I entered my first BJJ tournament on Saturday the 15th, October, 2016. It was an internal Gracie Barra tournament, the GB Compnet 30th anniversary tournament. There were 6 people in my division (Male, White Belt, 88.3kg), 1 didn’t show. I had two matches and won both by submission. The first with a (very poor) head arm triangle, the second with an arm bar from mount.
Having a coach/instructor there makes a big difference. As far as I could tell my opponents did not have this. My coach yelled out instructions and tips, which makes a big difference when under pressure. My opponents didn’t have this, and seemed to get a lot more flustered by things than I did.
The intensity is ramp’d up. The first grip I got in my first match I held in a death grip, using way more strength than required to hold it. After less than 10 minutes total match times my hands, and many other muscles, hurt more than after a regular 2.5 hours of class/sparring. Pulling off a simple move is difficult if you tense up too much, and your opponent will be resisting like crazy. Which means you gas out faster. I relaxed quicker than my opponents (barely), and I suspect had more strength in reserve than they did, which gave me a massive advantage when they started gassing out before I did. Not that I had as much left as I would like, but it was enough for 2 matches.
I didn’t pay any attention to points. It’s hard enough to keep the nerves at bay, then the adrenaline down, then relax enough to not tire myself out, and remember everything I’ve learnt. I just went for dominant position, got it, then went for submissions (basically, following my coaches instructions). I took a moment to catch my breath after getting each position, which amounted to holding it long enough to get the points anyway. I had a hard enough time focusing on doing good BJJ to worry about non-essentials (which, for me, points were).
It’s very different to sparring in class. In class I don’t care who gets the first tap in a roll so long as I can use that roll to learn and improve. Sometimes I’ll let someone get side control in the beginning of a roll so I can practice escaping. With some training partners you can pause at any moment and get help if there is a particular issue you’re coming across that is constantly stumping you. In the tournament the first loss means you get no more matches. It feels like you can’t give up anything, you can’t relax. You have put yourself on the line to see if your skills hold up. It’s nerve-wracking.
You can still find plenty to improve after a win. My first match was pretty poor compared to my usual level sparring in class, an adrenaline dump combined with nerves will make doing the simplest thing right difficult. Which is the first thing to work on, staying calm under pressure in a heightened situation. Then there is all the mistakes I made, basics to go over and drill. Nothing you did will be perfect in a first tournament, and even taking away the win doesn’t change that. Use everything as a chance to learn.