Performing in Competition as Well as in Practice

biggest-wave-surfThe picture on the left is of Garrett McNamara setting the world record for the biggest wave surfed.

It reminded me of a mental hurdle I often come up against when competing. I’ll try to describe it first with an example of practice vs competition…

Practice Example

I’m not a good runner, but I like to use running as an example because it’s a purer form of mental struggle than grappling (where the struggle involves a lot more factors). Right now my best mile time is probably hovering just below 6 minutes. So if I went out to the track for a cardio workout and told myself to run the fastest mile I can, I would probably run a 5:40 minute mile. I would probably hit a wall at 800m and would have to fight to keep the same pace for the last two laps. This is always tough, but I always enjoy the hell out of it.

Competition Example

Now put another runner next to me on that same track, and call it an official race. The winner gets a gold medal, the loser a silver medal. I know his best mile time is 5:40. He is a strong starter, but doesn’t have a kick at the end, meaning he will probably run in front of me most of the race. There’s a small crowd of people around. I’ve been posting on Facebook for months how excited I am about this race.

My job is to push myself in the same exact way as I have in practice and ignore the fact that I’m falling behind at first. It takes a tremendous amount of will to run the 5:40 mile for me in my current shape. In fact what it takes is to focus on one step at a time and meditate over the pain in the lungs and legs. What competition does is it forces me to start thinking about the race a whole: “Oh shit, I’m falling behind. I have to speed up. I’m really exhausted. I don’t think I can hold this pace for 3 more minutes. And so on…” Of course, in reality, just as I have done many times in practice, I can hold the pace for the next 3 minutes no problem. But the prospect of 3 more minutes can sometimes break me. It can break anyone if you don’t practice silencing those thoughts. The solution is to focus on the moment and forget about time, forget about the opponent, and run NOT the fastest I can, but the SAME EXACT WAY as I have in practice many many times before.

Grappling Competition

I bring all this up because I often find myself not attacking aggressively off the bat in a competition match. I like to get a takedown, and that sometimes requires a scramble war that can last a long time against a good opponent. Moreover, when I do take my opponent down, I’ll attack the guard pass way too casually. But in practice (in times when I’m going 100%) I have no problem going very aggressive off the bat. I get excited when it’s a battle against someone with a similar skill level, because I believe I can wear down my training partner with pressure and relentless passing. Even if I’m wrong, I always have fun giving it my all in trying to do it. I don’t watch the clock. I’m not worried about running out of gas. I’m much more “in the moment” like a little kid playing his favorite game. Even the times when I’m taken to that place where I have trouble breathing because the pace has been so intense, it’s still fun as hell.

There are time when you want to strategically pace yourself in competition. That’s good, but you should never do it because you’re scared of running out of gas. When I step on the mat and I believe my best strategy against the current opponent is to go all out right away, I want to do just that, as I would in practice. It’s easy to say, hard to do, especially for a guy like me who spends most of the day staring at math equations or C++ code.

0 thoughts on “Performing in Competition as Well as in Practice

  1. Ruben

    I’ve thought about this too. I’m the opposite. I am much more relaxed in training than I am in the competition. I’d like to be calm in comps just like in training.


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