Words by Adam Cousins.
Let me just start by saying that I love competing. Love everything about it. I can’t turn down an opportunity to compete. I love the nerves, the atmosphere, the camaraderie, and more than anything, I love winning.
But it wasn’t always like that.
As a kid, and even through my twenties, I wasn’t competitive. I wasn’t an athlete. Hell, I wasn’t even ACTIVE.
A friend introduced me to BJJ and I immediately fell in love with the mental aspect of the art. I started training one day a week, then two, then three. I couldn’t get enough of it.
After I’d been training for about 6 months, some training partners talked me into signing up for my first tournament (Ascension Open 2012). I didn’t feel ready.
And I wasn’t.
My first tournament experience was terrifying. I lost almost 5lbs sitting in the stands, just sweating all day. I was used to rolling in class, but those were friendly rolls with training partners. This was a competitive roll against some guy I’ve never even met before.
The nerves were terrible. The waiting just intensified it.
After what seemed like a lifetime, I got called to my mat. I faced my competitor and shook his hand. As soon as the ref said “combate!” I nearly soiled myself. I looked into my opponent’s eyes, and he had a look on his face that I’ll never forget. I remember thinking “this guy wants to hurt me”
I wasn’t ready for this. My mind started racing. What the hell was I doing? Why am I not at home enjoying my weekend? Whose idea was this? My heart basically dropped out of my body through my ass and made a beeline for the nearest fire exit.
The next couple minutes of my life before I was submitted are a complete blur – I only remember them because they are captured for eternity in a YouTube video that makes me groan every time I see it.
I wasn’t THERE in that match. I wasn’t ready for it. I didn’t want it. I wanted to want it but I didn’t know how. I thought that maybe I just wasn’t cut out for this competition thing. Maybe I was just too much of a “nice guy”. Maybe I should just stick to friendly rolls in class.
At the same time though, I was mad at myself. I was determined to fix myself – to find my inner competitor.
That first tournament was in February. Following that, I did every single OJA and OGA tournament between London and Toronto. Every time, I’d go through a different routine the week of competition to try to get into the right mindset. No rolling the week before. Light rolling the week before. Super heavy rolling the week before. Eating clean. No booze. Only vegetables. Carb loading. Day of the tournament pre – workout supplements. Hard rock. Heavy metal. Heavier metal. Even heavier metal. Seriously, I tried it all. And none of it worked. How could I perform so well in class and yet so poorly in tournaments?
Fast forward to August 2012 (IBJJF Toronto Open). I had done 9 tournaments, and in that time had managed to win only ONE match in a tournament. I was still training a ton because I loved the art, but starting to think that this competition thing maybe wasn’t for me. I have a drawer that I like to call my “$80 t-shirt collection”, representing all of the tournaments I’ve gotten a shirt at for registering, waited all day only to lose my first match and go home. I thought that I was about to add another one to that collection.
As a result, I didn’t do ANYTHING differently the week before that tournament. I didn’t expect anything from myself. The night before the tournament I even went out with a friend for some beers.
I got to the tournament and I was just relaxed. Chatting with friends and having fun. My division got called. I got onto the mat, shook hands with my opponent, just completely relaxed. The ref called “combate!” and then it happened.
Holy S**t. I actually remembered how to do jiu jitsu. I swept. I held position. I even attempted some subs. And I won.
And then I won my second match.
Okay so this isn’t a fairy tale – I lost in the finals. But I lost to a guy who was better than me. He got his blue belt on the podium. He beat me, but more importantly, I didn’t beat myself. I was outclassed in that match on that day. I walked away with a silver medal and a blown mind.
All this time, I’d been trying to emulate the spirit of my competitor in that first match I’d ever had. I’d been trying to get myself amped up and angry, not realizing what I really needed all along was to just chill out. To relax. To treat it like just another day, just another roll, and to trust in my training and my abilities.
Since that day, I have medaled in all but two tournaments I’ve entered. The ones where I’ve performed poorly, I’ve beaten myself. I’ve gotten into my own head.
The moral of my story is this: some people are natural competitors. They do well from their first tournament. But not all of us are like that. Some of us need to find that in ourselves. And for some people (like me), you have to make a lot of mistakes to get there. Just don’t be afraid to make those mistakes. Keep putting yourself out there.
One thing that people would always say to me after every competition loss was “you either win or you learn”. And I wanted to punch them. What stupid, fluffy, inspirational crap. Nothing made me angrier than hearing that. I didn’t realize that I was actually learning to not fear losing, and it was in letting go of this fear that I learned to love competition.
It’s done so many good things for me, not only in my BJJ life, but also in my personal life. I take more chances. Push myself out of my comfort zone more. And I’m happier with myself for it.
So if you’re like me, just keep competing. Keep putting yourself out there. After all, either you win or you learn, right?