Jiu jitsu practice is defined by its reliance on and respect for training partners. We are only ever as proficient as our training partners allow. Likewise, a ‘rising tide lifts all boats’. Typically this arrangement develops not only our craft but also our empathy and tolerance through fellowship, however it does not play well with social distancing. Moreover, those of us on this path often ‘need’ jiu jitsu to keep us happy/sane/functional. So, when forces beyond our control cut off our access to training partners, we’ve got to adapt, lest our spirits die.
Building a pandemic training routine
My family has been in lockdown for 10 weeks. During that time I’ve had some success building a home-based training routine. Firstly, my partner and I are both home-based workers, so while the longer-term economic disruption of the pandemic is worrisome, transitioning to a ‘quarantine lifestyle’ wasn’t a big change for us. While adding homeschool to the mix has been challenging, again our burden isn’t too heavy as we only have to manage one first grader. In fact, the boy and I have built a good working routine. We set up a desk for him in my office and we do our work together in the morning. By early afternoon I finish too and we head down to the playroom/gym in the basement.
Shelter-in-place jiu jitsu
I’ve had the opportunity to really get to know my grappling dummy. While ‘he’ can be boring, I am grateful for the mats I hauled to the US from London and his presence on them. Initially, I aimed for an hour at a time with him. That got old real fast. So, I modified my expectations and have gone for a little-and-often approach. Instead of a couple 1 hour sessions per week, I aim for 5, 15 minute sessions a week. In this way, I make sure I get regular jiu jitsu movement during the week. Moreover, I revise Gracie University lessons and train Jr Combatives with my son, every week. While clearly not where I’d like to be with my training – none of the current situation is about what we want – it is much better than sitting on my hands. Not to mention, it serves as a great warm-up for my strength & conditioning work.
Strength & conditioning
While jiu jitsu training has taken a serious hit, I have been able to significantly increase my strength & conditioning work to 5 times a week. Since I relocated to my home-town of Rochester NY, I’ve been training with Wolf Brigade gym. I’ve already discussed the benefits of their strength & conditioning program for BJJ, and it has certainly been essential to maintaining the stability of my post-ACL-op knee. In short, I have been younger; I have been leaner; but I have never been stronger. That’s 100% due to Wolf Brigade.
Though a local brick-and-mortar business, Wolf Brigade’s programming is available to everyone. One the one hand, there are 5 years of detailed training days on their website, free for all to use. Have limited access to equipment? No worries, the Wolf Brigade Public Assistance Project is a comprehensive training program that uses everyday objects as equipment. Finally, more recently, the gym launched its online training program at subversivefitness.com. Offering both a thorough video movement library and access to instructor feedback, individuals can practice Wolf Brigade’s instruction and programming from home. So, if you’re looking for a great, effective and safe training program to take you through the pandemic and beyond, consider Subversive Fitness.
Finally, I’ve started integrating mobility into my routine. My jiu jitsu instructor at Gracie Jiu Jitsu Victor, John Ingallina, is providing a lot of remote learning content from GJJ sessions on Zoom and Facebook Live to mobility tutorials on YouTube. While there’s lots of stuff you can’t do without a training partner, there’s many things you can, and working on your mobility and smoothness of motion are some of them. For me, John’s mobility sessions help keep me moving around on the mats, while also offering age-appropriate material when ‘playing Legos’ with my son 😉
To sum up, this is a really tough time. The full effects of this disruption are not yet known, even as the ripples are already seriously affecting peoples’ businesses and livelihoods. Indeed, our jiu jitsu and strength & conditioning communities are on the front-line of feeling the immediate economic effects. As a web developer for small businesses I’ve seen first hand how these past few weeks have negatively impacted hard-working people, as trusted clients can’t pay invoices, stop projects and – in some sad cases – have already started closing. I don’t have any answers. I hope you all stay well, protect the humans around you and come out the other side relatively unscathed. Jiu jitsu will be waiting for us. Let’s make sure we stay ready too.
Ryron Gracie, Super Seminar Gracie Jiu Jitsu Victor NY, 4-5 May 2019
I’ve been trying to write this post for a while. For months, I’ve struggled to find the words to explain the truths of composure in jiu jitsu as I understand them.
