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How tough are you?

Long before I had ever heard of Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu, I had trained for eight years in traditional martial arts. My training averaged between 12-15 hours per week. How tough was I?

I learnt the answer one late afternoon, alone in an isolated area being followed by a scary guy about 25kgs heavier than me. Before that moment, I thought that my training was enough to protect me.

Fortunately, reality set in and my self illusions fled. Sure I could punch through roof tiles, but that’s just a cheap trick. Size matters. There was no way I could hit this guy with enough force to stop him. I knew I had no chance to defend myself so I ran.

After that, I took up running. Running worked.

Years later I accompanied a friend to try out a class of something called BJJ. One of the students, a 16 year old girl, repeatedly submitted me with ease. Wow, this stuff works. I had to learn it. Fifteen years later, here I am.

The point of this story is that after eight years of training in traditional martial arts, I had no realistic idea of how capable I was. I could demonstrate punches, throws, kicks against a training partner. I could spar (with gloves, groin guard, shin guards) and hold my own. But I still didn’t know if I could be effective when it mattered.

BJJ gives you honest feedback

With BJJ, it’s different. You test yourself at the end of every training session. There is concrete feedback, the tap. If there is one thing that makes training in BJJ effective, it’s the tap.

Gordan Ryan taps Yuri Simoes

If you get beaten when striking, you can always protect your ego by making up an excuse such as, “If it was the street, we wouldn’t have gloves and it would be different”. You can’t do that in BJJ. The tap means that you accept the defeat.

With BJJ, you and your training partner both try to make the other submit. The only rule is that whatever you do, you give the other person enough time to tap out. That way nobody gets injured, they just tap and you both start again.

This leaves no room for excuses. “If this was the street, I’d pick you up and slam you”. Okay, let’s test it. If you can pick me up, I’ll tap. If you can’t pick me up then your excuse isn’t valid.

The tap gives us the feedback we need so we can direct our training towards bolstering our weaknesses. At least, it does when our ego doesn’t get in the way. When our ego gets in the way, the tap turns into a cruel overlord laughing at our inadequacies.

Toughness

If you train long enough, you’ll get physically capable of defending yourself. Everyone else doing BJJ has done it. There’s nothing special about you that will prevent you from getting good. Physical toughness is a given.

It’s emotional toughness that is the real test of character. Being tough in BJJ is turning up, even though you get submitted by everyone. It’s sitting in your car in the carpark debating whether to go in or not, and you go in despite the feelings of not being good enough.

The toughest people of all are those that are able to return after a long break. When you have time off, you know that all those people that you used to submit will probably be submitting you. Your timing and coordination won’t be as good as when you were training. There will be much you have forgotten. And yet, even with this all stacked against you, you get back on the mat.

A new member once asked me, “Who do I have to beat to earn respect?” The answer, of course, is yourself.

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.

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.

Valerie Worthington

Valerie Worthington

I recently read Valerie Worthington’s article on her initial experiences with BJJ. It’s a heart rending read of isolation and neglect.

When I was first starting out in Brazilian jiu jitsu, I experienced an internal struggle every day I went to train. On one hand, I was stupid crazy about training. I loved what I was learning and simply disappearing into the focus, the experience, and the challenges. But on the other hand, the anticipation of going into class, feeling intimidated and small because I was new and awful at it, and having to contend with a roomful of complete strangers, was sometimes almost too much to get past. I would sit in the parking lot before class every night, shoring up my confidence and psyching myself up to go inside.
[…]
Part of the challenge was the feeling of benign neglect I sensed from the group.
[…]
Everyone was cordial enough but would quickly extricate themselves from conversations with me and gravitate toward their friends at the first opportunity.
[…]
For months, I would go to class, do my thing with the person who was unfortunate enough to end up being my partner, and then be gently relegated back to wallflower status.

Valarie’s love of BJJ overcame the environment she was in, but how many others couldn’t overcome it?

Stories like this make me sad. BJJ is one of those things that really changes our lives for the better. The people that get turned away from BJJ by these unfortunate experiences miss out on the wonder of BJJ that we all know. This is a shame.

An instructor’s role is more than just teaching BJJ. It is to provide an environment for learning to occur. An instructor should realise that he doesn’t teach BJJ at all. He merely offers suggestions, ideas and concepts. A student’s real teachers are his training partners.

Here are some of the things that I have found to help build an environment for learning.

  • People’s names are a big deal. I try to remember everyone’s name. If I forget, I ask them. I expect everyone to do the same.
  • Everyone trains with everyone. No cliques. No dodging. We rotate training partners many times during a session.
  • Minimal instruction. My job is to help people become better grapplers, not show off what I can do. The best learning comes from your training partner.
  • When people are practising, I walk around and offer suggestions to the training partner rather that the person doing the drill. BJJ is mainly learnt physically by doing, not by watching a demonstration.
  • Train with progressive resistance and strive to become good training partners.

A healthy atmosphere is one where everyone in the group is interacting with each other with the goal of getting better.

As a member of a gym, what can you do help maintain this environment for learning?

  • You’re a member of the group. Your opinion is meaningful.
  • Speak up if see a problem. Don’t assume that everyone is as observant as you are.
  • Remember how everyone was welcoming to you when you started? Make newcomers just as welcome as you were. A friendly face in a room of strangers means a lot.
  • You learn from your training partners, not your coach. You want great training partners that help you improve. Build them.