Competiton Anxiety

A few weeks ago, I competed in the Atlanta Winter Open. This tournament experience was a bit different than others because this time, I had the opportunity to talk with other students at the academy who were planning on competing. We discussed issues like how they were preparing to compete and their thought process that they were going through in the weeks leading up to the tournament.

A few common topics that arose were the issues of dealing with stress both before and during the tournament, uncertainties about deciding to compete, and instructors pushing students to compete.

Based on these discussions, with this post I’d like to examine what kind of thought processes occur amongst competitors leading up to the big day and also what drives some people to compete while others avoid it at all cost.

Also, having talked with some students before, during, and after this most recent anxiety inducing experience I will also give a few suggestions on how students can handle their anxiety and more importantly, how to overcome it.



A lot of Jiu Jitsu practitioners do not like competing and will avoid it at all cost. This could be for a number of reasons including:

  • Not feeling in good condition
  • Not training frequently enough
  • Injuries
  • Recently promoted


With beginner students, a lack of experience and confidence in their technique is often what keeps them from competing.  When it comes to more advanced students and higher belts, however, the issue of avoiding competitions becomes more complex. They might have all of the necessary skills and techniques to succeed in an competition and even if they are out of shape, a few weeks of conditioning will make them more than ready for most local or regional tournaments.

So what keeps these guys from going out there and tearing it up?

A popular BJJ saying can sum up this phenomenon, “A lion in the gym but a housecat in the tournament”.

Coming from a more competition-oriented academy, there is almost little choice about whether you will compete or not. Everything from schoolwide tournament preparation to charismatic speeches urging us to do our best in representing our team, all are aimed at pushing us to compete.

This approach works really well for the select few, avid competitors and those looking to make a name for themselves through tournament success. However whenever you focus on one subset of your school, you will begin to alienate the other students who are not in that minority.

It’s important to note that there will be times when it is unwise to compete, especially when it comes to rehabbing injuries or conflicting obligations. But when these reasons become non-factors, then the situation changes.

There will always be a sizable number of students that will never compete and there is nothing that an instructor or coach will be able to say or do to convince them otherwise. However, there will be a few that you will be able to motivate to at least give it a try. Competing, while stressful is a great way for your students to test their technique in a safe environment against similarly aged, sized and skilled opponents. That’s as fair as it gets folks!

Later I will go over ways that you might be able to motivate those who avoid competition to step outside of their comfort zone, but the choice should still be an individual one.


Competing Not to Lose

If you force students to compete (competition avoiders and non-avoiders), you might be leading them to compete for all the wrong reasons.

As an instructor, it’s difficult to figure out when it is the right time to motivate your students to compete. On one hand you want to be supportive and let your students do tournaments because you know that the more that they compete, the better they will become. However, if you push your students too hard, you might run the risk of putting them off of competing entirely.

Many times during the preparation for this competition I heard a few of the students, ones that were training hard consistently and with a good chance of actually doing well, putting themselves down as if they had no chance of winning. Even though their instructor reassured them of their abilities, I believe they lacked confidence in themselves because they were ultimately competing for the wrong reasons–competing to please their instructor, competing because they had to, competing not to lose.

If this isn’t a self-fulfilling prophecy then I don’t know what is.

Competing not to lose or because your instructor forced you to sign up might seem doable at first. But once you step out on the mat against an opponent that you have never seen before in a packed gymnasium, the initial confidence doesn’t really hold up.

All it does is ensure that you won’t ever want to compete again, or if you do, that it will not be an enjoyable experience and worsen your competition anxiety.

I’m not saying that you need a super strong reason to motivate yourself compete like some cheesy 80’s movie plot but the reasons you have should be your own.


Do it for yourself

If you decide to compete, it should be for your own reasons and motivations. Competing has many positive benefits such as forcing you to clean up your diet, pushing your training outside of your comfort zone, and most importantly, putting your skills and abilities to the test.

