This is a huge question.. I have two answers for this.. First, you need to identify yourself in one of the scenarios and the answer below it is my answer for you. (But then read them both!)
Jiu Jitsu Practitioner 1: If your goals are weight loss, stress relief, camaraderie, participation in a healthy hobby, something fun to do, a gym alternative & a great way to get in shape while learning something cool, & to improve, but you have no designated time frame.. So, roughly 90-95% of ALL Brazilian jiu jitsu practitioners, then No, competition is NOT needed to progress in BJJ.
If you love coming to the academy and training, then there is no need to go outside of it to progress or get promoted. You will progress in your skill level & you will continue to earn belt ranks & promotions based on your dedication, consistency, effort, and skill level demonstrated in the academy.
Your decision to not compete has zero reflection on your love for the sport, your commitment to training, or you dedication to your success. I love golf. I take a few lessons & play twice a week when the weather is warm. I have things that I’m working on in my swing and I have goals that I’m trying to achieve. I want to break 70 this year and I’m working on it. I don’t play in tournaments & I haven’t since I got out of high school. I don’t need to play tournament golf to love golf.
You don’t need to prepare for and compete in tournament jiu jitsu in order to love jiu jitsu.
I believe that competition is a COMPLETELY SEPARATE skill. In many ways, competition is complementary, but it’s still separate. I was talking with Bernardo Faria a while ago about this and he told me about some of his training partners back in Brazil. He said he has guys that tap him and other world class competitors like a drum, but you have no idea who they are. They’ve never won anything big. They are strictly academy training partners who don’t compete.
They either choose not to enter tournaments or they enter but don’t win big. Some of them may not do as well because their game isn’t a tournament style game or mentally, that’s not their mindset. Maybe they don’t have the resources or time available to properly prepare for tournaments or travel to them. Either way, their tournament record has no reflection on their prowess in jiu jitsu and they have the upmost respect of their world class, big name training partners.
Now let’s talk about tournaments..
Jiu Jitsu Practitioner 2: If you are a former athlete who loves the challenge of competition.. if you weren’t an athlete but you like the idea of dedicating time to preparing for a tournament with more intense training, proper diet, supplemental lessons, etc.. if you find competition exhilarating.. if you aren’t afraid to learn from a loss, sometimes in front of your friends, family, training partners, etc.. Or if you can keep your head after a win, then tournament jiu jitsu might be for you.
Competitions are great. I don’t do them very often myself anymore because I am a Teaching Pro. My main focus is working with my students & helping them to reach their goals. I do genuinely enjoy tournaments and I compete once or twice per year. I like the mindset shift that comes during my preparation. I like the adrenaline rush in the bullpen & the feeling of stepping on the mat. I love looking across the mat and seeing that I’m competing against guys that I’ve watched compete for years. When I fought Comprido, I knew that 99 times out of 100, he was going to beat me, but I loved every minute of the match. I know guys like me who have fought Saulo in a tournament and have felt the same way. The best part may be after the match. Anytime I’ve fought any high level guys, we have always talked after, discussed the match, and shared a mutual respect. It’s honestly one of my favorite things about competing.
I love the whole experience. The 5-8 minutes on the mat is great, but the whole trip is what it’s all about. My favorite tournaments are the ones where we can bring a big team from URSA Academy, my family comes along, we can meet up with other Ribeiro Jiu Jitsu schools and compete together and make a weekend trip out of it. In my experience, the bigger and more professional the tournament, the healthier and more inspiring the vibe is that permeates the scene. People may do one local tournament and never compete again. If they do a regional IBJJF tournament, they tend to go again or want to try something bigger. Once they do the Worlds or the Pans, they are hooked for life. They may only do one tournament every other year, but it’s going to be the Worlds.
The more you do something, the better you get. (Assuming you are practicing RIGHT!) The more you train, the better you’ll get at jiu jitsu. However, that skill is not ALWAYS directly transferable to success in a tournament. The more you compete, the better you’ll do in tournaments. And THIS skill IS transferable to your skill progression back at home. Ultimately, if you want to compete well, you have to practice both skills. Competing in jiu jitsu, assuming that you are continuing your consistent training schedule at the academy BETWEEN tournaments, will make you better at jiu jitsu.
Thinking about trying a tournament? Make sure your mind is right. I’ve taken teams to a ton of tournaments over the years and I’ve seen a ton of people quit afterwards. Sometimes it’s because competing was their big goal that they were working towards and once they accomplished that, they were unable to move on to a new goal. They considered themselves, ‘done.’ I’ve seen people quit because their ego was unprepared for the possibility of suffering a loss. I’ve seen people quit because they built up unreasonable and unrealistic expectations of themselves that do not match their preparation. I’ve seen people quit because they were so embarrassed by their loss that they were afraid to go back on the mats with their coaches or training partners for fear that they disappointed them so much that they wouldn’t be welcomed back.
So, in order to avoid that, answer this question.. Who is it that wants to compete? Is it you? Or is it an outside person? Is it a parent, a friend, a training partner, a coach? If you are competing to appease or impress someone else, it will not help you improve. I believe it’s unhealthy and it will hurt or kill your progress.
I have been around this sport for a long time now. I can walk through a tournament and determine very quickly who is competing for themselves and who is competing for someone else. This has nothing to do with who takes it more seriously than others. But there are some telltale signs that will show you who is approaching a tournament with a healthy mindset eager to learn or an unhealthy amount of outside pressure.
Tournaments can create stress, they can turn into something you feel you need to do for self validation. People use language equating a simple jiu jitsu match to a mission, a battle, or war. This is not war.. This is not a battle.. This is a sport.. Something we do for fun.
There can be undue social media pressure.. We live in a unique time where people document everything online. And while it’s great to get support from family and friends and share our interests, a tournament isn’t an epic social media story either. Conor McGregor, Chael Sonnen.. these guys make a living out of hyping fights and increasing Pay Per View buys. The social media buzz they create is a method to increase their paycheck, nothing more. They have a passion for MMA, but at the end of the day, it is their job. After a fight, win or lose, they go home and prepare for the next one.
Jiu Jitsu tournaments are what you do to challenge yourself. Resist the urge to hype your fights, create social media beefs, or go crazy online before or after your matches. Focus on your match, focus on your goals, and remember your purpose and your goals. Everything else is just static that distracts from your progress.
Jiu Jitsu practitioners are notorious for social media tirades and elaborate posts because they don’t compete very often, maybe a few times per year. So, they allow themselves a ton of time to indulge these distractions. Football players do this a little bit.. Because they have a whole week before the next game. Baseball players rarely do this.. They don’t have time to waste going on social media explaining their error they made in the 7th inning and then thanking all of their sponsors, because they have another game in less than 24 hours. They just go to practice to make sure they are better next time.
In your entire life training jiu jitsu, if you are learning anything, you are going to tap way more than you’re going to win… including tournaments. Caio Terra said there is only one spot available for first place. Your reasons for competing have to be a lot more than trying to win first place otherwise, your disappointment will outweigh your progress and your jiu jitsu journey will end before it really gets started.
So, do you need to compete to progress in BJJ? No.. Will it help? Yes.. IF your mind is right.