he said “That’s the hardest fight I’ve ever had.”

Oh, sure. I thought. You say that to ALL the girls.

I came off the mat frustrated but recovered quickly, and I had to. Being a 4 person division, I had one more fight for third place. I put it in my mind: I’m not going home without a medal. I’m not going to lose again. As I was waiting, my first opponent came up to me again. “For real,” he said. “That was the hardest fight I’ve ever had. I thought I was going to die.” This time I believed him. I thanked him, congratulated him, and wished him luck in his upcoming match for gold. Lesson learned: don’t leave anything in the tank. I survived and lost close on points but I still had plenty left in the tank. One fight left, and I wasn’t going to leave anything in the tank.

And I didn’t.

Thoughts: My collar drag was still pointless and terrible, though it didn’t wind up being strictly necessary. I gave up a lot of opportunities: taking his back from the “takedown” he got 2 points for, arm bar from guard (my arm bars, and bottom game in general, need a lot of work). I got a decent cross collar choke– my grips were enough to threaten, but not submit him. I finally used the opportunities given to sweep and secure side control. Now I was up 5-2 and in my element– top side was in my game plan. I felt what was available to me and didn’t see anything. His frames were in tight– until they weren’t. He put his far arm out and I used my head to drive it to the mat, securing a sloppy Americana for the win.

As if I’m not already short enough

Final Reflections as I Finish My Shower Beer

First, I’m really glad that I did it. It was great getting to be there with my gym-mates, cheering them on, celebrating wins and consoling losses. The other guys in my division were all super cool– Most of them had kids like me and, like me, do Jiu Jitsu for fun. None of us are likely to podium at Worlds any time soon, but we were all there to push ourselves and see what we could do.

Secondly, I realized how much I missed competing. It’s been over a decade since I competed in a combat sport, and there’s just nothing at all like it. It’s a sobering reminder that, in a stressful combat situation, no matter what you think you’ll do or say you’ll do, what you’ll actually do is what you’ve been trained to do. Combat sports are not a real fight, but they’re a reasonably close facsimile.

There’s a saying in the BJJ community: “There is no losing in Jiu Jitsu. You win or you learn.” Today I did both. This was my first competition but it definitely won’t be my last. I came away from the tournament knowing both that my Jiu Jitsu, such as it is, is good– but with lots of room for improvement. Today I came away at least 1% better than I was yesterday– but not as good as I’ll be tomorrow.

Now it’s time for beer.


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