When you compete you are out there by yourself

One important thing to remember is that when you compete, you are out there by yourself….no coach, teammates, or significant other will be out there with you. When you step on to the mat with your opponent on the other side of you, you really get to see what motivates you to compete. If you were just trying to compete not to lose, your mindset would be closed off because you are already thinking about losing. This might force you to play it safe and not open up your game to its full potential.

Compete for yourself because you want to compete. For years, I thought if I competed and won a lot of tournaments, people would respect me more and my instructor (s) would be proud of me. Soon enough, however, I got to a point where I realized that none of that mattered. I learned that my reasons had to come from within myself. As long as you have some reason driving you, be it wanting to win your first tournament or hitting that new sweep that you have been drilling for the past two months, the you’re on the right path.


Handling Anxiety

Everyone views competition in different ways. It’s safe to say most people experience some kind of anxiety when a tournament is coming their way. I wish I could say that it gets easier the more you compete, but that’s dependent on you as an individual. Some competitors thrive under pressure while others might have a harder time dealing with it.

While there are a few quick remedies that one can make use of such as medications, massages, etc, I believe that the most reliable and actionable treatments happen the weeks leading up to a competition.

One of the most important methods in dealing with anxiety is preparation. Not only do you need to prepare your body through hard training, drilling and conditioning sessions, you also need to prepare yourself mentally. A great resource to help with your mental preparation are sports psychology books and the autobiographies of famous athletes. Study how they were able to perform at the best of their abilities when faced with mounting odds and do or die situations.

Reading, absorbing and applying the lessons that you get from these books will take time so you will have to start well in advance of any major tournaments.

Visualization is also a major key to preparing yourself that takes little investment on your part…this can happen in as little as ten minutes each day. It’s important that you visualize with a purpose. For example, if you know that you tend to become really nervous before a competition, then use visualization by envisioning yourself at a competition during warm-up or the match itself and reminding yourself to stay calm and confident. If you’re able to do this say 500 times, or even 1000 times leading up to your competition, then when that magical day does arrive, you will be more than ready to deal with your anxiety because you will have already have “experienced” the tournament.

Outside of visualization, actual tournament experience is the best way to get over any uncontrolled anxiety that you might experience. Compete multiple times during the span of a few months and you will see that it becomes much easier each subsequent tournament and you will be more relaxed and natural.

Conquer anxiety through proper preparation and by putting yourself in those uncomfortable, uncertain experiences until you learn to thrive and succeed.


During any sporting event, the outcome will be uncertain. No matter the level of competition, some days you will be on fire while other days you will have to struggle for an average performance.

I’m sure you remember the first time you started live training or your first time rolling with a really good upper belt. Did you feel any anxiety leading up to those moments?

First, it is obvious that competitors will start to feel anxious before a big tournament. Anxiety is a feeling of worry, nervousness, or unease, typically about an imminent event or something with an uncertain outcome.

Rushing Success

I was reading a Facebook post by John Danaher recently in which he talks about the factors of progressing rapidly in skill development.

If you would like to read the post you can find it on his page.

I brought this up today because one point that Danaher made about one of his most famous and well known students really struck a cord.

I’ve been preparing for my first world championship at black belt.

It’s hard preparing for most tournaments, but this is the big one.

Friends and family unknowingly put stress on me to compete well, perform to my potential, and above all, win.

But the point that Danaher makes and one that I seemed to overlook is that success takes time.

Improvement takes time

Skill development takes time

Everything takes time

It’s my first year at black belt and I already feel a lot of pressure to win. But then I really thought about it.

And you know what?

I’m in this for the long haul. As long as it takes.

I didn’t get to where I’m at overnight and regardless of the results I will still be practicing in class like everyone else the Monday after the tournament.

So if you’re worried about preparing for a tournament, or when you will be up for your next promotion.

