It’s that time of year. Our recent holiday indulgence makes us look in the mirror and we realise that our health and fitness is not as good as we wish it to be. This year will be different, we tell ourselves. This year I’ll be serious about taking better care of my body.

Of course, it rarely works. Our wishful resolution relies on our will power. Unfortunately, will power fatigues quickly and fades over time. Our problem was caused by lack of will power, so why are we relying on will power as the solution? We’re just setting ourselves up for failure.

So how do we make lasting change?

One solution that works is time-based habits. When we have an activity we want to do more of, make sure to perform it at a fixed time. Most of the activities we consistently perform are already on time-based habits. Each Monday we get up at the same time. We eat breakfast, clean our teeth and even empty our bowels at the same time.

If we want to get more training in, or even want to get back to training after inconsistent attendance, here’s what to do.

  1. Pick a class that you will always attend every week, e.g. Monday 6:45pm.
  2. Commit to coming to that class for 4 weeks in a row.
  3. Tell your coach you are doing this – now you have to attend those 4 classes as you don’t want to disappoint your coach do you?
  4. Always attend this class. When you have a busy week or are feeling tired, skip one of the other classes. You always attend this class.

Once the habit is formed, it doesn’t require will power to keep attending. It just becomes another thing that you do.

If you’ve been inconsistent with your jiu-jitsu attendance last year, which class are you committing to attending this year?

Rolling is competitive. You and your training partner are both trying to submit each other. The best way to do this is to stick to your A-game and only use the moves and tactics that you are best at. While this is a good way to submit your current opponent, it isn’t a very effective way to submit your future opponents.

To improve in jiu-jitsu, and to be able to beat better opponents, you need to improve your moves, timing, tactics and recognition of the game. This necessarily means doing things differently to the way you are doing things now. If you only practise your A-game, you never take the opportunity to change and hence improve.

Your training partner can help you with this. Recall from part 1 that there are different types of rolling. Don’t assume that your partner knows what type of roll you want. If you tell your partner, “I’m working on half guard sweeps when I have an underhook” or “I’m working on regaining the half guard from side control” your partner has more information to work with. Be specific, don’t just say “I’m working on half guard”.

This gives your partner information about what kind of roll you are expecting. How they respond is up to them. One response is to let more of the roll occur in half guard, so you can practise your offense while your opponent practises defence. Or your training partner may choose to avoid the half guard altogether. This lets you know that your priority isn’t practising half guard sweeps, but rather it should be practising your entries into half guard.

By telling your training partners “This is what I will be doing during this roll”, they will necessarily ask themselves how they will respond to this. Now both parties have a purpose in mind for the upcoming roll, and each has an opportunity to evaluate their success after the roll.

Rolls that have a purpose cause you to reflect on the roll. Reflection is a necessary component of improving.

How do you know that you need to train your training partner? The easiest way is to ask yourself whether you enjoyed the roll you just had with them.

If you didn’t enjoy the roll, the worst thing to do is to talk to them about it immediately afterwards. When emotions are high, there will be misunderstanding and overstatement which will lead to bad feelings. Instead, just tap hands and mentally note that the goal of your next roll with them will be to train them to be a better training partner for you.

Here are five training partners that are not fun to roll with, and suggestions on how to improve future rolls.

The enthusiastic beginner with high attributes and low skill

Beginners have little skill, so they need to use lots of physical attributes to be competitive. With experience, they will gain skills and experience. They will realise that BJJ is an endurance game and will learn to conserve their energy and only use their attributes when necessary. But before that happens, they use too much strength, move too quickly and thrash around, all the while potentially injuring you with their flailing limbs.

Beginners will eventually become competent but you can hasten this. Firstly, rolling is competitive and beginners want success. All a beginner is thinking of is winning, so let them. Let them sweep you. Let them gain dominant position. Let them submit you. The easier you make it for them to do this, the less they’ll need to use physical attributes. They’ll quickly realise they don’t need to use so much energy and they’ll calm down. Now you can start increasing the difficulty level. Your goal is to have your training partner come to the realisation that winning isn’t sufficient, it’s how they win that matters.

Your training partner doesn’t gain any satisfaction when they win and it is obvious that you are letting them. You are helping them to clarify their understanding that they don’t want to merely win with their attributes, they want to win with their skill. At this point, many training partners will often say that they don’t know what to do (BJJ-wise) so go ahead and share your knowledge.

The too-rough training partner

Your training partner is competent, but he is rough. You walk away from a roll sore or injured. Your training partner likely doesn’t have a good grasp of controlling intensity.

