I competed in my first submission competition as an independent, despite ties with several gyms, two of which I would have defined as "close affiliations." The tournament I entered, held in the rec room of a church of all places, was one I entered for personal reasons, not professional ones; ergo, I left a club off my entry and went in as a solo participant.
Why would I do that? There are two main reasons. First, I wanted to see if wrestling from middle school would work in the competition, as I was just getting into submissions and was still working out how to combine all of my seemingly disparate skills (it was 2004-2005). Second, it would have been unfair to the gyms I was training at to enter a competition under their respective banner having not really put the requisite time into the style of competing I was about to attempt.
I come from a background where it was (a) an insult to the gym you trained at to be unprepared for competitions and (b) an insult to the students who trained every day and were prepared come competition time to flit in and out of classes following your own agenda. So when the moment came for me to try submission grappling, that past informed my decision to go in as an independent athlete.
And I'm glad I did.
The opportunity to test where I was at and what I was capable of was important to me, but in service of a greater goal (which was, ultimately, to fight professionally). What I didn't want it to be was a reflection of the club I trained at--any of them--because then it becomes more about what gets taught there and less about what I already had. That was unfair to everyone, because we hadn't trained enough, at a high enough level, and with the intent to compete, to justify the scrutiny it would place on the gyms and coaches. There were too many variables to make it the right choice, so independent it was.
That choice honored my past coaches as much as the current ones, at least in my mind, as well as students who were training under them. Because competing is important, but not more important than a code of conduct for athletes, classes, and coaches at the respective schools you are training at.
Which brings us to today's lesson in a roundabout way: don't compete if you're not prepared.
It's easy to get swept up in the idea of competing, especially in a gym full of people entering tournaments. But you need to earn the right to compete under the banner of your club, which requires some form of reciprocity on your part. That's a multifaceted consideration, but it usually comes down to honoring your gym's:
Most people have no problem with number one. If you are looking for role models and/or mentors, which most are when they join a martial arts gym, then honoring those same people is rarely a problem. A lot of the time, people show up to the gym just to connect with coaches, staff, and other members of the club--never underestimate the social aspect of martial arts. It's a powerful draw.
Number two is where things get challenging. Putting in the time and committing to regular, honest training, whether by yourself or with classes, is a stumbling block for some. Life gets in the way, sure; if it does, though, forfeit your right to represent the gym in open competition. Simple as that and it's not personal. Compete when you can put the time in...and I mean all the time it takes to be the best version of you when you make it to the contest. Nobody wants to feel like they embarrassed their club.
Number three is key. If your club has a competition team, but you rarely make the classes, then consider that a sign. As in, to be an effective competitor, you need to be part of something greater than yourself, e.g., the competition team representing your school. Not honoring competition classes, regardless of the schedule, then showing up to compete is...well, let's just say it's hard to respect and leave it at that. Esprit de corps is very much a thing that needs to be fostered and protected. If you're never there, you will always be The FNG, no matter how familiar everyone is with you.
When you commit to competing, you need to commit to those three pieces. If you can't, think long and hard about what's motivating you to enter a contest without the due diligence that all involved deserve. I committed to those concepts when I was still a teenager in a grimy basement boxing gym and carried them into my first professional fight as an adult. That meant putting in more time than the two men who cornered me combined, so as to do right by their collective efforts and demonstrate the value I placed on their standards.
And I'm glad I did.