Mental preparation for competition
“How do I get ready to compete?”
There is still a common misconception that the answer to this question is purely a physical one, however the often neglected mental preparation is what lets many competitors down on their day. Competing is a complex physical & mental challenge that requires extensive preparation and, as the saying goes, failing to prepare is preparing to fail.
To prepare for competition, one has to take steps to prepare mentally. It’s worthwhile to explore this topic, with the aim being to shed light on the process one might undertake to optimally prepare to compete.
Set your goals
Before anything else, set yourself clear goals and expectations for yourself. What do you want to achieve by competing? What in particular do you want to execute in this particular competition? Why are you competing? It’s imperative that you have answers to all these questions before you begin.
What do you want to achieve by competing?
We don’t compete to prove to others, we compete to prove to ourselves. The best competitors in the world are not competing for extrinsic validation. As a superficial form of motivation, the praise of others will only carry a competitor a small distance. The best competitors in the world have an intrinsic drive to prove something to themselves; whether this be a technical challenge they seek to overcome, a drive to set a new personal best or even to overcome a fear or hangup. Whatever the reason, it’s imperative that you have one established that will direct you through the preparation process.
What in particular do you want to execute in this particular competition?
This is closely tied to the first question, but is primarily concerned with execution rather than direction. Going into a competition and “just seeing how it goes” is a surefire way to fail. It’s crucial that you go in with a clear picture of what you want to achieve from a technical perspective. Have you been working on a particular technique that you want to test under pressure? A competition is one of the best ways to find out what parts of your game works and which techniques you need to refine.
Why are you competing?
This is one of the simplest to answer. Compete because you want to. Don’t do it because your coach, friends or anyone else is pressuring you. Do it because there is a value in doing it for yourself. A medal doesn’t make you a better person, losing doesn’t mean you’re bad at jiu jitsu. Competition isn’t for everyone and that’s okay. Competing because you want to overcome the fear is good too and a victory within itself, but understand that it’s not something you (or anyone else) has to do to prove anything at all. There are amazing practitioners with exceptional skills that no longer compete- or never competed at all. Building up competition to be some hugely stressful thing is often another reason why people underperform too. We put too much emphasis on winning, cut too much weight, stop sleeping right, change our training routine… Any one of these things is enough to make you underperform on competition day. Stop putting too much pressure on yourself. There’s always another competition and everyone except you will probably forget the results by the time you’re back at work on Monday.
Understanding what competition is and what it’s about is the first step in being able to consistently perform well on the day. We also need to talk about the implicit concepts of preparation. These include diet, sleep, training preparation and many more.
There’s no simpler way to say this. Stop cutting weight. So many competitors cut weight, believing they have a better shot in a lighter weight category, only to handicap themselves after brutalizing their metabolism leading up to a competition. The reality is that the majority of practitioners do not know how to cut weight correctly; choosing to crash diet in the weeks leading up to a competition. A proper weight cut takes an extended period of time and should never be done without the advice of a professional nutritionist. More often than not, practitioners cut weight only to leave themselves in a huge calorie deficit, with no energy to prepare mentally or physically in the leadup.
We are participating in a combat sport, why would you go into a match or tournament without giving yourself the best shot of success? Fuel your body leading up to a competition with nutritious and healthy food. Keep a consistent eye on your weight throughout the year and compete at your natural weight. The consequences of bad weight cuts are serious and can lead to a higher risk of injury, do drastic & long lasting damage to your metabolism and more.
Sleep is arguably one of the most crucial aspects of recovery for athletes. In the leadup to a competition, where you are likely training more regularly and with a higher intensity, you should also be getting more sleep. Not only does this allow your body to recover, but your mind as well. Nothing will ruin your prospects on competition day more than sleep deprivation. If you’re unable to shake that brain fuzz and focus on the immediate problem of another human being trying to choke you out, you may be unexpectedly catching up on that lost sleep a little bit earlier than you thought- courtesy of your opponent.
This is one of the more subjective aspects of competition preparation. Some people like to de-load leading up to a competition; training less regularly than normal and allowing more time to rest. Some people ramp up leading up to a competition; training more regularly and with a higher intensity. Having done both and everything in between, the only axiom I’ve been able to identify as true for myself is that you should do what feels good for you and your body. Avoid burning out, get your rest and don’t do anything new- it’s too late to revolutionize your game a month out from a competition.
