Mental Strategies to Sharpen your Tournament Game (BJJ)

Preparing for an upcoming tournament can create extra amounts of stress, self doubt or anxiety. You train hard for months for a tournament and want to perform well. Now you have put out an expectation to perform well, and you let the pressure get to you.

We want you to perform your best as well so we've put together some tournament tips and reminders to ensure you bring your best on and off the mat come tournament time. Here are 5 tournament tips and how to apply them in submission grappling:

 Tom DeBlass, World Grappling Champion getting mentally ready for competition.

Tom DeBlass, World Grappling Champion getting mentally ready for competition.

1. Trust in your game. We hear this all the time but what does it mean? A quick breakdown of an interpretation of this statement is the system & techniques you use, coaches instruction and your natural reactions. All three are equally important for competition. If you trust in your system you will go right to it, execute your technique and not hesitate. If you trust your coach's advice you will listen. If you trust in your reactions you will react more and think less.

Competition isn’t the best time to try random techniques out of nowhere, however do not be afraid to try new techniques you have been successfully executing in practice and keep necessary submissions fresh by drilling them often. Most athletes do not gain full confidence in a move until they hit it once in competition, and usually do not feel comfortable trying a new move in competition until they have successfully executed it in practice. Start your game planning by identifying moves, series and submissions you may need in live rolls a few weeks prior to competition. Choose 1 practice goal each day that cover one of these 3 areas: 1) your strengths, 2) submissions and/or 3) technical tweaks to improve. Do not obsess over weak areas, however do not ignore them. Be sure to ask questions and take notes to increase your comfort level.

2. Preparation helps with Confidence! One of the biggest mistakes athletes make is they do not warm up properly. Their first match is usually their worst match of the day. Your first match in competition technically should be your 3rd! Warm up until you break a good sweat with a few quick, light rolls to get the blood flowing. Our mind and body is connected, so if you are warmed up physically, it will also help mentally. Next, look to visualize an entire match approximately 15-20 minutes before your first ‘real’ match. You are much better off visualizing a quick match for 5 minutes with proper breathing instead of pacing back and forth for 15 minutes. Be sure to have your warm up routines mapped out ahead of time. Once you get to the tournament focus on your routine:

  • Kick start your breathing early in the day so it is in rhythm.
  • Be sure you and your coach know the rules of the tournament.
  • Change doubts in your head to positive statements (say outloud too).
  • Stay the heck away from negative people that hype up the competition.
  • Commit to accepting the result prior to battle so you can simply focus on competing hard and free of expectations. Athletes who obsess over the outcome commit self sabotage mentally, which can lead to regression or increased performance anxiety.
  • Move on from previous matches, a referee’s advantage win is still a win.

3. Manage the Nerves. Focus on what you can control, there is no need to spend time over analyzing your bracket. The best athletes do not worry who is in their bracket. In fact, they seek tournaments where the best competition will be. They understand that challenges help them grow and will bring them closer to their goals. There is a reason why you are entering this competition, and to some degree it includes testing your skills and having fun. A little nerves are okay, so use breathing and warming up to a good sweat to lessen pre match jitters. Simple box breathing will help reset your state of mind, and have you ready to compete in the present.

Here’s how to perform box breathing.

  1. Find a quiet place to sit down and close eyes.

  2. Breathe in through nose for 4 seconds, expanding stomach. 

  3. Hold for 4 seconds

  4. Exhale through mouth for 4 seconds, visualizing the release of all nerves and negative thoughts.

  5. Repeat for 4 minutes.

4. Be ready to fight back. A common mistake we see athletes make is they are rarely prepared for different types of match flows. They have a picture in their mind of how they want the competition to be, and struggle mentally or fall apart once things don’t go their way. Yes it is important to visualize success and dominance, but we must also visualize and prepare for different scenarios that include making adjustments, overcoming adversity and performing in different types of match pace and scoring. You want to be ready for anything, good calls, bad calls, back and forth wars, upsets and epic comebacks. Do not put too much weight on the first points scored or an early lead if it happens.

Sharp Tip: If you find yourself rattled mentally, focus on the next small step. Be very specific. Focus on the next advancement or technique. We want to think less and react more, but if rattled it is important to think only about the next step because your reactions may be too emotional, leading to poor technique. Focusing on the next small step will get you back in the present moment and kickstart the flow to react from there.

5. Rest Up! Studies have shown that increased sleep by 2 hours a few weeks leading up to tournaments significantly improves performance. Sleep is a big factor in recovery and processing what you learned. Get a head start at the beginning of your training camp to get to bed a few minutes earlier each night. The quality of our sleep is just as important as the quantity. Recent studies have shown blue lights impact our ability to fall asleep and our quality of sleep.

Sharp Tip- Put your phone away at least 1 hour before bed, and practice 1st person visualization with a 5 minute meditation executing the moves you just learned or drilled in practice that day. This will allow your mind to prioritize, process and retain what you need.

Final Thoughts: Never obsess over anything including your preparation, everything does not need to be perfect. We want to be efficient and effective as possible, and overthinking and obsessing is not an efficient use of energy. In fact it will drain our energy. However, being positive and having fun is a boost to our energy. It sounds cliche’ but it is true, so be sure to  create excitement. The excitement will then turn to a strong focus after you breathe, warm up and visualize properly. Remember, the competition will come and go, and you will have areas to work on regardless of the result!

We wish you the best on your athletic journey, and always remember to stay sharp!


For more information on HEADSHARP visit our website: www.headsharp.com, or download our mental skills coaching app to help build tournament routines:

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