Sport vs Self Defense-The Pros & Cons of Competing

Just this past weekend, I attended a sport Jiu-jitsu competition at which several students from our academy were competing.  So I thought it would be a good time to talk about some of the pros and cons of sport competition, as well as highlight some of the major differences in training for sport versus training for self-defense.

Sport competition represents only a very small part of what Jiu-jitsu as a whole is.  Jiu-jitsu, as it was originally developed, is a fighting art.  Particularly the brand of Jiu-jitsu developed by the members of the Gracie family out of Brazil, was intended to be a complete martial art for self-defense, which address all ranges and aspects of fighting.  Unfortunately, today's "modern" Jiu-jitsu, which is taught in MOST Brazilian Jiu-jitsu academies, focuses primarily on the sport aspect.  In most sport Jiu-jitsu competitions, there are weight classes, time limits, and a point system, all things which don't exist in a street fight.  There are also rules that limit the techniques that competitors can engage in, which by nature, creates a situation where sport competitors train to not pay attention to these "illegal" techniques, which sometimes would be very common in a self defense situation.  For example, most Jiu-jitsu competitions don't allow any type of striking techniques, and don't allow competitors to slam their opponents.  However, these are the types of things that one would be very likely to face in a self defense situation. 

If your focus in training is to compete in sport tournaments, you are likely to focus on things that will give you a competitive advantage in that environment.  That means, learning the points and rules, and tailoring your training around things that take advantage of the ruleset.  While that doesn't sound like a bad thing, it can have negative affects on your Jiu-jitsu.  Under stress, you will revert to your training, and it is very difficult to flip the switch between sport training and self-defense.  For example, many sport competitors train to turn to their knees when their opponent is passing their guard, in order to avoid their opponent scoring points for the guard pass.  While this idea may be useful in the limited context of a sport competition where the competitor is protected by the rules, this type of training results in a negative reflex for self defense.  Turning your back to your opponent in a street fight is one of the worst things you can do, as you will be easily susceptible to your opponents striking techniques.  Another commonly seen example is that of sport competitors jumping to the guard or allowing their opponents to lift them off of the floor.  Because their is a rule limiting slamming your opponent, many competitors feel comfortable allowing their opponents to pick them up off the ground in a closed guard situation.  This can have a devastating effect in a street fight, as your opponent will most likely slam you on your head, causing severe injury and possibly unconsciousness (something which unfortunately even happens within the context of sport competitions, even when there is a rule against it).  Many modern "sport" techniques work great in a grappling only situation, but often expose you to great risk in a situation where your opponent can strike you with punches, knees, headbutts, etc.

Also, in a sport Jiu-jitsu tournament, you are competing against other people who also train Jiu-jitsu.  Dealing with a trained opponent inside of your weight class, who is operating under a strict set of rules and time limits is a very different thing from defending yourself against an untrained opponent, who is likely bigger, stronger, and possibly more athletic.  The trained opponent moves better, in a very predictable way, but this is not necessarily a good simulation for the average opponent in a street fight who, while they don't make technically correct movements, is typically much more aggressive and unpredictable.  So, while Jiu-jitsu, as it was originally conceived self-defense art includes, on a technical level, striking techniques, takedowns & throws, stand up self-defense techniques against surprise attacks (including weapons defenses), and grappling techniques, the sport aspect focuses primarily on ground grappling, with some limited application of takedowns.  Thus, it represents only a small part of what Jiu-jitsu is.

However, we shouldn't throw the baby out with the bath water.  Even from a self-defense mindset, there is value to be found in competition.  One of the toughest parts of competing is dealing with the emotional stress of the competition.  You are stepping out on the mat with an opponent that, in most cases, you don't know and have never faced before.  You don't know their game, you're not sure how they will react, and you are performing in front of other people (friends, family, teammates) outside of the comfortable environment of your home academy mats.  The nervous energy and adrenaline dump that most competitors experience in competition closely resembles the physiological responses to stress that your body experiences in a street self-defense situation.  So, while you are competing in a relatively safe and controlled environment, there is still an aspect of real danger (in competition your opponent generally doesn't have your best interest in mind like your teammates inside the academy do), and being able to perform adequately under the pressure of competition shows you what positions you feel comfortable with under stress and which ones you need to work more on. 

In addition, preparing for competition usually means that you train more, you eat better, you pay more attention to not getting injured and rest/recovery, and that you work more on your general conditioning and fitness.  All of these things are positive for your Jiu-jitsu overall.  So, regardless of the outcome of the competition, if you approach it the right way, you will benefit physically, mentally, and emotionally, from the process  of competing.

The bottom line is, there is nothing wrong with competition.  If you want to compete, compete.  Have fun, do your best, and try to learn something from the process of competing.  You can still practice fundamentally sound self-defense based Jiu-jitsu and do well in competition.  However, keep it in the proper context.  Understand that training for sport competitions isn't the same thing as training for self-defense.  It is no different than going to play soccer or tennis on the weekend.  It can be a lot of fun, it can have some physical and mental benefits, but it is a game, no more, no less.  Know what your goals are for training Jiu-jitsu.  If your primary goal is to compete and win medals, you should focus on the things that are going to help you accomplish that goal.  However, if your primary goal is to learn an effective means of defending yourself, you should train ALL aspects of Jiu-jitsu, and spend most of your training time of the things that are going to apply to a real fight, and avoid positions that would not be fundamentally safe in a striking situation.   Explore all of Jiu-jitsu, but dedicate the majority of your training to the things that are going to help you accomplish your own individual goals.



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