Unless you’re a naturally competitive athlete with nerves of steel, martial arts tournaments can be intimidating. Even if you’ve been doing them for a while.
You’re in a new place, facing new people. Some of those people might be using techniques you’re not familiar with—or have different spins on the ones you know well. You’ll have to manage external pressures like wanting to represent your team well and the stress that comes with competing in front of other people and internal pressures like nerves and performance anxiety.
The bad news is that those jitters before and during competition probably won’t go away completely.
The good news is that those nerves aren’t a character failing. It doesn’t make you a weak or incompetent martial artist. It makes you a martial artist who cares about your training and wants to do well.
The other good news is that there are simple and effective steps that you can take to help you manage your emotional investment, get yourself in the best physical and mental shape possible, and get the most out of your tournament experience.
Here are six ways to prepare yourself for a martial arts competition.
1. Set Goals
Obviously we all want to win, but a podium finish isn’t the only way to succeed at a martial arts competition. So when you first sign up for a tournament or a match, take some time to think about everything that you’d like to accomplish durning your training and competition. How do you want to feel when you’re training? What do you want the actual tournament experience to look like? What lessons do you hope to take away from it? Make a list of actionable and measurable goals and start reaching for them.
In our last blog post, we looked at the benefits of meditation for martial artists. One of the techniques we covered was visualization. In this type of meditation or guided imagery, you picture yourself going through the task that you want to accomplish, tackling any problems that might emerge, and finally succeeding. It’s popular with athletes and sports psychologists and has been proven to improve athletic performance. And it’s a perfect tool to add to your pre-tournament prep.
In the days and weeks leading up to your competition, take a few minutes to close your eyes and picture yourself going to the tournament venue, competing, and succeeding at your goals. It will help keep you calm and focused on the big day.
It might seem counterintuitive if you’re new to competition. And even when you’re a seasoned vet who understands the science behind the approach, it can still get frustrating. But the best thing you can do as you get closer to game day is to back off. Training too intensely in the days before a tournament can decrease your performance and increase your risk of injury.
To avoid those negative outcomes and help you peak at the right time, you should gradually start cutting down on the intensity and volume of your workouts two weeks before competition. If you belong to a team or gym, your coaches and teachers will probably be factoring this into your training plans already. But if you’re doing any cross-training on the side like running or weights, you’ll want to start tapering those, too, for maximum results.
Yes, this is in addition to the reduced activity you’ll be doing during your tapering phase. In general, rest is an important part of any good martial arts training program. In the weeks leading up to a competition, it becomes even more vital. Proper rest and proper sleep can improve everything from your focus to your general sense of physical and mental wellbeing. It can also help you better recover from old injuries and prevent new ones. All of which will help you to have more a effective, more satisfying, and safer competition day.
Once your mind and body are getting into the zone, it’s time to get your gear ready. Make a checklist for everything you’ll need on competition day, including your uniform, protective gear, any other equipment you’ll need for your discipline like boxing gloves or weapons, snacks, and first aid items. Pack them in your gear bag. Double check that everything’s there. Then grab and go.
For more information on this topic, check out our tournament packing tips.
6. Expect the Unexpected
No matter how well you prepare yourself, you can’t predict everything that will happen on tournament day. It might be a little thing, like forgetting a good luck charm or having an awkward conversation that briefly messes with your focus. Or it could be bigger. The writer of this blog once broke her toe in a cartoonish mishap at a jiu-jitsu tournament. During the warm-up.
Whatever the case, there’s always going to be something about martial arts tournaments that you can’t perfectly prepare for. And that’s OK. Everything is a learning experience. Some things make good stories years later, too. All you can do is step into your martial arts competition knowing that you’ve done the work and be open to whatever happens. And then give yourself credit for whatever the outcome is.