Firstly, if you get injured, tell your training partner and tell your coach. Injuries should be uncommon. Injuries are a warning sign that something is wrong with the gym culture and your coach needs to know about this to fix it.

Your training partner needs to become aware of his own intensity level. Pretend you’re made of tissue paper and tap early and often. If your training partner squeezes you too hard, tap. If he attempts a submission, tap at least a second before it is applied. When your training partner asks why you are tapping so much, let him know you’re afraid of getting injured and are tapping early for your own safety. Ensure you are just stating a fact, don’t whine about it. Assume that your training partner is not malicious, just unaware. By tapping whenever the intensity is too high, you are training your training partner to become sensitive to his own intensity level.

Mismatched intensities

This is the most common cause of dissatisfaction after rolling. You’re tired or just wanting a fun roll, while your partner is rolling to test where their level is. The problem here is with mismatched expectations. Either you or your partner needs to match intensity, or you should stop rolling or risk injury.

The problem is one of communication. If you want a fun roll, say so before tapping hands to start. Be sure to say “fun roll” and not “light roll”. “Light roll” is code for “I want to go light only as long as I’m winning, but if I start losing I’ll go as hard as I can.”

The up-and-comer

Your training partner is less experienced than you, on a meteoric rise and you are the next stepping stone. This is a hard roll and you have to pull out all your physical attributes to prevail.

If this is not fun for you, then why are you fighting so hard? It’s time to contemplate your ego.

The arrogant higher belt

You’re on a meteoric rise and your training partner is next ahead of you. But whenever you roll him, he increases the intensity and you can’t beat him. It’s not fair.

You’re not there yet. Improve your skill level. This training partner is the best to help you with this. If you can’t pass his guard, ask him why not. Ask him to show you how to pass his guard. Drill it with him. Your training partner will be happy to help you improve because it means you become a more challenging training partner for him.

If you’re not having a fun roll, either you need to train your training partner or you need to change your attitude.

This post has been about improving bad training partners. The next post will be on making the good ones even better.

What do we need to learn BJJ? We need some ground, a training partner and a desire to improve. Coaches can give us the benefit of their experience. Instructional videos and competition footage can give us inspiration and new ideas.

It is the training partner that has the biggest effect on your ability to learn and improve your jiu-jitsu. Your training partner is always there with you when you are training. Your coach can only be there some of the time.

A good training partner knows how to vary the level of resistance, knows how to match pace/intensity, draws your attention to your mistakes and makes your training challenging.

We choose our coaches carefully by going to the best gym we can find. We watch matches of the highest level of competition. Yet most of us spend little thought on the quality of our training partners.

Good training partners don’t just magically happen. You have to build them.

Many of us are knowledgeable about how to develop our training partner when we are working on skills, but we also need to do it when rolling.

When you roll, some of your rolls will be for fun, some will be to work on integrating new moves, others will be to test yourself, and some will be to train your training partner. Roll for a specific purpose. Don’t be vague in your thinking about what sort of roll it is.

In upcoming parts we’ll be looking at the specifics of what goes into a roll where your goal is to train your training partner.

The most effective submission in BJJ

Rickson Gracie demonstrating the rear naked choke

There are many different submissions in BJJ. Some are more effective than others. If our goal is to submit our opponents, then it makes sense to focus more of our training time on the most effective submissions.

In BJJ, we get very good at almost breaking our opponent’s joints. We take the joint to the limit of its normal range of movement and then our opponent concedes the submission. We don’t actually break the joint.

An armbar, kimura or heel hook is devastating only in theory because we never follow through to the end of the submission hold. We need practice to gain competence in a skill, yet we can’t gain that practice in a friendly gym.

A successful joint attack involves moving the joint to its limit of movement and then moving it beyond that limit. We regularly practice taking the joint to its limit of movement, but we don’t have experience in applying the force and movement necessary to move it beyond.

Chokes and strangulations differ to joint attacks, in that they can be trained in a way that gives us confidence we can complete the submission. A successful strangle involves a squeeze, a hold and then a wait. Our opponent concedes the submission during the wait portion. Completing the submission only involves maintaining the hold and waiting longer. No additional force or movement is required, only endurance. This gives us more confidence that we can take a strangle or choke to completion than we can a joint attack.

The most effective submissions are those that we have practiced to completion. We can’t take submissions to completion in the gym as we need to respect the health of our training partners. So the most effective submissions are the ones that we can practice the closest to completion, namely chokes and strangles.

To understand something complex, we often break it down into to smaller chunks. Smaller chunks are easier to understand but we lose understanding at the boundaries between chunks. If the chunks are too small and numerous, we have many boundaries between chunks and hence lots of grey areas where we can lose understanding.

