Nerves. An often overlooked part of preparation. Athletes put themselves through hell to be ready for the pivotal moment where they compete. But anxiety before a match is a very specific threat.
In fact, the term "nerves" might undersell how crippling performance anxiety can be. Modern research suggests that it may increase the chances of injury and prolong the rehab process. It's significant enough that major sports organizations have invested millions in providing sports psychologists and research funding to combat pre-competition anxiety in their athletes.
So if you're thinking of competing, don't sleep on the mental part of sports. Especially combat sports. We asked seasoned competitors how they get in the right place before competition. You may be surprised to hear, that not a single one said they don't get nervous on the big stage.
Casey Tibbs (@casey_tibbs)
2x Paralympic Gold Medalist
"I would say that getting nervous before a competition is normal for everyone. I don’t think I’ve ever meet an athlete that didn’t feel some nerves before competing. And I’ve meet some people that would have such bad nerves that they would throw up before a race. The best way that I’ve faced nerves was by competing as much as possible if I wanted to be the best. When I was training for the 2008 Beijing Paralympics, my coaches and I had planned out to compete at least 6-8 times prior to the games that year. I still felt nervous but knew that I could still perform once the gun went off. Because I had performed already in smaller competitions throughout the year. I wanted to know how good could I perform on my worst day. That was always a goal. If I could run this fast after, let’s say, flying over seas, not sleeping well, not eating great etc; I knew I could do even better on my best days."
Brian Molinaro (@brianmolinaro)
IBJJF Worlds Champion
IBJJF American Nationals Champion
Fight2Win Pro Athlete
"The most important thing I do to calm my nerves before I compete is to remind myself what I love about my sport. The moment I do that, all the people, all the noise, and all the stress fades away and I become consumed with confidence and passion. Whenever I compete in the Fight 2 Win Pro, I like to treat it like a massive party instead of a pro fight. If a little kid has fun playing with their favorite toy, then you should be having fun competing in your favorite sport."
Photo Credit: Aiza Tengan
Jamie Gomez (@jamieg.sharpshooter)
Fight 2 Win Pro Athlete
"I always visualize the strongest version of myself, my game plan, and the execution. This helps me channel the nerves into excitement.
And I do a lot of this leading up to competition.
I try to get the nerves out the week of. Letting myself think, get anxious, get excited, and not distracting myself from my own thoughts. Letting me go through it.
And last, I always check weight on the check scale first, find the bathrooms, exits, and allow myself ask a specific friend if they can hold my stuff, water, video ahead of time.
I also strongly believe that for brand new competitors, it's a great idea to have a seasoned competitor (if available) be their mentor of "where to go and what to do" for the day, if available. This does not need to be the coach as that is too much for the coach to do both. I cannot tell you how many times I have seen new competitors pace in circles trying to figure out what they should be doing, where to go next, or what to expect. Having someone available helps the nerves."
Photo Credit: Maggie Left
Moritz Koellensperger (@mojitsu_)
ADCC German Nationals Champion
IBJJF Irish Nationals Champion
IBJJF Dublin Open Champion
"When I first started competing I really struggled with nerves, in my first competitions I stepped on the mats hands shaking and all. It took me a while before I learned to deal with them in a way that helped me perform to the best of my abilities.
I did quite a bit of research on competition anxiety and found a quote by Randy Couture that really helped me. When asked why he always smiled like a psycho when stepping into the ring he replied “Cause I love being there. There is no greater feeling!” I think this was a crucial turning point for me. Whenever I started feeling nervous before competition I forced myself to smile and told myself it was excitement instead of fear. At some point I started believing that myself and now whenever I feel that uneasiness in my stomach I start smiling instantly and get super excited.
Another really weird thing I do when I get a dry throat and start feeling the nerves is I eat salt. I bring a small jar of salt whenever I compete and just take a little bit. I have no idea why but this instantly clears my throat and I feel better right away. Now this is something that does not work for everybody, loads of my friends tried it and it did not work for them at all.
The sad truth is there is no universal remedy for competition nerves. The suggestions above work for me, but everybody is a little bit different and it also really depends on your daily composure. Every time I compete is a little bit different and you just have to find out what works for you, research, play around with what you find and most important: compete compete compete, practice makes perfect!"
Photo: Mike Anderson
Åshild "JD" Trædal (@aashildtraedalbjj)
IBJJF Nogi Worlds Champion
IBJJF European Champion
IBJJF Asian Champion
"I've competed a lot since I started jiu-jitsu, and my level of nervousness prior to a competition has changed a lot as well. I´ve never had that stifling nervousness where it´s to the point of almost freezing up, but it was definitely tons of butterflies and zero focus to begin with.
One of the turning points for me, and what I try to tell others that ask my advice, was when one of my former instructors, Jerome Gage, told me that “nobody cares if you win or lose, the world doesn't stop turning”. He meant that they would be proud of me regardless of result, for going out there and giving it my best. It changed my mindset.
Since then I´ve kicked it up a notch and gone into training and competing more or less full time. In 2018 I competed in 14 different tournaments or events. I have been more picky.
I still get nervous before competitions, but I try to handle it in steps. After I´m signed up, or have gotten a match for a sub-only event, I go in and check the registration/bracket to see my name. It´ll give me an initial “sticker shock”, and then I´ll go back and check again every so often until it doesn´t give me an uneasy reaction anymore, just excitement.
Mental preparation is also important, and I´m constantly working on improving on that. I envision competition day; how I get called and walked to my mat, shake hands, initiate my game, play the game plan and get my hand raised.
If it´s a big tournament, I like to go to the venue the day before, if I can, again to get that initial jolt of emotions out of the way. On competition day, I like to arrive early so I have time to check my weight, the mat area and the venue, eat a little if my weight allows it. I like to sit and watch the mats and get to a point where I´m almost bored, then get warmed up and head to the bullpen. Sometimes I´m chatty, most times I just want to be in my own head. Then I trust in my preparation and training, and go and leave it all on the mat."