The Unimportance of Competition

The Unimportance of Competition

I consider myself and my jiu-jitsu program competition neutral, and I mean neutral in the truest sense of Dungeons & Dragons alignment terms. Not chaotic neutral, not lawful neutral. Just neutral. If my students want to compete, they have my full support. If they don’t want to compete, they still have my full support.

I know that a lot of instructors give that idea lip-service, but in application, the competitors at a gym can end up getting more attention and more instruction than the students who are not so interested in competition, even when they attend the same amount and levels of classes. Instructors with the best of intentions often like working with the competitors more for all sorts of reasons, some of which are ego (having a student out there winning matches on their behalf), but there are also factors at play like competitors sometimes learning more quickly or having the athleticism to do more dynamic techniques.

Students who learn quickly and have fewer physical limitations can produce a dangerous reward loop for an instructor. With smaller barriers between you and the transfer of your knowledge, you can feel more successful more easily. If we are being honest, it feels good when a student “gets it,” and that feeling can be addicting.

To put this into perspective, I recently talked to an education leader in Pittsburgh, and he told me a story about how he began his teaching career at a well-funded private school. His students got great scores. They engaged in the classroom. They graduated and went on to great colleges and universities. Then he moved across the country and taught at a public school on an Indian Reservation. Suddenly, he was not the great teacher he thought he was. He realized that the gifts his students in the private school setting made his work easier and then more rapidly rewarding.

To help the students who were not born into wealth and faced many challenges outside of the classroom, he had to work a lot harder as a teacher and seek out deeper insights into instruction if he really wanted to make a difference for all of the students in his class, not just the few gifted ones.

In a jiu-jitsu context, I have been on both ends of the competitor/non-competitor dynamic and have witnessed it many times as well. I have been on the receiving end of additional instruction because I was an active competitor, and I have been off in the corner training mostly by myself in a class while the competition-focused students got the bulk of the attention.

And this is why I work diligently to keep myself competition-neutral. If I start to measure my students and my team (mostly or solely) by how they fair in competition, I am in danger of biasing my own instruction. Every student on my mat deserves equal attention regardless of their competition intentions or their competition performance.

Let me be clear: I am fully in favor of students and gyms pursuing competition. I believe that jiu-jitsu competitions help our sport to evolve, but on an individual student-by-student level, I also believe that the emphasis on competition can actually mean less progress for many students. If the focus of instruction—even inadvertently—is given to competitors, the student who trains as a hobby but has a fulltime career and a family will never realize his or her full potential. They simply won’t have the support that they equally deserve.

So, as many of my fellow jiu-jitsu writers argue for why competition is important, I feel like I have to argue for why it is unimportant in order to balance the conversation, to push us back toward true neutral.

I love jiu-jitsu competition and what it does for the sport, but I hope that we—as a community—can do more to recognize how an obsession with competition biases the way we think about and treat students and training partners. Not everyone who starts in the sport will become a medal chaser, and that’s okay.