A problem with the traditional jiu-jitsu teaching methodology is that there are too many chunks. Consider guard passing. Guards: closed, seated, butterfly, spider, lasso, worm, half, deep half, z, de-la riva, 50/50, koala, rubber, reverse de-la riva, de-la spider plus a bunch of others. To pass guard, we have to first identify the guard then choose one of several passing techniques we know for that guard. This is too complicated. If you chunk guard passing this way, your thinking is likely to be slow and you will find it hard to flow.

A simpler chunking scheme for guard passing is to either pass or your feet or on your knees. If you’re having difficulty on your feet, switch to your knees and vice versa. Notice that when the number of chunks is smaller, it is easier to consider the boundary between chunks.

Understanding the chunk boundaries, and being able to transition between chunks is a major part of flow.

Here is my chunking scheme for jiu-jitsu. As you read this, keep in mind the transitions between and within the positions.

  1. Both Standing This is a symmetrical position (gravity affects both opponents the same way), so strength has a big effect. Get to the mat to exploit the asymmetry of the other positions.
  2. Guard top You’re winning (55/45) but only barely. It’s difficult to submit from here so transition to a dominant position.
  3. Guard bottom You’re mostly safe, but don’t be lazy. Your use of all four limbs almost nullifies your opponent’s gravity advantage, so ensure each of your limbs have a purpose. Defend the guard pass and get on top.
  4. Dominant position Mount, side, back, 411, north/south – it’s all the same. You can submit your opponent much easier than they can submit you (90/10). Transition within the position and catch a submission when your opponent opens up to escape.
  5. Inferior position Sucks to be you. Maintain protective structure and transition to any other position when you can.
  6. Both butts on the mat Also a symmetrical position, but more skill based. Very flexible as it allows easy transitions to the other ground positions. If you win the leg pummel then consider it a dominant position. Don’t try to submit unless your position is dominant. Dual leg lock battles are bad jiu-jitsu.

To be effective with jiu-jitsu, you must be effective within each of the six positions, and you must be effective at transitioning between the positions.

That's not a real move

Would you tap to this?

Jiu-jitsu is a contest between two people to see who can make the other give up. It’s fun and we want to do it every day, so we have rules that ensure no-one gets injured.

The rules are simple

  • stop when the other person taps
  • use a mat on the ground to prevent wear and tear on the body
  • no moves that will cause injury before the other person has a chance to tap out (no biting, scratching, striking etc)

And that’s it.

The art of jiu-jitsu is to be able to make someone bigger and stronger than you submit. This is the goal we keep in mind when we train. To do this, we train sophisticated moves that require minimal strength and athleticism as these moves have the greatest change of defeating someone bigger and stronger.

There is a problem that many practitioners face after they’ve been training for a couple of years. They forget that the game of jiu-jitsu is to make the other person give up. They think that the game of jiu-jitsu is to make the other person give up by using jiu-jitsu moves. This happens because they have become so used to looking at the small details of jiu-jitsu, that they have forgotten the overall larger picture.

At the end of the day, a tap is a tap. Whether it is due to an armbar or a simple head squeeze, makes no difference.

Overlooking this will slow your growth at best, and result in injury at worst. Practitioners at this stage of their development will say things like “I had to take a week off from training because my neck was so sore from being cranked. It hurt at the time but I didn’t tap because it wasn’t a choke”.

There are sophisticated moves that require skill to perform, and unsophisticated moves that only rely on brute force. Both are valid.

To be good at jiu-jitsu means being able to defend both types of moves. When something hurts, tap and then learn how to prevent it so it doesn’t make you tap again.

When you first begin jiu-jitsu, you feel like you’re fully awake and alive. The stars are brighter when you leave the gym at night. Your body feels like it has a purpose. You hunger for answers to the questions that arise on the mat.

These feelings stay with you as long as you do jiu-jitsu, but after a couple of months a new feeling comes to overshadow and dominate. “How am I doing?”

You start to measure yourself against the other people training on the mat. You think you’re measuring technical ability, but you’re really measuring self worth. Instead of “Bob is getting a lot more armbars these days, I wonder what he is doing differently”, you think “Damn, Bob is getting better, I’m falling behind”. Bob’s ability on the mat is independent from yours, but you don’t see it that way.

What you’ve unintentionally done is made your self worth depend on someone else’s performance.

You have no control over someone else’s performance, which means you have no control over your own self worth. This is a very uncomfortable feeling to have. The way that you deal with this feeling tells you a lot about yourself.

Some people get depressed and give up. They stop training as often and rationalise it as being too busy.

Other people get angry. Anger is a good motivator. They roll harder, they delay tapping, they get hurt.

