How to mentally prepare for competition?

Whoever said taking part in one comp is worth the experience gained in multiple regular classes, wasn’t very far from the truth. While tournaments are tests of already acquired skills rather than technique seminars, they are essential when it comes to discovering and fixing holes in your game. This is why competing practitioners progress much faster than those who only spar within the academy.

As valuable as competitions are, they are still stressful experiences. That’s why mental preparation is just as important as actual training. Below you’ll find the stress-combating strategies I have either developed myself or received as advice from more experienced friends.

#1 It’s just bigger scale sparring

Thinking of tournaments as bigger scale sparring sessions does two things:

  • It helps you stay focused every second – During a comp fight it’s easy to panic as soon as your opponent gets into a dominant position. But when the same thing happens during a regular sparring session, instead of panicking you just stay focused and keep working on your escape. Concentration and persistence go a long way.
  • Nobody really cares about your fight, they only care about their own – Just like in sparring class, nobody is paying too much attention to your matches. They are too busy thinking about their own. It may feel like you need to do well to impress your teammates, who are cheering you on from the sides, but these guys are on your side anyway. If you win that’s great, but if you lose they’ll be there with words of advice and encouragement. They won’t think any less of you.

#2 No one ever feels a 100%

You couldn’t sleep last night, you’re feeling a little ill and your neck is so stiff that no amount of stretching can fix it. That’s easily enough to make you worried and even more anxious about fighting.

It is extremely important to realise that not a single one of your opponents is feeling absolutely great. Everybody has old injuries, worries about their result, and suffers from various health problems. The best thing to do is to accept the way you are feeling, and focus on performing as well as you can. This tricks your mind into treating the problem as resolved and lets you focus on more important things.

#3 I want to fight them

When I started competing at white belt, I never wanted to look up my opponents before tournaments. Finding out that someone has already been training for longer than I have, that they have a black belt in judo, that they look jacked or anything at all would inevitably make me more nervous. This would cause me to go out to competitions and wish for them to be over soon, because it was too straining and tiring to be anxious all day.

Everything changed when I decided to get excited about what these people could do. Looking at an opponent and thinking about what a great match you’re going to have against them shifts your mindset from focusing on the advantages they supposedly have over you, to feeling playful and excited for the challenge that they will present to you. This was when I started to genuinely enjoy competing.

Once you start getting excited for your matches, you’ll notice an interesting detail. Most of your opponents will have long faces, which only means they are in the same miserable place where you once were.

#4 Have a game plan

This is more of a tactical tip. Whoever makes the first move has the advantage of having a better chance to impose their game on the opponent rather than the other way round.

Knowing exactly how you are going to begin every match also solves a major problem for you as a competitor. Instead of worrying about adjusting to your opponent’s moves you go ahead with your strategy and they are forced to react instead. It is impossible to predict how a match is going to unveil, but knowing that you are prepared will boost your confidence.

#5 Know the rules

While there is no point in arguing with the referee whenever you don’t agree with their scoring, it is extremely important to be able to use the rules to your advantage. The higher belt you are the less matches end with a submission. Knowing the rules can sometimes turn a loss into a victory.

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