Nerves: A Gift Or Curse?


The only thing I remember from my first competition is the referee saying, “Combate” (fight) and everything in my mind freezing – with everything I’d learned trapped within that ice. Nearly every competition since then has featured a struggle with that nervousness-induced ice.  It wasn’t until I started to question traditional advice that I finally experienced a turning point.


Traditional Advice 

The tips I received over the years always centered around distracting yourself from those nerves.  This bothered me because it made it sound like nerves were something to be ashamed of, that “true competitors” or “winners” never get nerves.  However, everyone, not just BJJ competitors, experiences this feeling at one time or another, whether they like to admit it or not.  

So how are professionals able to perform at such a high level despite their nerves?  

The key is to first understand that nerves are actually there to help you.  Nerves are your body’s way of preparing you for competition.  The narrowed vision, the increased heartbeat – all of it is to ready you for battle. Your body is giving you the tools it knows you’ll need to win.  All we have to do is accept those gifts.


Accept Your Nerves

Try this out: Imagine yourself at your next competition. Feel the press of the crowd around you, listen to the hoarse shouting of teammates and coaches, smell the sweat and anxiety in the air.  Walk up to the mat and check in with the person at the table, confirm your name, give them your ID.  Catch eyes with the referee, watch their posture still and their hands rise to call you onto the mat. 


Now, take those nerves and let’s work with them by going through this three-step exercise:

  1. Observe your body’s reaction without judgment. Take a few moments to observe what’s happening physically from head to toe.  For example: My breathing is quick and shallow. My stomach feels queasy. 
  2. Now think about what’s driving these reactions. Be honest.  My coaches and teammates have spent so much time helping me and I don’t want to let them down. I don’t want to look like an idiot. I want to prove myself. I want to win.  Accept these reasons as valid  because they are.
  3. Remember that this is all part of competition. These nerves are your body’s acknowledgement that this is a special event  and it’s trying its best to help you.  Your heart is racing to give your muscles more blood so you can be more explosive. Your  breathing is fast to bring oxygen to your brain so you can think faster than your opponent. Your vision is narrowing so you can focus deeply on the task at hand: winning.


Your Body is Your Biggest Fan

The turning point for me was understanding that professionals perform at such a high level because of their nerves, not despite them.  When you accept nerves as gifts that your body is sharing with you, the ice will melt and you will overcome whatever challenge is ahead of you.


What non-traditional advice has helped you for competition? Share them in the comments below!





Jess Bertubin

Staff Writer

About the author: Jess is a light feather purple belt based in Brooklyn, NY.  More thoughts on BJJ, including her Training Without A Gym technique series, can be found on her blog Rolling With the Big Boys

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