Dominyka Obelenyte: Dealing with Competition Nerves

Published on by Dominyka Obelenyte

Photo courtesy of Jeffrey Chu

Throughout my roughly ten years of competing in BJJ, one of the most frequently asked questions I’ve received applies to the dreaded monster we all experience: competition nerves. You know the ones, the feelings of nervousness, shakiness, butterflies, sweaty palms, weak knees, and/or spaghetti arms? Eminem had it right all along. Well the reality (or at least the reality I live in) is that there are two types of competitors: ones that feel like their stomach is going to collapse out their bottom, and liars. 

I’d like to take you all back to my very first competition, when I was a wee nine-year-old girl with chubby cheeks for days (like that’s changed). I was experiencing such tremendous bouts of nervousness that I consulted my teammates for pre-fight advice. “Don’t worry about it too much, I didn’t and I won my first tournament!” said one boy proudly. Another lamented “I lost my first competition, competing sucks, I hate dealing with nerves.” My last and favorite response came from a kid named Dave: “I kept throwing up and had to be excused.” Needless to say, the advice never improved my mood, and I ended up losing all of my two fights, and forgot to pick up my third place participation medal in the end.

Ever since then I’ve held firm to the belief that nerves are a competitor’s worst enemy. They are draining, keep you clammy and cold, make you doubtful of yourself and your performance, and make many resent competing. Well I am here to let you know that it all gets better. Just kidding, it doesn’t. 

Nerves are a tricky subject. They aren’t something you can get rid of by drinking more Gatorade or by working out more. You can’t prepare yourself for them by reading a prep book, and they certainly can’t just be wished away. But slowly and surely, they can be dealt with.

The first thing you have to do is pinpoint their source. I remember when I was younger and aware of an approaching competition, I would constantly think of who my opponents would be, and what my matches would look like. These thoughts occupied my mind, in school, at home, and especially in training. I soon came to realize that the more I thought about competing, the more worried I became, and the more I resented the prospect of competition as the tournament day grew closer and closer. That was mistake number one.

So if your nerves stem from overthinking your tournament experience, the answer is simple: don’t hype up the competition. Instead of coming up with unreasonable and scary hypotheticals, enjoy your days before the tournament focusing on other things, like whatever life you have outside of BJJ, you loser. LOL!
Seriously though, competition isn’t meant to be scary. It is where you go to simply test your skills among other athletes such as yourself, and to weed out what mistakes you may be making or what techniques need sharpening. Don’t take it as seriously as a life-or-death match, otherwise you’re bound to have a nerve-wracking, bummer of a time.

This brings me to my second point, try to make the experience work in your favor. If you are that person that enjoys cracking jokes and feeling at ease before competition, then do just that. Surround yourself with friends, teammates and overall positive-minded people. Listen to cheerful, upbeat music. Nudge a guy or lady in your division and jokingly tell them you’re ready to cream them. Okay, not that last one, but you get the idea.

If you are the opposite of this person though, this advice may hit closer to home. I have never been one of those people that can sit and chat with her fellow competitors like it’s the most normal thing in the world. I am going to fight you later, please don’t start a conversation about how we should totally exchange numbers and plan an outing to In-N-Out Burger. I don’t even like burgers. Whenever I am competing, I like to designate a space for myself. I put my headphones on, steer clear of conversation, and try to keep focused. I listen to music that I like, and I think about what moves I am going to perform in my fights. Surprisingly enough, focusing on myself and what I will try to prove on the mats gives me a sense of calm.

Photo courtesy of Callum Medcraft

Arguably the most important point I can make is to warm up really well before even stepping into the bullpen. I usually drag a disgruntled and lazy teammate to some isolated corner of the venue, and drill a few moves that I know I will be trying to hit in my matches. I know a few people that take this approach, but if drilling isn’t your thing, then try jogging around the venue, doing a few sprints in a hallway, or busting out twenty push-ups to get those arms awake. I cannot stress how important this is, since I feel so much better post warm-up. Some of the nervous energy gets worked off, you feel more alert, and you work up a sweat. Take some caution though, you don’t want to overdo the exercising/drilling. I remember my first No Gi Pan Ams I ran up and down the stairs for about ten minutes and I couldn’t feel my legs afterwards. It was a sucky feeling to step into a match fatigued and ready for a break. 

Overall, nerves are a tough egg to crack. You can take into account all the things I mentioned before and still experience the plight of those damn butterflies. Just know that over time, and with more competition experience, you will find what nerve-breakers will work or you, and all those nasty feelings will slowly but surely be diluted to something more manageable. Perhaps just one butterfly. Or a teeny-tiny gnat if you’re lucky. Peace out, Dom.