I know it when I see it. For example, in myself when I’m calm and inhabit the roll fully. And when I lose it and am goaded into fighting fire with fire. Or in the feeling of satisfaction when I chill in a ‘bad’ spot. I mean, hey, you’re just crushing me, I can wait all day for your attack. How about when fellows want so badly to grip my wrists as hard as they can, meanwhile over-extending their arms. Ah, or, my personal favourite, when my partner spins around on top, going side to side like a dervish and I’m just over here relaxing with my T-rex arms enjoying the compression. Perhaps they’ll decide to attempt something…
So, I know composure when I live it, and when I don’t. I know stillness when I’m inside it or fighting against it. I see the vulnerability of loss of calm and feel the power in myself or from others when we own our composure. Yet, I couldn’t find my way to making these intuitions into words.
Thus, perhaps you can imagine my gratitude to Ryron Gracie and my training partners at last weekend’s super seminar at Gracie Jiu Jitsu Victor. We enjoyed an immersive weekend of discussion and technique with one unifying theme: composure.
What’s Your Goal?
For years I’ve told myself that ‘survival’ and ‘not losing’ are key to developing my game. Indeed, these ideas are essential to my humble BJJ sparring tips. However, while there is value to this idea, Ryron and my fellows at the seminar helped me to see that this isn’t as far as it goes. This view is still brittle. Though ‘not losing’ may be more robust than hang-ups over trying to ‘win’ or avoiding ‘bad positions’, it is less sustainable than simply aiming to develop your understanding. Full stop. Just learn more. Revel in that. Of course, I have heard this many times from Dave Birkett, Marc Walder and John Ingallina. However, I was better able to receive this lesson last weekend.
In other words, if the mindset is ‘not losing’ or ‘surviving’, how do I feel when I do ‘lose’? Perhaps a bit defeated. However, if those ideas are subsumed within the wider goal to learn, that changes the whole picture. Now, I can look at a ‘loss’ with new eyes. I can consider things such as:
Did I control that position a bit longer than last time?
Was my transition to the next thing more or less effortless than last time I was there?
To what extent did I try to impose my will versus just be in the roll?
And this last point is where the past weekend’s seminar really helped to clarify my thinking. What I term composure in jiu jitsu, and what Ryron likes to describe as ‘being present’ and ‘being in the moment’. In other words, cherishing calmness in order to act less and respond more.
Composure and Jiu Jitsu
The challenges to composure in jiu jitsu are individual. Everyone’s journey is different. Each of us battles different triggers, fears and anxieties. We carry these onto the mats with us. Then, they whisper in our ears and goad us out of our stillness. Where we can overlap, however, is in our pursuit of stillness. Or in our endeavours to find comfort where there is none. To simply be where we are and react, without judgement of ourselves or of the interaction with our partners. To just be and develop our understanding.
For me, that struggle is greatest from a position of offence. Much of my time has been spent in the role of nail. That crucible has stripped away my fears of vulnerability on the bottom or in defensive positions. I can certainly be tricked into over-reacting. However, it takes at least an intermediate degree of smoothness and strategy to get me rattled. Otherwise, I’m quite happy to ‘safe hands’ under your side control for as long as you like. Or enjoy a cuddle from you on my back while I wait for your frustration to open the door. The same cannot be said when I’m on the offensive.
For instance, when I get your back I might hold my breath and rush headlong into my submission. Or I’ll see that arm come out on the side mount and spin too fast to maintain good control. I suspect larger people with more practice on the offence have a harder struggle when they have to stay cool on the defensive. I suspect too, that my smaller compatriots have a harder time keeping their cool and their egos and wills out of the equation when going for those submissions. So what can we do to move past our limiting desires to act, to force and to rush?
How to Develop Your Composure in Jiu Jitsu
Throughout the weekend, Ryron discussed ways to increase your composure in jiu jitsu, both through technique and informal group discussion. He had some great advice and I’ll share my takeaways. Note these are my understandings of Ryron’s words. I do not speak for him and any opinions expressed here represent my own understanding or lack thereof! So with that disclaimer… Let’s start with some concepts, then we’ll look at practical ways to develop composure in BJJ.
