I've been getting this request a lot lately-- must be that time of year. Though I pretend no expertise, I can at least suggest what has worked for *me.* PLEASE add what I have missed by commenting, thanks!
Start competing early in your career. I did my first tournament as a whitebelt with about 6 weeks' worth of real training. I hardly knew what a triangle was; the only thing remotely resembling a takedown in my "vocabulary" was to pull guard, which I did poorly. I didn't have a guard game, either, so that would have been funny had I ever succeeded. But for me (ubercompetitive to a fault) that early experience had the benefit of me putting less pressure on myself to win. Try not to wait until you feel like you're ready to compete as that (for me) never happens.. go early, tell yourself that it's diagnostic, no pressure, and approach it like a tourist or an anthropologist, exploring new mores and customs of a foreign people.
Here's some of the Relson Gracie people with me, at my first tournament. (Scott looks like he has scary-long arms, but it's an optical illusion, or so he claims.)
What's your game plan? This cracked me up... during the ride to that first tournament, a teammate asked me the same question, and of course I was clueless. He distilled it succinctly: what's your favorite submission? When in doubt, go for that. If you're not in position to go for it, then try to get there. As it turned out, my first tourney was a local round-robin nogi thing hosted monthly by some MMA school. There weren't enough girls for their own division, so I (and two others) competed in the 155 lbs-and-under division. I picked "guillotine" and his suggestion was in the back of my mind the whole time. In every match with a guy (most of whom were wrestlers) I got my butt kicked, but I didn't spaz.
Here's me and the two chicks at that tournament...
In a match against one of them, I won by guillotine. So, it helps to have a plan, even a very basic one. Keeps some nerves at bay, gives you some direction and focus. Of course, this changes as your abilities change; if your first tourney is as a blue belt, you might ought to have something more advanced than "one submission." But you don't need crazy complexity either-- Roger Gracie's plan is "pass, mount, choke." If it works for him...
Start preparing early. Get your cardio in gear a month or two before the tournament, assuming you're maintaining a good fitness level generally. I won't pretend to be the font of info on this topic, too many good sources out there on the web like Stephan Kesting's GrappleArts, Jason Scully's Grapplers Guide, Caleb's Fightworks Podcast, and workouts like WOD from Crossfit, P90x, etc. But make sure you give yourself time to make weight sensibly and taper your training.
Read about conditioning here.
And cutting weight here.
About overtraining, and peaking...
And about tapering.
A word on weight. Guys are usually pretty up on the benefits of weight classes.. 10 lbs can make a big difference in terms of who you compete against. Women often are not so aware; after all, most of the time at "home" in our academies we're rolling against lots of people who weigh 20, 40, 60 lbs or more than we do, so at times the thought of rolling with someone "only" 10 lbs more than us is like candy. However, ladies, don't underestimate the benefits of being in as low a weight class as you can comfortably. At NAGA for example, we start out officially having two weightclasses... 134.9 lbs and below, or 135 and above. I used to think "shoot, I'm aiming right for 134." But then I got to the tournament and saw that where possible, the tournament people would further subdivide the group. Now I aim for more like 120-125 because I know there are a good number of ladies at that range... whereas the ladies who walk around at 150ish cut for 134.9, and that weight really does come right back in a night of eating and relaxing. When I walk around at 130 and fight a girl who walks around at 150, it sucks. (Of course, at smaller tournaments they might have to combine weight classes, in which case you'd kick yourself.) The amazing thing about BJJ is that it's changed how I see my own weight. It's no longer a number to be hated, and it's fixed some body image issues... now, I am a functional body, and being muscular, capable, strong, even "heavy" is the goal. It adds a dimension beyond just being "in a smaller size."
Try to simulate an adrenaline dump ahead of time. Adrenaline is the chemical released by your body in time of attack-- the fight-or-flight reaction is designed to maximize your output for survival's sake. A massive adrenaline dump can make you weak, nauseous, light-headed, spacey, or shaky. How do you simulate them? Train intensely at home-- do shark pits (you stay in the middle, sparring a fresh new partner every five minutes without rest between, for 4-5-6 matches in a row.) Push yourself beyond your aerobic threshold. Try to envision yourself in the tournament setting and really visualize your success-- see, hear, taste, feel yourself getting the adrenaline dump and working through it smoothly. This is a good article laying out the thesis that mental practice can be as effective, if not more so, as live real practice. Take advantage.