In the 6 weeks prior to a competition, you should be refining a strategy and game plan that you already have established between yourself, your training partners and your coaches. Trying to inject new things this late into preparation is not only going to be sub-optimal for your preparation, but also exposes you to a higher risk of injury as you inevitably put yourself in unfamiliar positions or try to force a square peg through a round hole. Train smarter, not harder, in the leadup to a competition.
Some practitioners will start to incorporate new S&C programs in the lead up to competition, just as before you should not be looking to introduce unfamiliar additions to your routine leading up to a competition. The reality is that, within the month leading up to a competition, you are more likely to injure yourself than see any major gains in strength or cardio. Stick to a familiar routine, rest, eat well and make sure you are recovering enough so that you can perform at your best on competition day.
So, the day has come. You’ve checked your bracket a thousand times over the last week, you’ve been rechecking your weight twice a day (with and without gear), you managed to stay injury free and well rested. It’s time to go. Let’s discuss a few things that you can do on the day to stay ready.
Be on time. If you’re required to be there 2 hours early, be there and be ready. Nothing is going to throw you off worse on the day than not being matside when they start calling your name. The worst case scenario is that you get completely disqualified for not being ready when called. The best case is that you arrive on the mat flustered and unprepared. Just do yourself a favor and get to the event early. Even then you will still probably need to find a park, change, weigh in and sort out an innumerable amount of other mundane things you didn’t anticipate. The only thing you should be focused on is your performance, try to cut out as much needless background noise as possible from the day.
Relax. There’s no need to start warming up 2 hours before your first match. Avoid hyping yourself up only to experience that dreaded adrenaline dump 1 minute into your first match. Listen to some music that you like, chat to your friends or your coach, have a post weigh-in snack and stay hydrated. Be ready for your match to be called and stay focused on the task at hand. Everyone has their own pre-match rituals, but stick to things you know. You don’t need Face the Pain blasting in your ears with your hoodie pulled up and your coach slapping you in the face… Unless that’s your thing…
Be a good sport. Win or lose, no one likes a bad sport. Thank the referee & officials, shake your opponent’s hand and don’t be a dick. Screaming, freaking out and making a scene is only going to make spectators, along with everybody else present, remember you for all the wrong reasons. The only thing people hate worse than a sore loser is an ungracious winner. Competitors and spectators alike are going to avoid the person who is known for making a scene and it reflects badly on that individual, their team and their coaches.This isn’t the WWE, you’re not a heel character drawing a crowd. You’re an ambassador for the martial art with the eyes of others watching you and taking cues from how you act. Accept your losses and win with grace. A little bit of class goes a long way, especially in a niche sport like grappling where the community is often very close.
Competing can be intimidating. It can also be exhilarating. It can be immensely frustrating and equally rewarding. The need to perform under pressure can lead to major breakthroughs in your personal growth and in your training. It will either confirm your hard work and preparation, or force you to reflect on what you could have done differently. If you’ve been sitting on the fence about competition; contemplating whether you should or not, it’s this writer’s belief that everyone should compete at least once in their lives. If you’re physically able, competing is not a decision you will regret. The challenge encapsulated in the experience provides a unique opportunity for you to take the reins of your own growth; facing fears that you might have and proving to yourself that you aren’t made of glass.
It’s that Type Two kind of fun; the kind that is tough at the time, but that you’ll remember for the rest of your life. Nothing worthwhile was easy anyways.
Failing to prepare is preparing to fail, as the saying goes. But in preparation, one can learn much about themselves. Are you able to commit to a strict routine? Can you overcome the feelings of doubt and uncertainty in your mind? Can you remove distractions and focus on a task that demands your full attention and physical commitment? The answer to all of these questions lie on the other side of discomfort.
Make no mistake, preparing to compete- and competing itself- is not comfortable. The entire process is a sharp contrast to the often mundane day-to-day routine that we live, and for that alone there should be enough reason to compete at least once in your life.
Competition has a way of showing things about yourself that you might never have found out otherwise. It can show you that you are tougher than you thought. It can show you that you are capable of finding a way to persist in the face of adversity. It can show you that you can commit to something where success is not guaranteed and that you are capable of more than others might believe.
Thanks for reading.
Until the next one,
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