Why You Should Compete

To anyone who hasn’t been asleep, you know there is a growing debate as to the central role of Jiu-Jitsu. Should it be practiced primarily as a sport or as a martial art focused on self defense? Over the past number of years, I believe the sport side has predominated as many schools and instructors base much of their training around tournaments and focus on what is called “modern Jiu-Jitsu” which usually refers to techniques which work best in that sport setting.

But, lately, there has been a pretty strong “Old School” movement not to get rid of the sport but to say that the self defense mindset and the complete curriculum (striking, clinchwork, throwing, standing self defense techniques) should again be the core of Jiu-Jitsu instruction and training. I think this has occurred for many reasons. One of the main ones is that the sport game has gotten so elaborate and unrealistic, especially the guard and thus guard passing. I think this has been both good and bad.
I think one of the greatest strengths of Jiu-Jitsu is its willingness to always experiment with techniques and it’s amazing to see what people have developed or how they have refined older techniques. I think people (myself included) really enjoy the puzzles that these new techniques provide. Having to develop the body awareness, balance, finesse of movement and critical thinking needed to execute this new game can only improve me as an athlete.
But, like many instructors who are becoming worried that Jiu-Jitsu is losing its core role as a self defense art, I ask myself what the end goal of all the experimentation is – and the answer, as anyone will tell you, is to be more successful in tournaments. Or, to beat others who play this same style. The sport has dictated the direction in which Jiu-Jitsu has evolved, and it has clearly been away from a real-world self defense mentality towards an aggressive, athletic and technical contest between roughly equal opponents. This evolution may be good for winning tournaments but no one can argue with a straight face that it has been an evolution of the best way to protect yourself from a potential attacker.

Let me clarify because people often misunderstand what I mean to when I say self defense. They picture some old photographs of Helio doing a choke defense or respond with “it’s not 1993 anymore, bro. It’s evolved!.” Remember, evolution doesn’t necessarily mean something has become better, only that it’s more suited to it’s environment. And, progress is not universal for all goals. If you evolve feathers, it doesn’t help if what you needed was to be able to swim underwater.
The Berimbolo or Worm Guard may be very hard to deal with in a sport setting but are completely useless in a real fight (and, here I am not referring to an MMA fight, but a no-rules, on the pavement fight against a highly aggressive and probably significantly bigger and stronger opponent). What I mean when I say Self Defense is the mindset and ability to be able to survive an encounter with little to no control over the setting. It could be on pavement, with weapons, striking, much bigger attackers, or multiple opponents. Yes, there are techniques that will help with those situations but it’s more about training awareness, distance management, aggression management, angles, footwork, pre-emption of attack.

These are not traits that you can just come up with on the spot anymore than a triangle defense is something you can just fake your way through. These need to be trained because it is a fact that you will only do what you are trained to do. If you only train the ground, then you are in great danger if going to the ground is bad option in that moment. If your main method of getting a fight to the ground is to pull guard that is exactly what you will do when you feel extreme stress (a punch, for instance). You’re not going to be able to turn into a takedown artist all of a sudden when you really need it. Or, maybe you do train your wrestling but with a sportive mentality. So, in the middle of being attacked, you shoot a low double leg on pavement and tear up your knees because you always assumed mats would be there.
The point is this: you will become expert at what you train to do. You will only use the weapons or tools that you are trained in under duress. And, if they are too specialized or the wrong one, then they are basically useless.Just because you are well-trained in one area of something doesn’t mean you are automatically well-trained in all the other ones.

Originally, the rules of Tournament Jiu-Jitsu were developed to mimic the theory of good fight strategy: get to a dominant position and finish the fight, with as little real harm to yourself or your opponent as possible (submission). However, as tournament wins became synonymous with skill and a matter of status, then people began to play to the rules both in execution and in strategy, regardless of how well the fight theory would apply to the real world.