Know the rules ahead of time. Some tournaments follow the IBJJF rules, others are more liberal about what submissions are permitted at which belt levels. NAGA rules, for example, allow cervical cranks and heel hooks in nogi at blue and maybe even at white. Be prepared and know if some more advanced submissions might get thrown your way so that you know what they look like and when to tap. (I am told that some subs, like heel hooks, put strain on ligaments that are not well-supplied with nerves, so that the pain comes almost simultaneously with the bad injury. Not to scare you, but knowledge is power.) Also know if they care about the color of your gi, the measurements of sleeves etc, whether rashguards or mouthguards are required, and so on. How long will your matches be? How long do you have to hold a position to get points? All and more... in the rules.
Stuff to bring.
Your mileage may vary, but I always bring something to eat (tournament food usually being the crappy football-stadium variety-- nachos, hotdogs, chips, and if you're lucky, unripe bananas.) Many people suggest something with complex carbs, simple carbs, and protein. I have seen people bring PB&J sandwiches on whole wheat bread, or loaves of bread and honey bears, or string cheese and fruit. I personally bring a snack mix of dried fruit, nuts, yogurt-covered raisins, and sunflower seeds. I also bring plenty of Crystal Light packets and a water bottle. I don't like drinking sugary things like gatorade or soda-- too many calories! Conversely, for after the tournament, I bring something indulgent like cookies, because usually I'm cutting weight for the month or so prior, and it feels great to have all your matches over and enjoy something "forbidden."
Bring a friend or loved one. This could be mate/spouse, parent, friend, or even a teammate. It helps to have someone who isn't competing because you won't have to deal with their nerves too, but obviously is not essential. They need to bring a book/magazine, because tournaments can get boring to the non-obsessed. They should be prepared to spend hours sitting and not knowing what's going on, because you will be busy watching, talking, disappearing, etc. But they should also be prepared for the last-minute rush of "hurry, get the camera, I'm about to go!" And they definitely shouldn't expect preferential visitor status, as you likely will have more adrenaline than you know what to do with, and not enough mental space for taking care of anyone other than yourself.
If possible have them bring a video camera and plenty of batteries, tape etc to catch your matches (and if you love your teammates, to get theirs too.) Have them watch some matches on youtube ahead of time so that they know what to expect. Help them set up at the edge of the mat where you will be rolling. The easier you make it on your support person, the more likely they will be to come back next time. (And budget to take them out for dinner afterwards, too.)
A cell phone is handy if your coach/corner person will be responsible for cornering many matches throughout the day. Try to keep them posted on where your division will compete and when. At big NAGA tournaments like ours in Texas, they have 12, 14 even 16 mats running at once, all day long. It will help your coach stay on top of the situation to text them "John is on deck, mat 5." Bring your charger too.
Flipflops and a jacket/hoodie. Something easy to slip on and off your feet-- keep them clean for the mats we all rub our faces on at some point, yeah? And sometimes, rarely, you'll get chilled, so the hoodie may come in handy.
Nogi clothes (shorts, rashie, athletic bra) and a separate set of everything for gi divisions just so you have something clean and dry to put on. Ladies, wear bike shorts or boy shorts under your grappling shorts. Nothing's more mortifying than watching video of your nogi matches later, and not only seeing your thong showing but hearing bystander boys comment on it. And you might consider if your school has a distinctive team tshirt, wear it so that you and teammates can rapidly spot each other from across the space. At Relson Gracie Austin, we have red, green or camo shirts and we definitely have visual impact when we are clustered together.
Ipod/mp3 player of music you love. Actually, I always say this, but I bring it, don't listen, and stress about losing it, so decide on your own factors. I am afraid I'll miss my mat calls, and I'm running around watching friends, hooking up with friends from other schools, and generally not needing the music to pump me up. However, I have seen people who can benefit from getting into a "zone" enhanced by mood music, so... know yourself! Maybe a book or magazine wouldn't hurt. Even a little pillow if you think you might get nappy.
