Your First Competition

I just finished my last training session at home before I fly out to compete in the European Championships. I’ve had a lot of things processing in my mind in these months away from the competition circuit. I’m sure these things will trickle out in my next few posts, but right now I am going to cover a special request topic.
I have been working with a student lately who is very nervous at the idea of competing for the first time. So I promised a special post summarizing the process.

Do you want to do it?
Ignoring all the nerves, you need to ask yourself if it is something you want to do. I recommend pushing through fear and just doing it, but if you don’t have at least a glimmer of desire to try, then it’s a stupid thing to be doing really.

So let’s say that you do have an inkling of desire to compete. The next hurdle most people face is trying to decide when you are ready. The truth is, if you wait until you feel ready, you will never do it. If you know how to hip escape, know a sweep/takedown, and know a submission; then you know how to finish a complete match. All the instructors I know encourage anyone who has this basic level of skill to dive on it and give it a go.

Division Decisions:
I don’t recommend worrying too much about fitting yourself into a particular division when you are first starting out. There is no need to put more stress on yourself than what is necessary – so don’t worry about cutting 10 lbs to make the lower weight class. I’m not saying to eat junk the week leading up to your matches! Eat sensible, balanced meals that will help fuel you – and just compete at whatever weight you find most comfortable. I have competed in many different weight classes in the last several years, and used those experiences to determine where my sweet spot is. The first few competitions however, I think are all about getting the jitters out of the way so that you can then start making those kind of decisions.

The Actual Competition:
Each event will be slightly different depending on which organization runs it. They do all follow this general flow:

* Registration
* Weigh Ins
* Bracketing
* Matches
* Awards

Registration
Some competitions will allow you to register at the door, and some require you to pre-register online. I know of one organization that accepts mailed in registrations as well. Make sure you don’t miss the registration deadline! A lot of organizations offer discounts for early registrations as well.

Make sure to double check with your instructor as to what team to list yourself under. This can make a difference as you will be earning points for yourself, as well as your team – and if you list the wrong team name then your contribution will not be counted.

Know if there is a cut off date for changing your registration details (rank, age, weight class, etc).

Weigh Ins:
Many competitions allow registered competitors to weigh in the evening before the competition begins. Some weigh you in five minutes before your match begins. The event website or flyer should have that information listed. It is important to note if you will need to weigh in with your Gi on, or if you can strip to your skivvies.

Most of the time when you are weighing in just before your match begins, you will be required to wear your uniform – so factor in the weight of your complete uniform when you are deciding which weight class to register for. Also note whether there is a weight allowance or not. One organization may subtract a pound from the scale reading to account for clothes or possible scale variations – another may not. Some competitions will move you to another division if you do not make weight, some will disqualify you from participating.

I remember when I competed in the European Championships last year and there was a girl who thought the provided “test” scale was the official weigh in scale. So she checked her weight, and then proceeded to sit down and drink a liter of water and eat her snacks. When the division was called she was in front of me at the official weigh in scale – on her knees begging and crying to be allowed to compete even though she had eaten and hydrated herself over the limit for the official weigh in. Unfortunately, she did not read the rules and suffered a disqualification for not making weight.

Moral of the story: do your homework and know the rules!

On That Note:
Know the rules for your event and division! There should be rules listed on the organization’s website, and I highly recommend reading the entire book before the event. Most of the time you will find restrictions on the types of submissions and moves you are allowed to do depending on your belt level.

For example: Most competitions do not allow heel hooks or knee reaps. Often the more advanced leg attacks are only allowed for upper level belts. For some children divisions, no submission attempts are allowed.

I remember one time I finished a submission on a girl and she got up, screaming at me and the referee that I wrist locked her. She did not know that it was a legal move in that division, and her lack of knowledge left her vulnerable to the attack.

So just make sure you know what are the allowable moves for your division at the event you are attending. In most cases, what you are taught in your normal classes is perfectly acceptable – but just be sure!

