This last weekend I did something I haven’t done in over a year – I went to compete in a Bazilian Jiu Jitsu tournament. If you don’t know, BJJ is my favorite cross-training activity for a lot of reasons, one of which is that it gets me out of my comfort zone both literally and figuratively. And a tournament is about as far as out of my comfort zone as I can get.

I started to feel like a hypocrite after a while, though, because in the post I wrote about my first tournament I challenged everyone to do something that gets them out of their comfort zone even though I was avoiding another tournament. I didn’t put it that way when talking to people but every time the subject of a tournament came up I had some excuse not to do it.

Eventually I realized that I was just making excuses and I was was making those excuses because I was scared. My last tournament was a nerve racking experience – I thought I was going to puke a few times before stepping on the mat and after just two matches I was as physically exhausted as I have ever been. The thought of going through that again wasn’t pleasant.

But that is exactly why I realized I needed to do it. When you start acting out of fear and avoiding things because they challenge you then, as far as I see it, you stop living life to the fullest. If I was going to live up to those words then I needed to step up and throw my hat in the ring again.

So that’s exactly what I did when I signed up to compete at the Fight 2 Win Nationals this last Saturday. I trained as hard and as smart as I could (I actually “peak” by backing off my torrid training and riding schedule) and went into this weekend feeling pretty good.

I took my daughter with me early on Friday so we could see the Art Museum, the Aquarium and go to Toys-R-Us and have some daddy-daughter time. I also wanted her to see a tournament up close – she does BJJ as well but seems pretty intimidated by a tournament so I thought it would help her to see one in action.

All in all the tournament went pretty good for me. I had 4 matches, going 2 and 2 to finish 4th. My biggest success, though, came from feeling much more calm and composed leading up to my matches.

I was pretty nervous that morning and had trouble eating much but by the time I got to the venue and was waiting for my matches I was feeling pretty good. Still nervous and hyped up but not to the point of feeling like I was going to puke.

And that leads me to my take-aways and lessons from this last tournament. Like they say in BJJ, you either win you or you learn, there is no losing. And with that in mind here is what I learned…

1 – Nothing gets you better at competing than competing. This seems obvious but it is something that a lot of people miss. Competition is a different animal and something that needs to be trained for with other competitions. The difference in my anxiety levels from my first tournament to my second was huge and I could tell that the more I did it the less stressful it would be.

For us as mountain bikers this means two things. First, don’t worry about being a world-beater the first year that you race mountain bikes. While there are exceptions, most riders have a learning curve with most aspects of riding, including competition. What to eat, how to warm up, when to warm up, how the events flow and countless other things can impact your performance and just take some time to figure out. Spend your first year of racing focused on getting used to racing and don’t stress out about the results.

Second, you need some tune-up races early in the season. You can’t show up to your first race of the year with it being a big, important race for you. Few riders can flip the switch like that and most do better with a few low level competitions just to get used to the unique aspects of competing compared to just training hard.

2 – Mistakes are magnified in competition so you learn what you need to work on. Pressure usually shows us where the cracks are in our game. For me, I learned I need a stronger takedown game and I need to get my ass up on top when I sweep someone. These are things I know I need to work on but seeing them exposed like that when it counted most really motivated me to do something about it.

The same thing happens when you are pushing yourself on your bike. On the rare occasion I participate in a mountain bike race (I have some issues with venues that dumb things down to cater to the dirt roadies) I’ve found cornering to be where I lose the most time. This has lead me to obsess about how to train to corner better…why do you think I have so many cornering related videos and articles on this site?

Mistakes are actually some of our best teachers. If you honestly evaluate where your weak points are and then focus on improving them then you can learn a lot from them and competition really shines the light on those mistakes.

3 – Don’t wish it were easier, focus on being better. At the tournament the brackets broke down so that the winner only had to grapple in 3 matches while the guys who got the the 3rd/ 4th place match had to go through 4 matches. You also had the possibility of someone not showing up for a match, which automatically put you through to the next round.

More than once I found myself hoping I got the easy route. Have someone miss out on the first round, get an easy match in the second round and I was into the finals in only 1 real match. But then I would remind myself that wishing I got the easy route was a BS way to look at it.

The easy route never teaches us anything and I was there to learn something. I needed to hope I got the hard route so that I was mentally prepared for it if I got it. And good thing too because that’s what eventually happened. I got to go up against some really hard guys and did just good enough to get my 4 matches, learning much more that way than if I had gotten the easy route.

If you go into competition mentally and physically prepared to deal with the toughest route possible then nothing can throw you off your game. Don’t worry about course changes, who’s in your category or anything else that freaks out less mentally tough competitors. The more relaxed you are the better you can perform and if you’ve mentally prepared for things to be really tough then its easier to relax and perform.

These are the 3 things I’m taking forward into my training this off-season and I hope you’ve found them helpful as well. These lessons apply for me across the board, from the weight room to the trail and to the BJJ mats. Doing something that gets you out of your comfort zone like competition can teach you a lot about yourself and it’s a great way to help you focus your training.

If you have any thoughts on this or you want to share some lessons you’ve learned from competition I’d love to hear them, be sure to share them in the comments section below. Until next time…

Ride Strong,

James Wilson

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