The alarm wouldn’t go off for another 40 minutes, but he got up anyway. Hank had been tossing in bed for hours trying to get back to sleep, but it just wasn’t happening. He couldn’t remember the last time he had been this excited about something. He’d been training for weeks now to get ready for today’s tournament. Finally it was time to bring home the gold.

Hank showered and had a light breakfast of some toast and a banana. He checked his training bag for the hundredth time, kimono, belt, rashguard, athletic tape, water bottle. Everything was still there. It would be a while before his training partners came by to pick him up, so Hank sat down on the sofa with a laptop. He wanted to review a couple of the BJJ Weekly techniques he’d been working on in practice. He also wanted to read the rules for the tournament one more time to make sure he understood them.

He was watching videos when a horn blasted from the driveway. Hank grabbed his bag and headed for the door. He was the last one to be picked up so the trunk was already crammed with gym bags and gear. Hank stuffed his own gear on top and jumped into the last open spot in the back seat. It would be a couple hours before they got to the tournament, but everyone was already amped up.

Only one of the four friends had competed at a tournament before. The other three, including Hank, were tournament noobs. But even though Hank was anxious, he knew he had a good chance of winning and he desperately wanted to bring home a gold medal. He had just gotten his blue belt a couple of months ago, but had already tapped a couple higher belts in class. He also made short work of most of his white and blue belt training partners. Everyone on the team told him they were sure Hank would win too. No pressure.

When they arrived at the event, they met up with a few other guys from their club and staked out an area in the bleachers as their home base. Hank found out where weigh ins were going to be held, and got all of his registration paperwork turned in. He was glad he had decided not to try and cut weight. One less thing he had to worry about today.

Waiting for his division to be called seemed to take forever, but then it was finally time. Hank stepped out on the mat for his first match… and instantly forgot everything he thought he knew about jiu-jitsu. He walked out to the center in a fog. By the time he regained focus he was inside his opponents closed guard and could barely breathe. The guy had a super deep grip in the neck of his gi and his knees were like a vise on Hank’s ribs. He couldn’t sit up to get his posture back and he started to panic. He pushed and strained for what felt like an hour. His face was smashed against his opponent’s chest when he realized he could see the clock at the scorer’s table. Only a minute had gone by but already Hank felt absolutely exhausted.

“I came here to win a gold medal, not lay in someone’s guard all day! I refuse to let this guy do this to me!” he thought. With superhuman effort, Hank dug deep, drove his hands against his foe’s armpits and used his entire body to drive his neck up. At first nothing happened, both fighters were straining against the pressure.

Then in a sudden burst Hank was up! Yes! But just as he was starting to celebrate this mini victory Hank felt that something wasn’t quite right. He was falling towards the mat in slow motion. The truth floated into his mind about the same time his opponent’s second hand slid in to finish the choke. He’d been swept. He was mounted. And now he was getting choked out. As his world started to close in around him he tapped. His tournament was over less than two minutes after it started.

Hank couldn’t believe it. He spent the rest of the day replaying the match in his head. He was in such a funk he couldn’t even celebrate his teammate’s wins. For the last 3 months Hank had just a single goal, to win this tournament, and he had failed.

It took a couple of months for the sting to really go away, and now it was time to get ready for the next tournament. It was really making Hank anxious, and instead of being fun, jiu-jitsu was starting to become a source of stress for him.

What could Hank do differently this time?

He should change how he sets his goals. In the first tournament Hank’s goal was to win the gold medal. The problem with that goal is that he can’t control all the variables. There are a lot of factors beyond his control including the other fighters, the officials, the bracketing, etc. Hank would be better off setting behavior based goals that he has complete control over.

Instead of saying I’m going to win a gold medal, Hank should think about what he believes it will take to win a gold medal and then develop a plan for his training. It might look something like this:


  • Come to class 3x week each week
  • Do weight training 2x each week
  • Do cardio training 2x each week
  • Stick to my diet 6 days/week
  • Study jiu-jitsu videos and books for 3 hours/week
  • Schedule 2 private lessons with my instructor to work on problem areas

And once he arrives at the tournament his goals might look like this:

  • Arrive early to make sure registration and weigh in go smoothly
  • Control breathing before the match and be aware of feeling the mat under my feet
  • Make an effort to hear my coach during the match and try to implement his advice
  • Don't panic and always attempt to improve my position, no matter where I find myself
  • Conduct myslef with dignity, win or lose shake my opponents hand after the match and hold my head high
  • Support my teammates and celebrate their success

All of the above goals are things that Hank can actually control. He doesn't need luck or help from outside forces. And, if he manages to achieve all of them he will rise to as high a level as he is ready for at that time. He's preparing himself for success and playing the odds. He may lose a match here or there, but over time he'll steadily improve his results.

With this approach, Hank will actually feel great going into the tournaments because he’s accomplished dozens of mini goals along the way. Before he even fights he’s already successfully met most of his goals. Now if he wins it’s the icing on the cake, but even if he loses he knows he did everything possible to get ready, it just wasn’t his day.

If you want jiu-jitsu to stay fun, don’t saddle yourself with goals that aren’t within your power to accomplish. That’s like setting a goal to win the lottery. Set behavior based goals and no matter what the final brackets look like you’ll always be successful.

- Bill Thomas