Learn to Win: Compete at Your Skill Level Before You Move Up

Travis Stevens (see my podcast interview with him) posted some cold hard advice on his Facebook page that I think is worth considering for beginners and amateur competitors in general:

“What people don’t understand is you have to “learn” how to win! To many people show up to events that are above there level. As nice as it is to compete at the highest level all your doing is learning how to lose. You may have better technique you may be stronger but until you learn how to win it’s all wasted talent. People always over look this fact an keep showing up to events thinking that one day they will get the hang of it but the reality is all their learning is how to lose. I’ve watched for years people throw away matches because they don’t know how to win their not comfortable winning they don’t know how. There are competitions all over the world for people of all skill levels. Compete in your skill level and once you start earning medals consistently move up a level and so on don’t just jump to the top just because it’s allowed. Learn to win so when the time comes you don’t throw away matches.” – Travis Stevens

Most people in the judo and jiu jitsu communities are quick to expose and criticize “sandbagging”: the practice of competing at a level below yours to easily win a gold medal. But people are not so quick to criticize, and instead sometimes even applaud, the opposite practice of competing above your skill level. If you want to succeed at the highest level, you first have to succeed at every level below that. There are exceptions to this, but they are rare, and too often are more myth than reality.

Competing at “above your skill level” can be easier done in judo because the concept of rank is not very strict in judo competitions. For example, white belts are allowed to sign up to the black belt division at nationals. In jiu jitsu, it’s frowned upon to compete above your rank, but you can still compete at “above your skill level” by doing major international competitions without having done many or any local ones. PS: I talk about this in an interview with Sebastian Brosche.

winning-takes-care-of-everythingI often see this tendency to try to progress too quickly, especially in beginners. Of course, like most things, it has to do with ego. When you win a local tournament at blue belt, you start thinking that you can win the Worlds at blue belt. It’s good to believe that, to train your ass off for that dream, BUT you have to be realistic about what it takes to win Worlds. As Travis says, it’s very unlikely that you’re going to magically win in a division of 130+ people, many of whom train full time, unless you’ve “practiced” the hell out of winning already. How do you practice winning? You win… a lot. You win NOT by sandbagging but by competing at your level over and over until you can medal CONSISTENTLY. As a blue belt, don’t decide you’re competing at Worlds without first competing 5+ times before that at local or regional tournaments like a Grapplers Quest or one of the IBJJF Open tournaments. Otherwise, most likely, you’re going to get smashed, and more importantly will not learn nearly as much from the experience, nor have nearly as much fun.

It’s good to get the experience of traveling to Worlds, especially if you go with a team of good friends. And you will get a lot from it off the mat, as you would from any road trip with close friends. But if you want to have a chance of winning, you better first get a lot of wins under your belt, and you do that by trying out your game locally.

Once you move up the rank to brown and black belt, competing at only major tournaments is more practical, if you’ve already gotten 100+ wins under your belt at the lower ranks. Winning builds confidence better than anything else. And on the flip side, depending on the strength of your character, too much losing can often have the negative effect of breaking down your confidence.

So, embrace the challenge by competing at Worlds, but embrace it intelligently by building up to Worlds by competing at many local tournaments.

0 thoughts on “Learn to Win: Compete at Your Skill Level Before You Move Up

  1. Per

    So we should sandbag more? Because that makes us intelligent?
    I´m not a professional athlete, I have a job, wife and kids and compete in the adult division at purple belt. I win some fights and I lose some fights. So, would it be better if I was a blue belt forever so I could win a division at the worlds before I got my purple belt?
    I really think this is the cowards way out and a major problem with the competition scene. We are competing against pros. Who are being sandbagged. To get the triple double grand slam to collect points for their team before they move up.
    So I´ll get my brown belt when I´m dead or I have to stop competing.
    I don´t think there is any shame in not winning every fight at the worlds. I think more amateurs should compete and compete a lot. We can´t all be Keenan, but I think we should keep competing even if we don´t get the gold every time. Isn´t that what keeps this sport alive and not just for the pros.

    1. Lex Post author

      Did you read my blog post? Did I suggest that you stay at blue belt forever? Did I say you have to win Worlds? I only said that you should compete locally before you compete at Worlds. Don’t rush it. Just as you said, the main advice is to compete a lot.