Some people take it as a challenge. They set themselves a goal of “One day, no matter what, I’ll beat Bob”.

There are different coping strategies we use, some better, some worse. But the best strategy is to let go of the idea that your self worth is affected by other people on the mat.

Remember the feeling when you first started jiu-jitsu. This is the reason you train. Those feelings are still there, they might just be hidden at the moment. Your friends on the mats are there to act as inspiration, to celebrate your successes and commiserate with you at your defeats. They’ve experienced the same feelings you might be feeling now. Talk to them about it, ask them how they dealt with it.

Jiu-jitsu is a tough journey, but let yourself be inspired by those ahead of you. One day you will be as strong as them and have the newcomers of the day looking to you for strength and wisdom.

I’ve played many sports over the years. Some I’ve passionately enjoyed. Many were fun ways to pass the time. Other’s were boring and only done out of a sense of obligation. Jiu-jitsu is the only sport that has made me cry.

What jiu-jitsu brings, that the others don’t, is honesty. Honesty about yourself and who you are as a person. It raises a mirror to our personality and shows us that we are not who we believe we are.

We all have a sense of self, a belief of what we are capable of in a variety of situations. This is our ego. Sometimes we underestimate our capabilities, but most of the time we overestimate them. When we understand our capabilities, it’s usually due to a sense of false modesty.

Our ego is not an accurate assessment of who we are.

For most of us, this is fine. We don’t live like our ancestors did. Today’s lives are comfortable, safe, secure. Life doesn’t often test the boundaries of our capabilities, but when it does, TV, alcohol, internet or other drug of choice is there to ease the pain.

Jiu-jitsu tests our boundaries repeatedly. This sounds like a good thing, an opportunity to stretch, to grow, to improve. But our boundaries are often closer than we think they are. Being forced to confront this, pains us emotionally.

We like to pretend that we don’t judge others, but we do. We measure ourselves, our self worth, against others. I’m better than him, but she’s better than me. We mentally arrange ourselves into a pecking order. We understand mentally that people improve at different rates, but when someone whom we’ve placed below us in the pecking order surpasses us, we feel that emotional pain. Their progress shouldn’t reflect on how we feel about ourselves, yet it does.

In jiu-jitsu, the submission forces you to be honest. When you tap, there’s no way to rationalise yourself out of it. It doesn’t matter if the other person was less skilled, and merely bigger, stronger or more athletic. The tap means you acknowledge that they beat you. You’re not as good as your ego tells you. What does that tell you about your personality? Are you the sort of person that takes it as a challenge to overcome or do you turn back when the going gets tough? Do you like what jiu-jitsu tells you about yourself?

Jiu-jitsu is hard. To learn is to get beaten, to get frustrated. To survive, you must learn to love the frustration.

We do jiu-jitsu, we know how hard it is. Some days, just turning up and getting on the mat feels like the hardest thing you’ve ever done. What earns the respect of the old timers is showing up, getting beaten and showing up again. Tenacity and perseverance is how you improve.

Jiu-jitsu gives us many things, the most valuable being insight. Insight into who we are as a person. How we behave under pressure. How we relate to others and how we judge others. We learn our physical limits and learning this, have the opportunity to expand them. We learn what works for us. To learn jiu-jitsu is to learn one’s self.

Ideally, every roll would start with both opponents standing. Potential collisions with other people rolling nearby make this impractical on a crowded mat. Additionally, takedowns often result in wear and tear on the body. Most gym rolls have an implicit agreement that both opponents will avoid standing at the same time.

The naïve compromise is to start rolls with both opponents on their knees. The assumption is that this allows both participants to fight for top position while avoiding the potential injuries associated with stand up grappling.

The problem is that both-opponents-on-their-knees is a contrived situation that doesn’t occur in competition. It doesn’t even occur during a friendly gym roll unless you purposely start there. One opponent simply needs to stand to gain an immediate positional advantage over their kneeling opponent.

Even worse is that the both-opponents-on-their-knees situation keeps the bad aspects of jiu-jitsu standup (both opponents neutralising each other in a tight clinch) and loses the good ones (mobility to gain favourable angles).

A better way is to start in a guard position, the most common being closed or seated. It is a more effective use of training time to start in the guard, than to struggle on the knees for a minute or so before ending up in the guard anyway. In competition, most time is spent in the guard so your training time should reflect that.

An alternative approach (especially for the more experienced practitioner) is to start in an inferior position. This allows you to practise your escapes directly, rather than allowing your opponent to pass and establish dominant position before beginning an escape. Unless you are specifically working on the timing of your escapes, allowing your opponent to establish dominant position so you can practise your escapes just builds bad habits.