Short answer, probably yes. But obviously it behooves you to understand the level of hard work and sacrifice involved: preparing through rigorous training, conditioning and diet. Or the financial investment as well, since tournaments aren’t free, and you may need to travel and/or take time off of work. And of course, the fact that you will be facing other determined individuals who will actively try to strangle or mangle you. Also, let us not forget the fact that contact sports are, by nature, totally gross because it entails other people sweating and breathing all over you, with risk of mucus and saliva getting involved. But yeah, I’ve done it before and it’s totally worth it.
Here’s the thing: people who compete improve faster than people who don’t. If you’ve rolled with any of the active competitors at your gym, you know this. Does this mean that you need to compete to get better? No, not necessarily. Your martial arts journey does not hinge on this alone. You will always improve so long as you are consistent in your training, and use both cheeks instead of just half-assing it. All the same, I’ve heard people say that a tournament is like leveling up by ten classes in one day. While I generally agree, I’d specify that a good part of that comes from the weeks of intense preparation leading up to the tournament. Also, you will probably need to cut weight to compete, so most competitors have a strict dietary regimen. It’s fair to say you will level up some with the improved nutrition and workout intensity. Then there’s the tournament itself.
Tournament time is where the holes in your game get exposed. Instead of rolling with people you know and like at your gym, in a comfortable setting, you are testing your skills against a complete stranger, one who likely will not hold back or go easy on you. Stuff you might get away with when rolling casually could potentially lead to your defeat during competition. It’s probably the most real feedback you can get in terms of your skill level, and what you might need to work on. Maybe you keep getting taken down in tournaments; time to work on your takedown defense. Maybe you have great takedown defense, but you keep getting stuck in your opponent’s closed guard; time to focus on your guard passing game. Basically, the matches you win will show you what you’re doing well, and the matches you lose will show you where you are weak. As Nelson Mandella famously said, “I never lose. I either win or learn.”
Despite the fact that BJJ tournaments are one on one, they are actually great team building experiences. When preparing for competition, you and your fellow team mates who have signed up for the tournament push each other in class. You roll harder. You hold each other accountable. You push each other further in after-class conditioning. I found that when I go with my team to competitions, I worry about my teammates at least as much as I worry about myself. And of course, since everyone cuts weight to compete, we generally enjoy pigging out together after the tournament.
I’ve referenced weight cuts a few times in this article, so let me expand on that: like most combat sports, BJJ tournaments are broken up into weight brackets. It is possible to just stay at your normal walking around weight, but I guarantee that if you do, the people in your weight bracket will all have a size advantage on you. The overwhelming majority of competitors cut weight to a) give themselves a size advantage and b) to avoid being the smallest in their weight class. For example, in my last two tournaments, I cut from 175 lbs (Middleweight) to just below 164 lbs (Lightweight). Most of the people I faced in the Lightweight division were the same size as me. I’d have faced larger opponents had I stayed at my normal walking around weight. I have no problem rolling with bigger guys in the gym or taking on a bigger guy in self-defense, but in a tournament setting, why give up even the slightest advantage?
Tournaments themselves are costly in terms of registration fees and travel expenses. I know some people who make a lifestyle out of competing; most of their money is saved up specifically for that purpose. But that lifestyle is not feasible for everyone. While there are many difficult aspects of BJJ competition, in the long term those who rise to the challenge tend to develop their grappling skills at a quicker pace. The act of preparing for the competition encourages discipline and self-control, and rewards you with better health. And the competition itself exposes the flaws in your techniques and strategies. If you are serious about grappling but have no desire to constantly compete, I would say that doing at least one tournament will still be a valuable experience for you.
As always, I hope you found some value in this article. Happy training and remember to breathe.