1. Remember what your goal is
To learn. Simple as that. There is no win. There is no lose. There is no destination. You’ve got one job: develop your understanding of this crazy beautiful art.
2. Be vulnerable
Allow yourself to chill in positions you don’t like. Or simply where you feel you need to rush or impose your will. Yes, you might lose the position in the process. What then? Smile and go again! How else will you fulfil your goal in step 1?
3. Be floppy
Likewise, be ‘floppy’. Or exaggeratedly relaxed when on top or on bottom. Stay cool. When it is time to react, GO FOR IT. However, hang loose and bide your time. In this way, your explosiveness can be used more efficiently through surprise and energy conservation.
4. Be still
Similarly, flop into a deep stillness. Bring yourself in close to your centre, wherever you are and just be. No need to rush to do you. Keep your composure and radiate that through your body. Soon enough they’ll give you your chance.
5. Be joyful
Finally, express your comfort in chaos through joy. Big man throw you off? Nimble boy wiggle out of your escape? Savvy dinky lady refuse to be baited? No matter! Remember there is no win or lose. There is no end point. Just a journey to know more. And when your partners help you see holes in the boat. Put yourself there again and again. Celebrate this cycle of testing, failing, learning and developing. Get all scientific method with this, yo! And let that process fill your heart to bursting.
What you can when you can, not what you want when you want.
These are some of the cornerstones of composure and jiu jitsu that Ryron shared with us. Now, let’s look at practical ways to practice these concepts on the mats.
Techniques to Illustrate Composure in BJJ
BJJ is yoga with choking.
Of course, Ryron illustrated the importance and effectiveness of being present, still and mindful through technique. Working through scenarios of positional control, escape and submission Ryron developed his message. This included the idea of ‘defending the position’. In other words, the idea that ‘defence’ includes consolidating and asserting your positional control, rather than rushing to ‘do something’. This is particularly the case from an offensive point of view. Let’s look at two scenarios:
1. Standard Armbar
So, you’ve landed in a classic two-legs over armbar. Do you rush to finish the submission?! Or do you practice defending the position? Taking time to defend the position risks losing it. Is it worth it?
Depends on your mindset. If your goal is to learn, hang out there. If your goal is to ‘win’ – or to arrive at an illusory destination of ‘success’ – then go for that sub, now! Consider, however, that if you practice defending that position, ultimately your ability to get there and apply the submission can only increase. As Ryron reminded us over and over, if you can hold the position for 45 seconds, you can hold it for 100. If you can hold it for 100, you have a 100% chance of getting the sub, or guard pass, or whatever. In other words, if you can control your need to ‘do something!’ and defend a position, the longer you wait, the higher your odds at ‘doing the thing’. Sure, it takes practice, but composure isn’t going to come overnight.
Therefore, when you land in that armbar, consider doing an assessment. Are your hips tight to the opponent’s back? Is your figure-4 locked up and the opponent’s arm glued to your chest? How about those hamstrings, are they active and helping to anchor and curl you into your opponent’s arm and back? Great! Now chill. Opponent tries to sit up! Ride the wave. When your back hits the mat, drive the opponent’s head down with extended hamstrings and get back to your starting position. Wait. Bide your time. Is the fight going out of them after a few more attempts to sit up and rip your tightly pinched and well-structured knees and grips away? Congratulations, victory is yours! You just owned that position. Take the sub now, or don’t, as the situation demands.
2. Thumb-in Choke from the Knee Ride
Let’s think about another offensive scenario: setting up a collar choke from knee-on-belly. You’ve made it to the top! You’ve got great controlling pressure with your shin across the opponent’s hips and your foot curled against their body. Your outside hand has a thumb-in cross grip on the opponent’s collar. The inside hand asserts itself – whack – on the opponent’s outside thigh. No need to rush into that choke. They will give it to you. If they try rolling to turtle, forearm pressure. If they try hipping out, surf along with heavy but relaxed pressure. Now watch. See how they focus more on their frustration over still being under that knee! Okay, they’ve tipped towards the inside. Go for it! Shoot the far hand into the collar drop both knees to the floor and apply the choke. Wasn’t it so much easier to let them get all flustered, forget about the choke and offer up their neck?
