Losing is something that every competitor in the world has to deal with. There isn’t a competitor on this planet that hasn’t had a solid dose of that bitter-tasting defeat. Losses happen for a variety of reasons ranging from being out-classed, out-worked, or out-smarted. Sometimes losses happen because you made a silly mistake. Sometimes because you took a risk and tried something out of the ordinary. Some losses come from dumb luck (or dumb unluck?) Sometimes you defeated yourself because your head was fucked, and sometimes the referee defeats you because they saw things differently than you. No matter the situation, losing sucks, and there are a wide variety of feelings that follow those moments of defeat and the way you handle them is arguably more important than the match itself.
The reason we sign up for competitions is to test ourselves. To see how we measure up to people who train at different academies, people who are from different teams with different styles, or people from different regions of the world. It’s super interesting to compete with strangers with whom you are completely unfamiliar. Someone who you cannot predict. Someone who has a “best move” that you know nothing about. However, maybe more important than the match itself is the mental test that competitors endure in the days, weeks, or months leading up to the competition, and the way they handle the outcome of the match when it’s all said and done.
Shame and Embarrassment
Similar to mourning the loss of a loved one, I find that there are stages of grief when processing a competition loss. There are emotions that come flying at you from all the darkest corners of your brain. Usually immediately after the match ends, there is a feeling of SHAME. You have to pick yourself up and face the crowd while the referee raises the hand of your opponent. Some people cover their faces because they are embarrassed. The feeling of shame can be overwhelming. It’s difficult to look into the crowd of friends, teammates, family, and or course the celebrating teammates of your victorious opponent. It’s difficult, yes, but it’s part of the test.
You should never EVER feel shame for a competition loss. Never accept the feeling of embarrassment. You clicked the registration button on the website. You prepared for a challenge. You worked through the sleepless nights of anxiety. You showed up to face off against a person whose sole objective is to dismantle your body, break your bones, and strangle you unconscious. And not just that, but you signed up to do this in front of a crowd of spectators who may or may not be cheering against you. That takes courage.
Sadness and Disappointment
Once you’ve walked off the mat and you are out of the public eye, the feeling of shame and embarrassment will transform into sadness and disappointment. You will feel inadequate. You will wonder why you ever bothered to sign up. You will surely have that shitty little internal voice acknowledging your pre-existing insecurities. You will probably say that you are done competing. You will think to yourself “screw this, I’m done. This isn’t for me.” But this is part of the test. Remember the reason you signed up. You wanted to test yourself. Well managing your sadness and disappointment is part of the test.
It’s perfectly normal and natural to feel sad. But you have to ask yourself what you are sad about? You are not the only person to lose a match that you wanted to win. 50% is the ratio of competitors who will lose their first match at a tournament. 75% is the ratio of competitors who will lose within the first two rounds of a tournament. If you take 10 world champion black belts and match them up with 10 other blackbelt world champions in a super fight jiu-jitsu event… guess what. 10 of those blackbelt world champions are going home with a loss. Does that take away from their accomplishments? Absolutely not. Does that loss make their jiu-jitsu inadequate? Nope. It’s just the nature of the competition. Rest assured, you are in good company.
Anger and Resentment
This is the most unfortunate reaction that may or may not follow a loss depending on the circumstances of the match. Sometimes competitors feel they were treated unfairly by the referees. You might feel like the referee made an honest mistake that cost you the match, or maybe that there was some unfair bias in the scoring of the match. In my opinion, this is the most pitiful way to manage a loss. Casting blame on others for a match outcome that was 100% in your own hands is simply a lack of maturity. To think that you are able to judge your own match without a bias opinion in your favor is laughable. There are always comments about how referees of one ethnicity or nationality favor competitors of their own ethnic or national group (I.e. Brazilian referees favoring Brazilian competitors).
While I cannot say that this has never happened, I don’t believe it is as prevalent as most people claim. I’m the whitest gringo-looking ever to step on a jiu-jitsu competition mat (with the exception of Tanner Rice) and I’ve never felt that the referees were biased against me because of my nationality or ethnicity. Do referees make mistakes? Absolutely. Do referees have subjective opinions on the way a fast-moving technical sequence should be scored? Yes. But referee mistakes and subjectivity occur in EVERY SPORT, including Baseball, Football, Wrestling, etc. Imagine what it's like to be an Olympic athlete in a sport where the referees get to sit at a table and write a number 1-10 on a scorecard based on your performance. I can think of countless matches with crazy scrambles and unorthodox technical sequences that I can’t even fathom trying to dissect within 3 seconds. Referees disagree with each other all the time. We see it all the time when the corner referees try to overrule the mat referee. It’s just the nature of the beast, and it's your job as a competitor to win by a comfortable margin. If your match comes down to a referee's opinion, you didn’t do enough. Own your loss like a grown-ass adult.
If you are taking your loss harder than expected, you may feel like quitting. I’ve felt like this on more than one occasion. It just takes a couple of embarrassing losses or a short losing streak to think that you should hang it that competition uniform once and for all. Sometimes this deep despair comes on when you are on the receiving end of an upset defeat. A loss to someone that you believe you should have easily beaten. Or a loss to a person with much less experience than yourself. Some divisions combine belt levels. Black belts and brown belts, or purple belts and blue belts. It can be quite difficult to process a loss to a person with a lower belt rank than yourself, especially if you have your eyes set on your next belt promotion or your next world title.
These types of losses can be taken quite hard and they might make you feel as though you don’t deserve your belt rank. However, consider the fact that you may not have lost because of your skill, but instead your underestimation of your lower-ranking opponent. The thing about a lesser experienced grappler facing a veteran is that they have no choice but to be hyper-aggressive and attack in full force. Surprise is likely the only chance they have to win. If they try to go head to head, technique for technique, it is unlikely that the lower ranked athlete will prevail.
This is the best one. This is when a few days have passed, your sadness has faded, and you realize that life goes on after a loss and the world keeps turning. You realize that no one will remember your loss because you and your jiu-jitsu matches are not the center of anyone else’s life. This is when your hunger for redemption is alive and well. Your appetite for victory reappears and you set your eyes on the future objectives. It usually takes a few days for the emotionally cloudiness to burn away, and then you are able to use your past experience as fuel for the next event.
They say you “Win or You Learn.” I personally hate this phrase because you can learn with losses as well as victories, IF you have the proper mindset. You can also fail to learn if you DON’T have the proper mindset. The real learning is not the technique that you messed up. The REAL learning happens when you are faced with your internal demons.
It sounds cliche but while, yes, you are competing with another individual, you are also competing with yourself. You are competing against self-doubt. You are competing against anxiety. You are competing against your fears and feelings of inadequacy. You are competing to become a better version of yourself. And, the person standing across from you is doing the exact same thing. That’s why at the end of the day, we need to be grateful for our opponents. Without them, we would not be able to achieve such meaningful levels of interpersonal growth. We are all fighting similar mental battles, and the only way we can do that is by competing with each other.