Additional Note:
Know the rules in regards to uniform requirements. Some events don’t care if you want to wear your fabulous tie dye Gi – others have strict requirements down to the color of the stitching in your collar. This information should be included in the rule book – but when in doubt, ask your instructor.

Bracketing:
If your event allows people to register the day of the event at the door, then division brackets will be made just before your matches. In some cases you may be called over if they need to combine divisions or move people around to allow everyone to have good match ups.

If your event is pre-registration only, in most cases finalized brackets will be published before the event begins. You will be able to view them and see who you will be fighting and how many matches you could potentially have.

Matches:
So once you know what time you will be beginning your matches, it’s time to get your game face on!

Number one thing to remember is to breathe! I don’t think I took a breath through my entire first match – my lips and fingers were blue when time was called (no, I didn’t get caught in a choke). This is the biggest hurdle you will find yourself running into – just trying to not let the adrenaline take over.

I recommend bringing along a friend or two to cheer you on and take photos/video for you. You are doing a tough thing and you need a cheer squad to support you! You will most likely have team mates at the same event, but if you are new the competition circuit, you may or may not have developed a tight bond with them yet (it will come! I promise!).

If your competition allows you to have a coach in your corner during your match, ask for one. Try to get an instructor or upper level belt with whom you are familiar. They will be able to help you by giving verbal instruction during your matches. You will have to focus to hear them – I guarantee it will be difficult with all the adrenaline and tunnel vision – but try to listen and trust them! If you don’t know where your coach is, ask the officials to call for a coach from your team. It is not an imposition for them to do so!

If the competition you are at does not have a designated area for your coach, this does not mean that you are not allowed one. They may just have to stand behind a barricade and yell a bit louder – and the officials will most likely not call them for you if you can’t find them. (make sure to have your coach’s number so you can text them if needed)

General flow of match:
* Escorted/called to table at the edge of the mat where you will be competing
* You will be instructed as to which side of the table or mat you are to enter from.
* Do not step onto the mat until the referee motions you to do so!
* Sometimes you will be required to wear a different colored belt or band for scoring purposes – if they hand it to you, just put it on.
* Referee will motion you onto the mat. Most people develop an entrance ritual – some elaborate, some not so much. You will find yours. Try to not make your opponent or the referee wait five minutes for an elaborate ritual though – it’s a bit rude to hold up the match.
* Shake the referees hand. They will usually motion you to shake hands with your opponent as well – although most people automatically go to shake hands without the encouragement.
* The referee will ask if you are ready (a quick nod is an acceptable response), and then give the signal to begin the match.
* During the match, focus on breathing. Listen to your coach. Listen to the referee.
* If at any point the referee give the signal to stop, freeze right where you are. It could be that you have drifted (or flown) out-of-bounds and you need to move back into the center of your mat space. However, you do not want to lose a good position – so make sure you freeze so that the referee can reset you in the same position you were in. (bonus tip: when walking back to the center during a reset, this is a good time to make eye contact with your coach so they can give you some instruction when you are not in the heat of the moment)
* When the match has ended – be it a submission or time running out – be gracious regardless of the outcome. Straighten your uniform and return to your starting position as quickly as your wobbly legs and shaky hands can get you there (adrenaline, gotta love it). The referee will raise the hand of the winner and then usually motion for you to once again shake hands. Make sure to shake the hand of the referee again before you turn to exit the mat space. If they had you wear an extra belt or band for scoring purposes, make sure to return it.
* Check with the table worker to see if you have any more matches.

Congratulations! You made it through your first competition match! You will likely find that you feel much more exhausted than you usually do after sparring a round in class. This is normal – the adrenaline kicks up the intensity and makes you use a lot more energy than you usually would.