Chill on the Defensive
Your composure is just as crucial when in defence. For example, in the knee ride situation above, do you need to try to escape right away? No. If they are simply on you, seeking to dominate and control you, chill. If there is no attack, just a body on you, why bother? Battle their attempt to intimidate with your stillness. Similarly, side control. So many smaller players talk to me about their trouble escaping side control. Why bother? If they are making it that difficult by crushing you, find your T-rex arms, work your Safe Hands and sip breaths. Relax it is just pressure. How else can coal become a diamond?! When your opponent tires of not getting their way, watch that space under their hips appear. Go for it – retrieve that guard!
The moral of the story, as Ryron told it, was recognising you have no where else to be. Again, find comfort where there is none, and chill.
When Everyone Has Too Much Chill
Okay, but what happens when everyone is chilling in all their positions? How are we going to keep these rolls going and learn from them? Someone has got to make a move. Who should it be?
The ‘top person’, or the partner with an offensive advantage. For example, if your partner is controlling you from the side, chill. Partner in side control: defend that position with great control for 30-45 seconds. Then, it is on you to loosen the control a bit or start mounting an attack or a positional transition. So, top-person starts with 100% control, loosens to 60% and goes from there to find the level best for their partner. In this way, the defender does not violate the cardinal precepts of GJJ by flailing around for an escape when there’s a) no attack coming and b) tight control and little opportunity for manoeuvrer. Similarly, the attacking partner can practice defending the top position or setting up different attacks and so on. The cycle of learning keeps going.
On a Personal Note
The super seminar weekend had a special significance for me. In addition to being in a room with like-minded practitioners from all around the Great Lakes, I had the opportunity to test for my brown belt with Ryron. While nerve-wracking, it was a great pleasure to have that one-on-one time, with feedback tailored to my game. Above all else, it was a fun experience! Moreover, I have a better view of where to take my practice going forward. I’m pleased to say that I was awarded my brown belt on 5th May 😀
This promotion feels different. In 21 years of martial arts, this is the first belt that feels more like a way-station and less like an ‘achievement’. This was unexpected. It feels less like reaching a new rung on a ladder, and more like catching a (very slowly) swinging vine that will carry me down and up through the next series of learning curves. I am surprised by this feeling and I suspect it is related to the self-acceptance I’ve embraced as a BJJ part-timer. That’s not to say I am cavalier or casual about this. Rather I feel really happy and centred and ready to keep moving.
Lastly, I’d like to recognise my jiu jitsu families in the US and UK. Especially the people of Dartford BJJ and Marc Walder jiu jitsu, the late-great London Women’s BJJ Open Mat, Gracie Jiu Jitsu Victor – special shout out to my fellow morning class jiu jitsu bums and superb coach, John Ingallina – and Wolf Brigade Gym. I appreciate your support, counsel, practice and fellowship. There is no me without you. Let’s go!
Photos reproduced here by kind permission of Gracie Jiu Jitsu Victor
A lifetime ago, I would have taken pity on me. Perhaps with dash of smug self-satisfaction. I would have congratulated myself on my dedication and single-mindedness and ‘felt sorry’ for the present me’s lack of focus. You see, 8 years ago I was halfway into my jiu jitsu journey. I’d had disruptions due to knee injuries, but overall trained several hours a day, 5-6 days a week, both at my club – Dartford BJJ – or with partners on my home mats. However, since those more innocent times I’ve become a parent, battled depression, nuked my adult life and relocated overseas, moved house again into our ‘forever(-ish) home’ and started a second business. Much of that in the last 3 years.
So, yeah, my focus is more dispersed now. I no longer daydream about jiu jitsu A LOT. I don’t spend those hours visualizing and writing in my training journal anymore. Nor do I get to hit multiple classes a night. My pace is slower but steady. Two mornings a week at Gracie Jiu-Jitsu Victor, 2-3 sessions of strength & conditioning at Wolf Brigade Gym and perhaps an extra drilling session with a pal. A 30-something me would have inwardly scoffed while trying to understand how any priorities might override mat-time. A 40-something me is pretty cool with it and a little gentler on me and a little more fully understanding of others.
