5 Things I Wish I’d Known Before I Started Training

I’ve been training a little over 2 years in Brazillian Jiu Jitsu. That doesn’t make me an expert by any means, but I definitely wish I could go back in time and tell myself a couple of things. I’ve collected five of the things everyone I know wishes they’d taken to heart earlier in their training. Most of these, I came to realize around the time I got my blue belt (especially item#3).

Yeah, yeah

It’s entirely possible that this entire list consists of things you’ll never really understand until you get there yourself. But I’ll go ahead and let you know the things you wish you’d known when you were still a scrub. Because maybe then you wouldn’t have been such a scrub.

I’ll put it another way: These are the basics to a deeper understanding yourself as an athlete. These are the benefits we reap after all the hard work we put into our training. Most of this stuff, you’ll notice, has a lot to do with getting over your ego. As I’ve mentioned before, your ego is probably the biggest obstacle to your progression.

1-Quit worrying about who “wins” a roll.

There’s nothing more stupid than when someone  says “I refuse to tap to so-and-so because I don’t like him.” Or when someone  takes pleasure in rolling against newbies. You’ll notice that, when high-level guys roll, they’ll roll super light and they’ll tap right away when the other guy gets a solid submission position. I used to think this was because they were just playing around, but now I realize they were usually both bringing 100% of their skill. They just weren’t spazzing out like I did when I trained.

When brown and black belts compete against each other in tournaments, notice how cool and collected they often are. Why not start emulating this right away? It’s fun to roll hard with guys at your own level, but keep in mind the real reason for live practice: to perfect your technique.

It’s frustrating for everyone concerned when new guys clasp their hands together in the arm bar and refuse to let go.  Or hang onto their partner’s head even after he’s established side control. This practice is referred to as “spazzing out” or “being a retard.”

Look at it this way: In a chess game, if the other guy is attacking your king every turn, it’s not the final move into checkmate that really wins the game. It’s all the groundwork he did to get you into that desperate position. Think about it.

2-Focus on the basics.

I prefer the word “essentials” to “basics.” In BJJ, the techniques usually taught to beginners aren’t necessarily any more simple than those taught in advanced classes. And they definitely aren’t any less effective. A lot of the reason a technique ends up on a basic curriculum is because it’s just useful a lot of the time, or is an easy way to learn a concept that will be recycled by later techniques, making them easier to learn.

I finally understood this for myself not long ago when I re-took a basic class on some open guard sweeps and the next day, knocked one of my school’s best guys clean over with a basic hook sweep. Before this, I’d been having all kinds of frustration with the newer, fancier sweeps I’d learned in advanced classes, with no success. I finally got somewhere with a technique we teach to guys fresh off the street. That stuff is never a waste of time.

3-Guard passes and sweeps are the heart of BJJ.

You’ve heard the phrase “position before submission” a million times. I’ll take it a step further and recommend you pay special attention when you’re studying guard passses and sweeps from the guard (any guard: closed, butterfly, open, etc). 99% of all stalemates happen in the guard, with one guy trying to pass the guard, and the other guy trying to submit or sweep. Or worse, with one of them stalling.

Think about it next time you roll: You’ll probably notice that, when you’re pinned to the ground, it’s because you let the guy pass your guard or because you got swept while in their guard. Also this: You’ll probably hear about how the best guys in your gym “walk through” peoples’ guards.

4-Do Positional Drills.

Sports teams don’t run a full scrimmage every time they practice. So how come we roll in practice the same way we do in competition? The answer is because it’s fun, but it’s not the best way to get better at BJJ.

If you’re always brawling in your free time, you’ll keep gravitating toward what’s comfortable, and what’s more, you’ll probably be trying to muscle your technique, because you just want it to work, please god let it work (see item #1)!

Ideally, you should be doing flow drills and start-to-finish drills in your free time. Seeing as how I’ve never had the discipline to do these drills other than as a warmup, I can’t in good conscience recommend them to someone else. But there is a compromise: Positional drills.

In a positional drill, you roll live, but you constrain yourself to a certain position. For example:

  • Closed/Open Guard Drill: Start in the closed or open guard. Stop and get back in the guard when: (a) the guy on bottom manages to sweep or submit, or (b) the guy on top (“in” the guard) passes the guard.
  • Side Control: Stop after the guy on bottom has escaped, or the guy on top has mounted or pulled knee-to-stomach.
  • First-point drill: Start standing, and stop when one guy would have gotten points in a tournament (that is, either achieved a takedown or pulled guard and then swept. Or, the other guy pulled guard and you passed his guard).
  • No submissions: Roll as normal, but without submissions. This isn’t a positional drill, but it’s got the same benifits: You still get to go live, but it will teach you to think about the position you’re in, rather than getting obsessed about “winning.”

In all cases, switch top/bottom halfway through the drill. This is a good compromise between going all-out and just practicing rote technique. And it’s something newbies can benefit from right away. It’s a good way to get around the “I hate being in someone’s guard” or “I can’t stand being in side control” syndrome. Spend some time with your pal working on these positions, and get over your frustration with them.

5-Keep a notebook and take notes every day.

There’s a lot of material to learn in BJJ. This stuff is bound to get mixed up in your head. For one week, take detailed notes after every class. You’ll soon find what a relief it is to go back and remind yourself of a technique you’d forgotten you wanted to work on. We are frail beings, and our memories are no less frail. If you’re looking at youtube, take detailed notes on any technique you find interesting and try it out with your instructor or a colored belt watching.

The level of detail you use is up to you: For some people, a basic description of a technique is enough for them to refresh their memory and practice like the class just ended. Some lucky people are good enough at drawing (I’m not) to make sketches of the techniques. Level of detail also depends on the subject. I might take up most of a page on a new technique I found hard to understand, and only jot down a line on something that came easily to me.

Try it for a week.  You’ll find how much interesting stuff you forget every day. You might even stop looking up those techniques on YouTube and at the bookstore that you always forget five minutes later.


4 thoughts on “5 Things I Wish I’d Known Before I Started Training

  1. Cool blog – I’m JB’s friend from work and he referred me here. Had my first BJJ class last night and I get #2 loud and clear: There’s no such thing as a pointless drill. I was describing what I was doing to my wife and found myself saying, “Well, i put my foot on his hip and scooted my hips around and threw my leg over..You know, that thing that Fedor did to the giant chinese guy to get the armbar.”

  2. Thanks for reading, man! Sorry for the long response. How is the BJJ coming?

    Also, you’re absolutely right: You see that same arm bar done in the most elite MMA fights. It’s really subtle too – you’ll find yourself still perfecting it for months and years after you’ve managed to tap someone with it the first time. Also, it’s “easier” to land that arm bar when the guy is exposing his arm by reaching out to punch you. (“easier” in quotes because it’s not actually easier to do jiu jitsu while the other guy is punching you. But I think you get my meaning)

    Also, the same pivot you do for that arm bar is the same movement you do when you’re applying the triangle, even though a lot of instructors don’t teach it that way. It’s a lot easier to get the foot locked under the knee if you can pivot in the same direction as the leg that’s against his neck.

  3. BJJ is going great. I’m out of shape, uncoordinated, inflexible and basically un-athletic. According to the instructors, however, I’m one of the better students. As near as I can figure out, this is entirely because I follow directions and do what they tell me..

    I’m completely hooked by it.

  4. Pingback: Personal BJJ update « Seven Breaths

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