Just remember that if what you’re working toward is really worth it, that the time it will take to achieve is not as important as the small improvements that will get you to your goal.

It’s pretty cliche but Jiu Jitsu really is a marathon.

Quick Update:

I will be in California for a few weeks training for Worlds and possibly a few weeks afterwards.

If anyone is interested in private lessons or weekend seminars I will have a small number of openings .

For more details please email me at

Is 50k enough to open your own academy?

I recently had a good friend of mine, a purple belt (soon to be brown :)) ask me if $50,000 was enough to open up his own martial arts school.

My jaw just about dropped off….

A little bit about myself, I helped to start a martial arts school at the age of 23 along with a friend and business partner, with a hand full of students and modest loan from an investor. What I would have done for 50K!!!!

It was probably the hardest thing that I have ever done, but I understand that for a lot of guys this is their dream once their prime competitive years are behind them. Just make sure that you are informed and realize that blind passion won’t help you open up and run a martial arts school, and not everything about the instructing life is as it often appears.

4 Things you need in order to open up a martial arts school

I ordered my list in terms of ease of obtaining and implementing.


Starting out, having the desire for having your own school has to take place before you even attempt the other three steps. Make sure that you really want to teach and that you have the ability to teach. If you lack experience teaching, you can always volunteer to help out a few classes where you train.

Also learn the business side of running and operating an academy. This includes learning how to run the front desk, doing introductory lessons, how to sign up new students, billing, etc. Again, if you have no clue what I’m talking about you can always volunteer your time at your academy in exchange for learning their systems.

I really push this point not to be pessimistic, but as a learning aid. I’ve personally seen a lot of people who really wanted to open up their own school because they thought it would be fun, but they did not put in the time to learning how to run a school, and they unfortunately did not stay in business long.


Along with the desire, you really need to have skill to go with it. Preferably you have a black belt and at least six months to a year of teaching experience before opening your own academy. Instructing new students, you will need a solid foundation in fundamental techniques as well as self defense since the majority of people starting martial arts do so in order to learn how to defend themselves.


If you are like my friend and plan on saving up 50k in order to open up your academy, then you will really have a good head start. If you’re smart and treat your school like a business and not a hobby then that money will give you the leverage to acquire a nice facility, hire staff to work for you, and invest in gaining/retaining students.

If you don’t have 50k to throw around, don’t worry. Many famous schools started off with a lot less. As far as getting funding, you can always save money yourself. This is the easiest route but it is also the slowest.

I personally suggest that you do not borrow money from family or friends as it can be weird and add more stress to succeed.

Many of the top schools started with private/ angel investors. Again, having an investor just like starting with 50k will allow you a lot more freedom from worrying if your school will be successful and focus on making it successful. The better your amenities and facility, the more value you will bring to your students and it will show in your pricing.

If you have 0 money, you can still start your own school it will just take more time and you will have to do a lot of the work yourself at first. With no money, your best bet is teaching out of an existing facility such as gold’s gym or local rec center. Getting paying students at first might be hard, so start by offering free classes or self defense seminars in order to get the word out about your program and if you find a few really dedicated students, let them train for free in return for helping out or referring their friends.


This is the area that a lot of martial arts schools either hit or miss. Even schools that have been established for decades sometimes neglect the power of marketing their school. If your goal is to have a small “club” level school, then marketing will not be a major focus of yours, but if you have larger aspirations for your business then this is one area that you will really need to invest yourself in learning or paying someone well to manage for you.

Starting with little or no money, don’t worry about big marketing pushes, instead focus on generating leads and contacts from your existing students. Word of mouth is often the best way to grow your school since its grassroots and will allow you to connect with people that are already invested in your program through their relationships with your students . Once you are making money and can afford to pay yourself, that’s when you should invest in other forms of marketing like mailers, facebook/google ads, etc.

Listen, no ebook or video is going to teach you experience. It will be up to you to learn and keep learning in order to make your school a reality.