Competition in BJJ is one of the main drivers of the sport and industry. It is an essential part of the culture that has developed around our sport. Outside of the obvious part of competing to test your skills, tournaments provide several important facets to the sport: opportunities for socializing and building chemistry with your teammates, spectating, checking out products that would not be readily available elsewhere, and most importantly, they are also great for supporting the growing BJJ industry. Tournaments, academies, and gear companies help fuel the growth of BJJ.
The biggest question associated with tournaments is how often one should compete. Thought processes range from one extreme to the other, such as “it is not necessary to ever compete in your life” or “perhaps once is good, just to know what it feels like,” to “if you don’t compete you’ll never get your next belt.” So, what is the truth of the matter?
At its base, the importance of tournaments is that you can test your skills at a level of intensity that cannot be fully replicated in any academy. The best simulation you can do at your academy is perhaps hold ‘shark tank’ sessions, but that will mostly just push your cardio. Competition challenges far more than just your mechanical skill, as it also challenges your mental state. When competing, most people feel a large amount of pressure. Whether it’s pressure because they don’t want to disappoint their instructor/teammates or they just have too much pride to risk losing, training hard at the gym can never mimic this feeling.
Is it really a big deal to never experience this mental challenge and still be good at jiu-jitsu? Yes and no. If you can go into a gym and dominate but then go into a tournament and crumble because you can’t deal with the pressure, then you’re not a very good martial artist (at least on the competition side). Maybe you’re just a good athlete, but not a good martial artist. BJJ and martial arts in general are more than just a lifestyle, it’s being able to overcome both physical and mental barriers. At its heart, jiu-jitsu is an art of self-defense. If you can’t keep it together in a tournament, how are you going to stay cool on the street if you get attacked?
Competing in tournaments is the most pressure you can put on yourself mentally without actually going and testing yourself in a street fight - which would be a bad idea of course. So, the question remains: how often should you compete? It is different for everyone, but you should compete enough times to where you feel that the pressure of competition has subsided to a point where you can perform just as well on the mats as you do in the gym. There is no harm in competing more often than that, but not everyone can manage that in their busy lives. The main thing is that you were able to conquer the pressure and know that you can utilize the skills you have developed even under the intense circumstances of competition.