Good for me. What’s my point? My point is that it is okay to be a part-timer. Let me give some context.
Embrace Your Part-timer Status
‘Growing-up’ in jiu-jitsu I often heard ‘part-timer’ thrown around with derision. Perhaps you too have observed people chiding those who couldn’t be around as much as they used to be – for whatever reasons – with ‘Hello, part-timer’. Likewise, there’s the more subtle micro-aggression of ‘Haven’t seen you for a while’. While these certainly can be friendly banter with people you’ve honestly missed training with – and I believe, in the main, this is what I have observed or received – there is an accusatory undertone. A bit of criticism about one’s commitment. An amplification and expectation of guilt and shame for not being at every regular session. I mean, aren’t we all supposed to be rock stars that have a neurotic meltdown if we have to miss a few sessions of training?!
No. This is unsustainable. I refuse to accept that the ‘jiu-jitsu lifestyle‘ has to be all or nothing. If this were the case, I would have jacked it in when my son was an infant and I was lucky to get 1 session a week. Life can and will get in the way sometimes. If the only way we can train is proverbial balls to the proverbial wall, our community will whittle away its diversity, reducing itself to a subset of people who can and want to subordinate everything else to jiu-jitsu. So, while I am really thankful for the reps I got in while I was in that position, and I am happy for anyone who chooses that path now, I am in a place where I can honestly embrace being a ‘part-timer’. If you are finding it hard to reconcile yourself to part-timing, I hope you can get to that place too.
Here’s why: we don’t want to lose you. BJJ is stronger with you in, even if you can’t / don’t compete or move up the ranks very quickly. The more different kinds of people we have on the mats, the better off we all are. From the pros and high-level amateurs getting ready for comps on the regular, to working parents who carve out their 2 regular sessions a week (holla!). From robust 20-something bodies, to well-kept 50-something bodies that need a bit more recovery time. All the hearts and minds bring something special to the mat’s melting pot.
So what are some ways to embrace life as a part-timer?
1. Know Why You Train
Losing your purpose or not having one in the first place can be discombobulating. It’s also ok for your purpose to change. Just make sure you are always coming back to the mats for yourself.
As Emily Kwok recently noted in her discussion of longevity in BJJ, it is essential to know ‘why’ you train. As she notes, this sense of purpose can keep you going through those times when it isn’t so easy to train. Of course, barriers to training can be many and varied:
injury or illness
work or studying
family and relationships
emotional BJJ-shit (you know what I’m talking about)
Whatever the reasons that are making training less of a ‘no-brainer’ a clear understanding of why you do what you do, what you get from it, and why it is an important part of your life will keep you going.
And this is one of the many reasons why it can be important to embrace your part-timer status. If you train for the pat on the back of being on the mats all the time, or to smash the competition, or to get that blue belt, you are on an unsustainable path. These might be subsets of your purpose for being there. However, what they all have in common is external expressions of self. They are about achievement rather than personal development, joy or the process of learning.
Life isn’t about finding yourself. Life is about creating yourself.
George Bernard Shaw
In other words, the more your purpose for training is shaped by a growth mindset, rather than by the external validation that can come from achievement, the more long-term and sustainable your reasons for training. Likewise, when you need to adapt your training to life’s little (or big) bumps and knocks, resilient reasons for training, rather than more brittle achievement-based reasons will hold you down.
2. When You’re There, BE THERE
That is not to say that embracing life as a part-timer is a license to under-achieve, to sell yourself short or not give a hoot about developing your mastery. On the contrary, it is a call to action to be on-point when you are there. Indeed, John Danaher testifies to the abilities of the part-time grappler who trains with focus. If you can only give yourself 2 sessions a week, so be it. However, when you are there, make the most of it. Get your reps, work on goals and enjoy yourself!