Why work hard for a takedown and exhaust yourself if you can just pull guard? You may not have gained two points but you didn’t lose any points. Why worry about not being able to protect against punches if you will never have to worry about punches? Why learn striking or footwork or angles if you’re just going to tie up or pull guard? Why worry about being on bottom if you’re on a soft surface and slams aren’t allowed? Why develop a long form strategy involving staying safe when becoming a better athlete with a limited supply of well-trained offensive moves will serve you better in the set time frame? Why learn to defend the most common real-world attacks (punches, tackles, headlocks…) if you’ll rarely have to deal with them in a tournament?
With the importance placed on competition success, schools, students and instructors started to become famous for how well they did in tournaments and so rather than a means to an end, competition style Jiu-Jitsu becomes the end point itself. Many schools become more of a sports team, focusing all their training on chasing medals. To keep this reputation as the best, they had to jettison techniques and ways of training that didn’t contribute to competition success. And, these were almost always the techniques and way of thinking that work best for self protection. What remained was then stream-lined and refined and drilled to razor sharpness. And, to be fair, what remained was often beautiful.
This is also why you see some people getting promoted very quickly these days. Students put in the hard work mastering this limited arena of combat and are athletic and compete well and thus get pushed up for the next level of competition. But, this setting is only a small part of Gracie Jiu-Jitsu and most effective in this specific environment. This concept of what is Jiu-Jitsu then gets replicated as students open their own schools with this competition-centered sport mentality. Because the students learned the art (sport) this way, they never question the assumptions of what the art’s purpose is or the effectiveness is. They say “Of course my students can defend themselves. I’m teaching them Jiu-Jitsu aren’t I? And, it’s the best Self Defense art there is. QED.” They never understand the irony that that’s the part they aren’t teaching, or never learned well themselves.
So, what I’m saying then is don’t compete, right? Wrong. I absolutely believe students should compete. I even think that at times students should train sport style Jiu-Jitsu. I think both have fantastic benefits but only in moderation.
As I’ve outlined above and in previous posts, I think most schools focus predominantly on the sportive aspect and I think that’s a very bad thing. I would never be comfortable as an instructor having students who are more proficient at fancy sweeps, or escaping omoplatas than they are dealing with a punch. I think it is highly irresponsible for a teacher to award a belt to a student who can’t efficiently protect themselves against the most likely attacks – a situation that could result in severe injury or death.
So, then why should students compete or learn sport style Jiu-Jitsu? I think students should compete (especially at white belt) because in many ways it is very close to a real fight in an important sense. As hard as you may train in the school, there are a few givens that you won’t experience in the class. In class, you are familiar with everyone and probably with what they’re good/bad at. In a tournament, you probably have no idea. This means you have to (within the restrictions of the competition) be on your guard. This anxiety of competition cannot be reproduced in the gym. Is your opponent a good wrestler? How strong is she? What moves is she good at? How aggressive is she? You simply cannot replace this experience in the classroom of being stood in front of someone who is a blank slate but who is probably at least somewhat dangerous and focused completely on challenging you.

That lack of knowledge about the depth of the threat they represent and your ability to deal with it is an immensely stressful and important feeling to learn to deal with.
And, in fact, this goes back to the self defense mindset. In Self Defense, I’m not just training techniques but the real world experience of a fight in self defense. And, part of that training is staying focused and composed in the face of the dangerous and the unknown. And, win or lose in a competition, it is usually very cathartic to know that in the end you survived it. There is a kind of elation and confidence that you will get from that that can’t be reproduced in the classroom.
The other thing you will experience in competition (again, especially at the lower ranks) is dealing with someone who is using all their strength and energy. No matter how tough you think your partners roll in the gym, it doesn’t compare at all to a tournament match. Your opponent is usually giving you everything she can for the duration. Every grip is as hard as she can make it. She is not giving you a break for a second and it is again a big lesson to see if you can deal with this force without breaking and giving up. At the lower ranks, she may even be stacking you inside the guard, headlocking you standing, trying to pick you up and slam you – all the things that people will do in a real fight, minus the strikes. It is a chance to feel those things thrown at you full force.
Also, do you have the ability to control a highly resisting opponent, someone who is just throwing everything they have into escaping – much like in a real fight? Your opponent in a real fight will be going as hard as they possibly can and so will your opponent in a tournament (unlike in class). These abilities to survive and even conquer the unknown and the extreme force are the greatest benefits of competition. And, they are absolutely not reproduceable in the gym.
However, the danger comes from becoming addicted to winning tournaments and equating that with being a good and complete Gracie Jiu-Jitsu practitioner. As I’ve said before, I was lucky coming up in the school I did. We focused on Jiu-Jitsu as a fighting art, not as a sport. We competed often but there was never talk about tournament strategies. It was about putting the guy down and finishing the fight. I was always kind of proud of the fact that I didn’t know the points until I was a mid Purple. Points were a result of doing the right things. And, I didn’t even begin to understand advantages.
And, this is how I teach my students who like to compete. I’m less concerned with if they win than with how they fight. For me, it’s still about the original goal of competition – as a way to challenge yourself safely but in a way that rewards following a fight strategy that is best for real fighting. Just as my focus on preaching complete Gracie Jiu-Jitsu gets me insults of “it’s not 1993 anymore, bro!” this mentality of competing in a way that mimics the concepts of a real fight gets me insults of “it’s not 1999 anymore, bro.” But, this tournament focused idea of whatever-works-within-the-rule-system-to-get-the-win-no-matter-how-unrealistic is what I think drives many away for the sportive aspect of Jiu-Jitsu now. That won’t change without severe rule changes, I suppose. So, I will always be content to just encourage my students to compete but always with the caveat that the main goal is to learn and to try to compete in a way that tests their real world strategy, not to just try to get the medal at any cost.
Tournaments are very much athletic endeavors with many people becoming elite athletes in order to be successful. The nature of the competition format forces students to train to be explosive and powerful in a limited setting and this is what moves it away from the basic self defense conceit: how do I defend myself against an opponent who is bigger, stronger, faster? The sport answer for many is by becoming “bigger, stronger, faster than your opponent.” But, again that’s what can make the competition experience valuable once in a while. You will statistically speaking have a very good chance of competing against someone physically superior to you and so it is a great chance to safely test your techniques against a highly aggressive opponent with superior physical attributes in a safe manner (certainly safer than going out and getting into a street fight). This is one reason I never did drastic weight cuts and generally encourage my students to compete in a weight class that is close to their normal weight.
As I’ve said, this concept of being a “medal chaser” has brought the sport elite athletes and exceptionally complicated and intricate techniques and games that are ever-changing. And, also as I’ve said, much – not all – of this development has evolved to be effective in competition but dangerous or ineffective in self defense. And, this is simply because of the ruleset. Some examples of this ineffectiveness include not having to worry about slams (in most tournaments), not being penalized for pulling guard, not being rewarded for getting back to your feet from bottom, not being rewarded for reversing from bottom (not from guard). Are these bad rules? Not necessarily. But, they encourage or at least don’t punish some behaviors that are bad from a fight/self defense perspective.
So, am I saying not to train sportive “modern” techniques? Again, no. I absolutely teach my students many sport techniques. But, I look at it differently. The sport techniques are both a training tool and a treat. They are a training tool in the same sense that warmups and kettlebells and chess is a training tool for Jiu-Jitsu.
By learning to fight against a good sport guard, for instance, you develop a lot of attributes. You don’t force your way through a good guard – you think your way through it. It is a puzzle. And, the more elaborate the puzzle, the more I have to be able to process information quickly with changing variables in real time. And, I’m not just doing this as a pure mental exercise. I have to physically put these thoughts quickly into action. I have to be able to move, use pressure, move by opponent, build structures, and unbuild his structures. Against a good sport guard, I have to develop a tremendous base and sense of balance (this for me has probably been the single best thing I have gotten from training with good sport guys – my ability to stay on top, to float and to use pressure).

