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Preparing for Competition - Visualization to Calm the Nerves

What are Competition Nerves?

Every competitor I've ever coached or spoken to has felt the same feelings throughout the weeks and days leading up to their competition day, known as competition nerves, or more adequately described as performance anxiety. These nerves are always present in combat sports but some people are more practiced at managing these feelings and using them to enhance their performance.

The days before the competition are the hardest to get through. You want to train as much as possible but don't want to overdo it and get injured. You try to eat super clean and balanced so you’re on weight and still have your normal strength. On top of all of that, there is the weight of the event baring its teeth in the form of competition nerves. In our sport, our opponent is really trying to destroy our joints or strangle us until we’re unconscious. There is a lot of risk to our bodies if we are not prepared!

These reasons alone are the biggest deterrent to athletes signing up to compete. There is something I practice and encourage others to practice for a couple of weeks leading up to the event - visualizations.


Here’s how visualization works. You start by finding a place you can get away from distractions for a few minutes. Get comfortable and close your eyes. Start visualizing the moments leading up to your match. Picture the event space you’re in - a gymnasium, a convention center, a pavilion - with all of the mats, referees, spectators, coaches, and competitors. Your match is coming up soon and you’re waiting by your mat. You are warmed up and ready to go. You see your opponent waiting on the other side of the mat. Your coach is with you. The match in front of you just finished, and you step up to the mat. The referee double-checks your name and calls you out to the middle. You shake hands with your opponent and the ref splits you up. Go!

Did this visualization elicit any responses in your body, mentally or physically? If you’re within a week of competing, this feeling gets intensified. What you don’t want is to be surprised by these feelings right when they’re happening in full force. It can be overwhelming and cost you the match if you’re unprepared.

Something to keep in mind when you are visualizing is not to go through a whole match in your head. Yes, it is great to have a game plan. Understand your strongest positions, transitions, and attacks and know where you defend the best and what to funnel your game to. It would be foolish to assume every match will go how you expect it to. Jiu Jitsu is chaos and in a match anything is possible. There are just too many things to consider in a match to be able to predict them. If you conquer any anxiety you have about competing before you step on the mats, your chance of following through with your game plan is higher.

Visualizing this scenario on a regular basis for the few weeks leading up to the day of your competition will allow you to practice managing how you feel going into a match. Here are a couple of tips that have worked for me and others.

Tips to Silence the Nerves

1 - Reframing

Reframe the feelings of nervousness you might have into excitement. Nervousness and excitement are actually the same feelings in your body. Your heart rate goes up. Your breathing increases. There is adrenaline running in your veins. You can either freeze up or let loose and show the work you’ve put into your BJJ game!

Understanding that you can be excited in place of nervousness gives you an edge. Do you get worried about an opponent that looks nervous or an opponent that is excited to meet you on the mat?

2 - Breathing

Practicing breathing in general is a another topic for another blog post, but learning how to breathe is a skill that is often overlooked. When you are in the midst of feeling competition nerves, do your best to slow your breathing.

Take longer belly breaths through the nose and breathe out through the mouth. Feel your heart rate, and think about it slowing down as you breathe out long and slow. This is a form of meditation that will help you center yourself and stay calm for your upcoming match. Focus on the breath to calm your mind and body. Rickson Gracie talks about this extensively in his book “Breathe: A Life in Flow”.

3 - Managing Expectations

Yes, we all sign up for competitions to win them, but that doesn’t mean we should expect to win every time. What you should aim to expect is to enjoy the chaos of the day, learn what is working for you and what you need to work on, and do the best you can in any given moment.

When you aren’t placing all of your expectations on winning or losing, you take some weight off of the tournament. No matter if you win or lose, everyone you care about will be proud of you for getting out there and competing. Even at higher levels of competition people just want to see you perform your best and the end result won’t make or break your grappling career.

When Should I Start Practicing?

You should start practicing visualizations at minimum two weeks before your match, especially if you haven’t competed in a while. I would suggest at least once a day. The beauty of these visualizations is that they don’t take a long time to go through, you can do them in less than 3 minutes. When you practice how you will react immediately before a match, the more prepared you will be when the match starts, and thus, you will better execute your Jiu Jitsu! Gentle Art Lifestyle offers competition prep coaching if you would like help! ~Nick Lee Gentle Art Lifestyle Competition prep coach

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