  2. Per

    I´m not saying you did. I´m asking. That´s why there is a question mark behind it. I never meant to criticize you or your post, (I´m sorry if that´s how it came across) I just really can´t see the same trends of people being given belts like nothing as you seem to. Or that too many are making their debut at the worlds. I mean, everybody competes locally before going to the worlds, don´t they?
    I see more and more people actively trying not to get promoted because “I have no ego”. I don´t think that´s it. I think we are too consumed with the idea of not losing because that will make us the next wonder boy and get us sponsorships. I see people being sandbagged. People are winning major tournaments (worlds, euros, pans) at brown and black the same year as they received their new belt. I think the best is to be where your instructor tells you to be, and for instructors to keep their students at a realistic level for them. Challenging your students, not setting them up for clean sweeps all the time.
    I think the idea of you having to succeed at every level (medal consistently) before you move up is one that keeps people away from competing and making the competition scene less interesting to normal people. I just want more people to compete.

    1. Lex Post author

      Thanks for clarifying. I certainly agree with most of what you said, especially that sandbagging is a very bad thing.

  3. Lyle Howard Seave

    as a non-american judoka I have to admit that US judo always seems a bit strange to me…not big things but there are always head scratchers (I say that as someone who has lived in Holland for 2 yrs and France for 4.5yrs and practice judo there as well) and the national federation doesnt seem to have the same clout as they do in other countries (a training partner of mine says that its a cultural thing since americans sports dont really have national federations that dictate how a sport is played following the lead of international federations. MLB, NFL, NBA, NHL are all standalone sports with zero input from their federations. And UFC is another example.). I could be wrong but Ive talked to a few people over the years especially when competing in the Pedro Forearm to the Face tournament (ive see many a straight arm over the years that arent even disguised attempts) and all have many questions about how judo is organized in the US.

    >the practice of competing at a level below yours to easily win a gold medal.

    Besides the ethical part (i cant think any sensei ive ever had that would allow that), I cant figure out how you can do that. yes, I know that you can just take another belt but in my home province everything is computerized and even youth competitors have JudoCanada ID cards so its easy to track someones prior competition and even see his belt (as a tech guy, its pretty easy to automate a script that would flag any competitor that has competed before and then decided to drop to a less advanced group where he doesnt belong).

    >Competing at “above your skill level” can be easier done in judo because the >concept of rank is not very strict in judo competitions.
    Again, this seems weird and even more impossible than the other example above.

    Youth tournaments are sectioned off as yellow/orange and green/blue.
    Its about the same for older judokas with brown/black being added after 16 (you cant get a black belt before 16yr old and those are pretty rare)
    To register for a tournament, your technical director has to fill the appropriate forms and paperwork so anything not right would have to go through him first. I cant think many DT that would risk their reputation and that of their club to do this. That FT 303 form along with your judo passport/ID is obligatory for EVERY tournament even the small local ones. (is there something similar in the US? or do you just show up on your own?)
    You cant just decide you want to compete with the brown/black belts because you want to.
    There are some exceptions made for exceptional athletes (usually seen in the 15-17yr old range) that have a proven track record but those are few and far between and those are verified before the tournament (dont expect to show up at the tournament and think it will be solved that day) just like sometimes you will see tournaments have not enough of lets say green-blue competitors and they mix them in with the orange-yellow (if they cant combine two weight categories since that is their first option) but honestly I think ive seen this once or twice.

    The French Federation have similar rules about competing and while I didnt compete in Holland-only trained, from what I saw at the competitions ive watched it works in the same fashion. You cant just decide today that you will go compete at a higher level group.
    Id be curious to find out how judo is structured (im not talking about BJJ, from what I understand its much, much looser than judo regulations and to be honest I find the idea of a world championships for beginners to be another ‘special’ thing) and how you can get away with the two cases you described.

    1. Lex Post author

      Very interesting. Most E-level tournaments in U.S. are okay allowing seniors fight black belt divisions without regard to their rank. I’ve fought black belt many times as a white belt, yellow belt, green belt, etc. BJJ is actually very different than you suggest. It doesn’t have a strict governing body, but people very strictly govern themselves. It is VERY rare to see someone compete up a rank in major tournaments that divide by rank (like Worlds). Because of that competitors develop in a more gradual healthy way. I think BJJ is doing it right in terms of creating future champions. In judo there are only two divisions for adults: novice and advanced. The gap between those divisions is HUGE. I’ve often easily won novice only to be technically out-classed in advanced. Those type of tournaments were not good for my development as a competitor. Thanks for your note, it made me think.


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