So two weekends ago was the jiu jitsu national competitions for the style in which I train, Seishin Mizu Ryu Tataki Jutsu.
I was really nervous in the period leading up to the Nationals. That’s a slight understatment, acutally–I’ve struggled with anxiety for nearly ten years. Normally it doesn’t affect my daily life, but sometimes it requires more active management than others. My fears in the period leading up to the competition grew to what I knew were completely irrational levels. A part of me knew throughout the entire experience that my fears were ungrounded and I’d have a great time no matter what happened, but the trouble with anxiety is that despite understanding on a rational level what a reasonable level of nerves would be, my emotions aren’t always guided by sober, pragmatic expectations.
It hadn’t even occurred to me to sign up to compete until I was encouraged by my teacher and some of the other students in the club. I went through a brief period of excitement after deciding to participate before a massive nose-dive in confidence. My biggest fear was losing my bouts and then feeling like a disappointment to the other members of the club and to my teacher. At night I would lie awake, unable to stop the horrible image of Anne Robinson appearing during the awards ceremony to intone, “You are the weakest link–goodbye!” before laughing maniacally and pulling some sort of horrible lever controlling a trapdoor leading to the secret under-dojo dungeon they only tell you about when you reach your green belt. The one with the scorpions.
I hope from previous entries I’ve made the supportive environment in our own club clear, so obviously I already knew nobody would react in that way. (Apart from Anne Robinson, who I suspect harbors secret trapdoor-dungeon tendencies.) Winning is great, but at the end of the day it’s about who wants to come back and play with you again next time. It may sound strange to speak about a competitive event this way but throughout the various bouts I had the sense that everybody was in it together and we were somehow all working towards the common goal of having a great National competition, rather than each of us seperately in a race to win something. This was really highlighted by the way people cheered each other on: instead of dividing by club lines and cheering only for the “home team,” consistently in every match most people would cheer for whichever participant looked like she or he needed the most encouragment at the time, often both in the same breath.
But I’m getting ahead of myself. The Nationals isn’t all competitions, there are also training sessions and demonstrations. Before anything at all happens, though, we have to set out the mats.
Mats are, obviously, what we train on in order to minimize the risk of injury. At the Nationals, we had a lot of mats to set up. (Addendum: there were about 140 of us literally running all over the place–that’s a lot of cushioning space.) We had also been warned in no uncertain terms not to show up late for training. The friend who was staying with me and I were so afraid of being late that we arrived nearly an hour early on the first day, which meant we were there in plenty of time to help move stuff around–mainly mats, some of which had come from far-flung corners of the nation in order to participate in the mats’ main duty of lying in a protective manner on the floor, but also, mysteriously, a load of ping-pong tables. (The school whose gym we were using must be forming an Olympian tennis table team. That’s the only plausible explanation.) This was fine with me, because it distracted me slightly from my urge to throw up.
Competitions didn’t start right away; first there was a warm-up and then a training session. It was exciting to see so many jutsukas (students of jiu jitsu) gathered all in one place, and to train with people from other clubs. It was a bit like being at an academic or professional conference: after dealing with a relatively small group of people on a day-to-day basis who understand your work, you become aware in a concrete sense of just how many people actually share your interests and experience. You might know in the back of your mind they’re out there, but it’s different seeing them all together.
My proudest moment of the entire two days was when I got paired during training with a sensei from one of the other clubs. I felt comfortable giving it my all with a black belt–I knew even if I messed up along the way I’d be unlikely to actually injure him. So I really went for it. As I was in the middle of the move, my own sensei (who is also the founder of our jiu jitsu style) happened by, watched for a second, and said something along the lines of, “Well done!”
Receiving a bronze medal for women’s middleweight groundwork was also pretty nifty. Remember back when I said I’d been afraid of losing my bouts? Well, that’s exactly what happened. Three of us entered, and I got pinned in both matches. It felt like a somewhat Pyrrhic victory, until my sensei pointed out during the social that evening that there were many women who qualified to enter our competition and we three were the only ones who chose to do so. Before the bouts started I’d met my competitors and I’d seen that they were just as beset by nerves as myself. It would have been nice to win, but seeing someone else’s confidence boosted by her victory, especially when before we started she’d clearly percieved me as a formidable adversary, was rewarding as well.
Ultimately (after all that misplaced stress!) competing was a relatively small part of my experience at the Nationals–white belts are only eligible for groundwork competitions, so once mine was over I was able to relax and watch everyone else. There are few other places in life where you might find yourself frowning at two people, head tilted to one side, stroking your chin in a clinical manner and wondering, “Yes, but, once you’ve taken their own knife away and sliced their belly open, do you really need to THEN punch your attacker in the stomach?” (They were using wooden knives…it doesn’t do to have entrails all over the mat.)
Our social in between the two days of training was probably my favorite bit, reinforcing the atmosphere of camaraderie across the whole style. I left feeling like wherever my much-meandering path takes me next, as long as there are a few jutsukas around to show me the ropes, I can’t go far wrong. Although…I daresay there were a few people during training the next morning who felt like throwing up, and not from nerves.