By Youseff Drihmi

I’ve never faced anxiety in any aspect of my life until I competed in Brazilian Jiu Jitsu. The nature of solitary sports does not afford one the excuse of offloading any of your mistakes and losses on teammates or coaches. The reality is that BJJ is a style of combat and, however rare the occurrence, you do risk serious injury when you train and even more when you compete . I am starkly reminded of these facts in such an irrational way that my animal brain summons the disabling weight of the fear of death and adds it to the equation.

I dislike the debilitating anxiety that accompanies Brazilian Jiu Jitsu competitions so much that I started to completely dislike competing. The anticipation leading up to the big day, the diet clean-up, the constant weight monitoring, and the intensified training sessions made me dread it all. For a while, I had a streak of first round losses all due to the fact that I wasn’t able to be myself, I wasn’t able to fight the way I train. I am immensely fortunate that I have the opportunity to train at Marcelo Garcia’s Academy in NYC and we get our fair share of UFC fighters as visitors. As most of my training partners rushed to get pictures, I was more interested in picking their brains about this exact issue and surprisingly enough, every single fighter I spoke to seems to experience a similar anxiety before each and every one of their fights.

Here are some of my collected findings:

  1. Warm Up and Break a Good Sweat!
    • Let’s think about it, the average resting heart rate for an adult is anywhere between 60-100 bpm and for the average athlete, anywhere from 40-70 bpm. When you step on the mat, the sudden whirlwind of increased activity along with the common adrenaline dump will have your heart rate go to upwards of 200 bpm. The last thing you want is your body to go into shock from having your heart rate go from 60 to 200 bpm so doing a good warmup will help you get your hear rate up to the point where the sudden shock isn’t as great.
    • I would recommend doing a warmup that you are familiar with, as the more familiar the routine, the more comfortable you will be before your match. I prefer doing the exact same warmups that we do at the academy. The ritual of these routines helps put me in a familiar place where my aim is to make this just another day at the academy.
    • I would recommend warming up to the point where you break a good sweat. I used to avoid warming up out of fear that it would make me too tired for my match but I have since realized that it does more to get my body ready than anything else that I do.
    • Don’t forget to warmup your lungs, a simple breathing exercise such as doing six counts for inhales and exhales gets your lungs ready. Try to do all your inhales through your nose as that will help you gain control over your breathing.
  2. Be Conscious of Your Breathing!
    • Breathing is an involuntary physiological process that we can usually take great comfort in not having to think about. In moments of stress, anxiety, or panic, relying on your body to take care of your breathing can serve to be a great hindrance. You really have to take back control over your breathing so that you can perform under pressure.
    • I learned that once you allow your breathing to go out of whack, your body goes into an irrational state where you start making mistakes just our of sheer exhaustion. Controlling your breathing helps you control your body’s reaction to what’s happening around it. In some practices of yoga, you learn to do all of your breathing from your nose as that limits the amount of air that you can intake to prevent triggering hyperventilation.  So as you’re competing, remember to breathe and when you start feeling tired or when you start feeling the onset of panic, start a count for your inhales and a count for you exhales to take back control over your breathing.
  3. Stick to Your Bread & Butter!
    • The best game you can play is the game that you play at your academy. I would not recommend trying new moves during a competition, that’s what your training is for. You want to showcase your best game and your best game is the one that you use the most often. Push the match to go in your direction, don’t get frustrated and don’t do something you would never do in training.
  4. Win Early, Win First!
    • I always rush to shake the referee’s hand before the start of the match in an attempt to get the first win. My goal is to set the pace by winning something, no matter how small it is, just to set the precedent of winning. Win the first grip, score the first point as there are plenty of statistics that show that competitors that score first or make the first grip get to dictate the way the match goes, it’s easier to keep the lead than have to catch up.
    • A study by BishopBJJ of the 2012 World Championships shows that the competitor who scores first wins the match 75% of time.
      • Here’s a link to the stats: 

Youseff Drihmi is a purple belt under Marcelo Garcia in NYC. He can be found at his blog or on instagram: @Ydrihmi