Am I ever going to have to deal with a De La Spider Guard in the street? Never. But I should still train against it not for technique reasons but for the ancillary attributes that I can gain from it that will absolutely contribute to my real world self defense training. For this same reason, I should also learn these guards – not as a system but as a way to train attributes. I have a good friend JackJitsu (who runs a great website www.jiujitsuforums.com) and Jack has a fantastic and dangerous open guard. He once told me he doesn’t think he can teach someone his game because he just plays around until he feels a weakness in someone’s base or them off-balance and then he sweeps them. He’s not really trying to force anything but to feel their mistakes. This ability to create a setting for and to feel your opponent’s weaknesses (of base or structure or awareness of threat) is an incredibly important attribute to have and to develop. But, again, these are training tools in the same way that kettlebell training is a tool. I don’t spend 4 days a week swinging kettlebells and 1 day a week training my Jiu-Jitsu and expect great results. But, the kettlebells will absolutely benefit me as part of my overall training program.
The other thing about the sportive game is the fact that it’s fun. I have a very new student who came to a special class a friend taught on very sport moves. After class, my student said, “I love our focus on self defense and I will always want to do that…but, that was…fun!” He was almost apologetic. I told him it was absolutely fun and there’s nothing wrong with enjoying it. I told him I look at sport BJJ like desserts. You can have them once in a while but you don’t base your diet around them. People love training the self defense and fight-tested techniques of Gracie Jiu-Jitsu but they also have a lot of fun with this other stuff which is a nice break and keeps them coming to class.
I used to compete fairly regularly and have been pretty successful at it. I’m taking a break from it right now simply because I’m passionate about other things for the moment. One day I’m sure I’ll be interested again but I am happy I have done it. It has taught me a lot good and bad. I’ve learned to experience the nerves and the adrenaline and competing against an unknown opponent who is resiting with everything he has. But, I’ve also seen that it was often mostly about who gets ahead in a short time frame and the hollow feeling of being congratulated for being better than my opponent when I was only better than him in this very limited aspect of our art.
If Jiu-Jitsu is really about learning and using every tool available to help you do that, then tournaments and even training Sport BJJ can help. But, only if you understand how they help and what the end goal of their use truly is.

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