This is a debate on which many people have had contrasting views. On one hand, we have practitioners who argue that competitions are necessary for improvement and awarding your next belt, whatever belt that may be. On the other side, you have people who argue that although competitions can help your game, they are not essential to your jiu-jitsu journey. So what is the truth? How essential are competitions to a jiu-jitsu practitioner?
No one can really say that competitions are of no benefit to the competitor. It allows you to test your skill under extreme pressure and intensity. Between the physical and mental challenges, you have a lot to deal with. Often, especially in the beginning, people crumble under the stress. They forget the techniques they have practiced in class and/or physically do not perform because they did not anticipate that type of intensity. However, with time and consistent competitive training, athletes are able to overcome these challenges and keep their cool under such circumstances. They are then able to look back on their matches and return to their academy to make improvements. This kind of process definitely helps improve someone’s game quicker. However, this still does not show that competitions are essential to someone’s development in jiu-jitsu.
There are many who don’t enjoy competing for many reasons. The stress, in addition to other difficulties in life, may be too much. Cutting weight, spending extra time preparing, and the performance pressure is not an easy weight to carry. Not to mention that going to many tournaments can really add up financially. So, does this mean that they cannot improve as well as some casual competitors? Obviously, professional competitors (those who train multiple times a day) are not as relevant to this discussion because they are able to put so much time into their training that they will almost always improve at an astronomical rate. But for casual competitors and practitioners, that are the majority of jiu-jitsu practitioners in the world, can they improve greatly without competing? Of course!
There are a lot of ways you can test yourself in a similar fashion as tournaments. Each option is a little different but essentially has the same benefits. Firstly, the training you do at your gym should be sufficient enough to always prepare you for your next belt, even without competing. When you face your teammates, these are people that already know your game - they will force you to always innovate and change your techniques. In a tournament, you will usually face fresh and new opponents. So, your game, for the most part, should be more effective and surprising for them than your teammates. Secondly, travelling to drop in at other academies either in your city or abroad will also give you a similar experience as tournaments. Although it’s probable that they won’t go as hard as competitors in a tournament, practitioners at new gyms will offer you new styles and body types to test your game against. Overall, it does help to compete at tournaments, but in no way are they essential to the improvement of your jiu-jitsu or being ready for your next belt.