Random Tips:

* If you think you’ve brought enough water, bring more.
* Pack warm layers. Events are usually held in gymnasiums or arenas where you can’t count on it being a set temperature. I have to pack a couple of sweaters when I compete in Las Vegas – 110 degrees outside, but my fingers are going numb inside.
* Bring snacks. Most venues do have food available, but it is usually ball park type (hot dogs, popcorn, etc) and not really the type of food you want to be putting into your stressed out system. I recommend various fruits, trail mix, granola bars, and peanut butter.
* Honey is super useful to bring in case you are prone to blood sugar crashes under stress like I am. Also, make sure you are stocked with electrolytes as well.
* Bring an extra Gi. If your Gi rips or does not pass inspection, you will be required to quickly change or be disqualified. In a pinch you can usually purchase a new Gi at an event or find someone to borrow one from, but why take that risk?
* If you need to ask the table worker official a question, try to wait until they are not occupied with keeping score of an ongoing match.
* Headphones. I consider this to be an absolute necessity. Listen to whatever puts you in a calm, focused frame of mind. As a person who ranges from Gospel to Kpop – you’ll get no judgement from me.
* Make sure someone films your matches! I’ll just prop my phone or GoPro up on the table if no one is around to film for me. You will be thankful later! I’m still sad that I don’t have any video from my first competition.

In Conclusion:
This was a huge information dump! If anyone has any other input, or questions, please comment!

6 thoughts on “Your First Competition

  1. Jiu Jiu

    Awesome post! I’ve done competitions in the past, but if I’m being honest, they were more “Meh, I suppose I will just do this” and I don’t think I actually believed I could win.

    I’m now committed to doing a tournament this summer. I just realized that one of the ducks I need to line up: PRACTICING with my corner person. I need to be able to hear their voice and understand their meanings. I remember when I started so long ago I had a coach yell “Move your hips down” and I literally had no idea if they meant closer to the mat (they did) or move closer to his feet (they did not). Practicing singling out their voice in a crowd is priceless.

    I second your notion to bring a second gi! I went to Tokyo with a friend who was competing. I bought a gi while I was there at the tournament. Her gi did NOT pass inspection – it was too tight. She ended up using the gi I had just purchased.

    Speaking of not knowing the rules, it reminded me so hardcore of this video:

    The “Knee Bah” guy – DQ’d for doing a knee bar because they were NOT allowed for that tourney. But – watch out – AMAZINGLY bad language, and AMAZINGLY bad camerawork. “UNF&&KING BELIEVABLE! IT’S A KNEE-BAH!!!”

    • Nicholle Stoller

      Yes it definitely makes a difference if you have a rapport with your coach before you get to the competition! I’ve been in matches when someone has tried to help me by yelling instructions that made absolutely no sense to me, and I had to just tune them out entirely.

      I might have been in Tokyo at the same time as you! Which competition did you attend? I have gone to the last two Asian opens in Tokyo and have plane tickets booked already to attend this year!

      • Jiu Jiu

        I went to the Asian open in 2013. I had intended to compete, but my job wouldn’t give me the time off, so I had to leave Sunday, which is when I would have competed. So I went and supported my friend. 🙂

      • Nicholle Stoller

        Adulting is annoying sometimes when all I want to do is train or compete all day. You worked in Korea right?
        I went for the first time in 2015 so I guess I missed you by a small margin. It has become my favorite event of the year!

      • Jiu Jiu

        Yep, I was there from 2010 and left at the end of January in 2015. That’s also when I stopped following blogs. It’s taken me a bit to get back into the groove! It’s sad how many awesome blogs are laying fallow. 😦

      • Nicholle Stoller

        Yea I keep trying to be more disciplined about mine. I enjoy writing but don’t like to publish anything unless it is absolutely perfect and mind blowing… you should see my draft folder! I had a short visit to Seoul last year and enjoyed the food! I’m actually planning a move to Japan next year for a few years. I want to get some good Judo training in and come home with more opening moves that just sitting on my butt

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