“You beat yourself before you even stepped foot on the mat”
That is what my coach said to me after my final match at NAGA on Saturday. As you can probably guess, that means things didn’t exactly go my way. I had two matches in no-gi and two matches in gi for a total of 4. I lost every one. Here is my breakdown of the tournament. Apologies in advance, this is gonna be a long post.
I got to the tournament right before 10 which was when the women’s division was supposed to start. Naturally it did not start until 11 so my panicked driving and running from where I parked (like a mile away from the venue) was for naught. As I am a blue belt now I had to fight at the intermediate level in no-gi so I knew I was in for a long wait before my first match. My teammate who was also fighting came early to watch my matches so he helped me warm up which was much appreciated. Another teammate who was not competing came to cheer me on and I was super happy to see her as well. My coach had to teach that morning but he arranged for other guys in our network of schools to coach us. My friend from Massachusetts who is also a blue belt got put into a director’s division (both her and the other woman in the division were thrilled to find someone their size who was also over 40 to fight) and had to go first. I coached her match which basically means I kept her updated on time left, score and yelled things like “settle down and work the pass!”. Hey it’s better than no coach and she won her match!
After much waiting and pacing and worrying, it was finally time for my first match. I had checked out the other women when I got there (naturally) and I recognized one from the last time I had done NAGA in September. We both competed as beginners then but since she had won the division I had a pretty good feeling she was also in the intermediate division as NAGA is pretty strict about that sort of thing. I was right. They called my first match and it was against her. In September when we fought, I had tried to work a takedown and she caught my head and guillotined me. Knowing this I kept telling myself not to let her get my head, to just try to move in and pull guard. That did not work out. She caught my head again and quickly guillotined me…again. Lost by submission.
Since I lost the first match I had to fight the 3rd person in our bracket next. They offered me a round to recover but since my first match probably lasted about a minute, I told them I was good to go. The first two minutes of this match was us going back and forth with wrestling grips and going for takedowns. We kept getting grips and then disengaging and repeating the process again. Every time we clinched up she would slam her forehead into my head as she went for the grip. I have a beauty of a shiner right now to prove it (more black eye fun in a later post, stay tuned!). I eventually got really sick of standing up so I pulled guard. She quickly got to half mount and then shoved her shoulder right over my mouth and nose so I couldn’t breathe. I had an excellent black belt instructor from another school in our network coaching me and I heard him telling me what to do and it made sense but all I could think was that I couldn’t breathe and before I did anything I had to move her shoulder because I was suffocating. Thinking back on it now I should have just worked the escape and my mouth would have freed up but I panicked. I can’t remember much details about this fight other than she was on top of me for all of it on the ground and I was constantly fighting to breathe. She won on points and I had my second loss.
It was now time to wait for the gi division. I left my mat to go watch my teammate compete and after his first match, our coach showed up. My friend from MA got nervous that she was going to go first in gi again because they made a master’s division for her and two others this time so she asked me to come back to coach her. By the time she went my coach had come over to our mat after finishing with my teammate so he coached her to two more wins and her second gold medal of the day.
Another long wait and it was time for my gi division. They had called me up to the table at the beginning of the day to tell me they didn’t have a gi match for me. I find that there is often a gap with women in the middle of the weight brackets. They had a bunch or women that were in the lightest division (below 120) a few in the highest (above 160) and nothing in between. The guy reffing the table said he had a student who was a very high level white belt who had agreed to fight up a division and asked if I was ok with that. I said I was fine with it but I did notice on the card that she was 25lbs more than me. Through an error of weights on one of the cards (they had turned 191 into 119 which they didn’t realize until the competitors were on the mat and everyone was staring at them thinking “something is off here”) the brackets got all mixed around anyway so it turned out there were 3 of us in my division.
My first gi match was against the high level white belt. We yanked on each other’s gis a bunch of times, both of us trying for takedowns, she eventually broke down my posture and took me down but I got her immediately in guard. She tried to break it and I tried to lock in a triangle. She was able to escape to the side but I came up on my knees and drove her into turtle. I tried to take her back, got my hooks in but I didn’t have the seatbelt grip locked up and she rolled me. She tried to break my guard again and I almost took her back but failed and she ended up in side mount. I tried to bridge into her to escape and she was able to push me back down and quickly go for an Americana. I couldn’t roll into it so I had to tap.
I went to sit next to my coach knowing I’d be fighting again soon and he told me that I could have won that match if I hadn’t hesitated and just kept going. He said he could see where I would stop a split second before finishing a technique because I thought it wouldn’t work and then of course it didn’t. He told me to let the loss go and focus on the next one and believe in the technique.
It was time for my second match and it was the same girl who I had fought second in no-gi. In a moment of true humility I had noticed her waiting around in her gi and saw she had a yellow belt on. This of course means she is not yet 16 so I asked her how old she was. She told me 14. Wonderful. We again spent a lot of time on our feet and eventually I tried to pull guard again (I think, I am fuzzy on this one too). When she got into guard all I could think about was that I didn’t want her to smother me again with her shoulder (she had an entire gi to use this time!) so I was concentrating all my effort on not letting that happen. Unfortunately it meant I let her get an easy pass to mount and while trying to bridge and roll, she x-choked the hell out of me.
I left the mat really upset, I didn’t talk to my coach, I didn’t talk to my teammates, I quickly left the area to go collect myself. I had lost all my matches. I lost my gi matches to a white belt and to a 14 year-old. I had lost in spectacular fashion. I had lost in spectacular fashion in front of my coach. These were all the thoughts going through my head as I stood off to the side and willed myself not to cry.
I eventually gathered myself and went back to the mat as I knew that I was going to have to be there for the medal ceremony and I didn’t want them to drag me out kicking and screaming. My coach came over to talk to me. That was when he told me I was beating myself mentally before I even competed. I told him I knew he was right. I do know he’s right. I have very little confidence in my ability to beat anyone. I go in there thinking that I will lose and then I do. It was my first tournament as a blue belt so I was intimidated by that. In my first match all I could think about was how she beat me before and I didn’t want it to happen again. In my first gi match I thought about how she was bigger than me and how it would be humiliating to lose in front of everyone to a white belt. In my second gi match I thought I couldn’t win because she had beaten me already.
Instead of coming up with reasons I will win, I come up with reasons I will lose. My coach was really nice as we talked about it, he said he understood where I was coming from and gave me some ideas on ways to improve my mental game. I apologized to him for my performance. He told me never to do that. To let it go and move on and he didn’t care if I won or lost.
So I know I have some things to work on. My standup needs a lot of work. I have to learn to not panic if someone smothers me. I need to go harder when I roll even when I am with the boys. I can do all these. But how do I work on my mental game? I think that my lack of confidence is a combination of lower than average self-esteem (fat kid syndrome, you never really move past it) and lack of success in my own training. I don’t know how to fix these. I don’t know how to give myself more self-esteem. A lot of the lack of success in BJJ is probably more of the same self-fulfilling failure. I don’t think I am capable of “winning” any roll so I don’t. It’s a nasty catch-22 that I don’t know how to get out of.
So I thought about ways I could work on this all through the weekend. My coach suggested some books so I will read some of those. But what else can I do to change my attitude? I considered asking teammates what they think I am doing right but that seems too needy or like I am fishing for compliments. So I am going to focus on things I can do for myself. I am going to go into every roll with the thought “I can get on top and I can win” and I am going to keep on going until I do. After class I will think about the positive things I did rather than focus on the negative. Am I going to be able to do this? Will it help if I do? I really don’t know. But if I want to keep competing I need to change my attitude so I’m going to give it my all.