I also bring some extras in my gym bag for other people as well as myself... athletic tape, ibuprofen/sodium naproxen, liquid bandage spray for mat burn or blisters, bandaids and antibiotic salve, breath mints, spare set of contacts and lens solution, a handful of hair elastics, business cards or a little notebook so you can jot down contact info, a small digital camera.
Bring some cash, credit cards, and/or checkbook, whatever you're comfortable with. Vendors set up booths, you'll want a tshirt or two, and sometimes they have GREAT prices on gis. I got my Kyra Gracie gi for less than 50% of the normal price at the Atama Open last year.
Day before, day of: Big big tournaments like Mundials, Pan Ams etc will weigh you in moments before you get on the mat, in your gi etc. Smaller, less formal tournaments just set up a bathroom scale, not even a digital one, and let you weigh the day before in whatever clothing you want. If at all possible, assuming you're cutting weight, do weigh-ins the day before. This gives you a night of eating and drinking as you like so you are full of energy at the competition. Weigh-ins are funny sometimes-- you'll see guys in the parking lot running around in sweat suits, you'll see men stripping down to their tighty-whities to squeak under the wire, etc. You won't have to do a Gina Carano and strip behind some poorly-held-up towels though. Just wear some thin athletic shorts and a lightweight tshirt and take off your shoes if you're nervous about weight.
Get a good night's rest the night before- at least get to bed early and try to sleep.
Do whatever pre-competition routine works for you-- for me, that's get some warm-up rolling in at my affiliate academy in the town of the tournament in the morning, preferably against someone on the smaller side and NOT a spazzy newb. Don't go against someone who will demoralize you or beat you down, and don't for God's sake get injured.
Show up for the rules meeting and be patient. Tournaments NEVER run on time, but you can't count on it. Our NAGAs start around 10am and last time, my first division didn't get on the mat till around 5pm. That's a monster tournament, but still, interesting and scary. Try to plan a little warmup for 5-10 min or so before your divisions get called. On the other hand, don't freak if you can't warm up. My division got called with zero lead time, so I walked on the mat totally "cold." Didn't matter.
A note on stretching to warm up before your rounds. Read this article which summarizes some studies showing that static stretching in the hour right before competition hurts power, maximal voluntary contraction, balance and reaction time. So brush up on some dynamic stretching for day-of warmups, and leave the static stretches at home where they will help increase the range of motion.
Be friendly! This is maybe the most important thing. Don't get all tweaked about competition... it's a great diagnostic for weaknesses in your jits vocabulary, but it's not the end-all be-all. Stay in touch with people in your division after the tournament. If you continue competing, you'll be seeing them again throughout your career. How cool will it be to say "I knew you when you were a whitebelt!" Especially if you say it as a blackbelt! Realize this is ONE tournament of many and the most important part is having fun while learning. Also, networking is always a good thing. Who knows when you'll want to train in another city, trade instructionals, get advice? And this goes for your referees, too. They won't have time to stop and chat usually but it's nice to be recognized. My NAGA matches are usually reffed by Hillary Williams, badass purple belt and bronze medalist at Abu Dhabi this year... and it genuinely feels good to see her at NAGA and get a friendly smile. Makes you feel at home!
On that note, OWN YOUR MAT. Although you ought to be the epitome of friendliness, you are still laying claim to the mat when you step on it. It's yours, not theirs. Own it. Shake everyone's hand well before your matches get started, if you can tell who is in your division. As my friend and mentor Kirk puts it, laying hands on your opponents in a friendly, nonconfrontational way helps demonstrate your dominance. Even these little subconscious things have influence so don't be afraid to utilize them. Don't overshare-- I saw a girl in the bathroom at a tournament and she was scared to death. We chatted a while, I cheered her up and gave her a pep talk. I was honestly tickled to discover she was my first match of the day because I knew she would be at a disadvantage. So-- share your worries with a teammate, not the random nice person in line. Never let them see you sweat.
Write about your experiences! When all is said and done, don't forget to write some notes. Maybe to yourself, in a notebook... maybe for the world to read in a blog, where you can help some other person by extension. Definitely watch your matches on video. Write down problem areas and bring them to your coach/instructor. If you can get them to watch them with you and post-mortem, even better.
Ugh. I can't even watch, but here's a couple matches from MY first tournament.
What do you think-- what have I missed?