3. Love How BJJ Makes Life Better
My final piece of unsolicited advice to those suffering from part-timer guilt, is to focus on how BJJ makes your life better. How the art / sport / discipline improves you. Again viewing this through a lens of personal growth and satisfaction, rather than achievement, per se. We’re talking more ‘flow’ and the psychology of optimal experience, less ‘being the best’. When these kinds of concerns are your focus, it is easier to transition into a part-timer state. It may still grate. It may still be raw to fall behind your cohort in terms of belt rank, or moves-owned, or competitions fought. However, it will also give you the psychology to cope with keeping BJJ as part of your life, rather than life itself, as and when you might need to. Because, guess what, it is okay to love spending time with your family, or building your business, or learning to play drums, or pay the bills. Or whatever else you want or need to prioritise. From this vantage, a part-timer isn’t a shameful shirker. On the contrary, the part-timer courageously keeps coming back to the mats even when it is hard and the path is less clear.
And, in the end, isn’t this a big part of jiu-jitsu mastery? The ability to ‘get over yourself’, to get out of your own way and stop striving for that ‘win’. But rather to focus and flow in the now, on the mats and off. To be better, or as the less grammatical would have it, to be best 😉
BJJ isn’t for the faint of heart. It is one of the more challenging ways to spend your free time. This is, of course, why we love it! However, one area that can feel particularly frustrating is sparring. Full disclosure: I am only a purple beltbrown belt; I have very limited competition experience, and since becoming a parent my training is more like 2 times a week rather than 6. That said, I have 21 years of martial arts experience, including 14/15 years on the mats. So, I have picked up a few things both through my personal struggles and working with folks at different stages of their journies. With this in mind, I hope these BJJ sparring tips can help you to develop your sparring game.
BJJ Sparring Tips: Physical
When mulling over my BJJ sparring tips, I realised they fell into two main categories: physical and conceptual. On the one hand, are more physical or practical considerations. On the other hand, are more conceptual or mind-set considerations that can underpin your physical practice. Let’s start with the physical.
1. Drill Beautifully
The starting point for improving your sparring is drilling. Only through consistent repetition of your techniques will you develop the tool-set and muscle memory to improve your sparring. That said, there’s drilling and there’s drilling. You want to do the latter.
That is, inattentive reps won’t get you very far. You need to drill beautifully. In practice, to me, that means:
Methodical: do your best to practice each step exactly in the manner and order demonstrated by your instructor
Elegant: seek to move with fluidity and grace applying each piece of the drill mindfully
Smooth: focus on smooth movement as this will develop into speed faster than rushed, staccato drilling
Attentive: keep your mind on the task at hand. While there is value to exploring the potential vulnerabilities of a technique, when drilling use your time to drill the scenario provided by your instructor. Know that there’s always a response to and/or vulnerabilities to a given technique. However, your job right now is to drill the technique and ‘bad guy’ indicators provided by your instructor. As you progress, you’ll learn more techniques and nuances. So, do yourself a favour and stay on task rather than chatting about the whys and wherefores – you’ll get there in time!
Relentless: don’t stop until your instructor calls time. If you’ve got a question, get an instructor’s attention. Camaraderie is a big part of our practice, no doubt, and we needn’t be dour. However, it is more important to get those reps than have a chat/give yourself a breather. Be dogged in your pursuit of drilling excellence.
In short, number 1 on my list of BJJ sparring tips is: approach your drilling with mindful precision. Discipline and precision in this area of your practice will pay off when the ‘water gets deep’ in sparring.
2. Positional Sparring
This list of BJJ sparring tips assumes that ‘free-rolling’ is the kind of ‘sparring’ you are looking to improve. Many readers will be aware of multiple sparring types such as positional sparring, flow-rolling and free-rolling. Each of these tools suits a different job and, ultimately, training a variety of sparring methods will improve your free-rolling.
So, positional sparring is sparring from a set starting-point often to a set end-point. For example, one person in full guard with the goal to pass; the other person seeking to sweep or submit. When either player meets their goal, the positions are re-set. This form of sparring can help you to apply techniques that you don’t yet ‘own’ under a bit more pressure than in straight drilling, but without the full chaos of a live roll.
Clearly, the beauty with which you applied your technique in drills will degrade in this and all other sparring scenarios. That’s exactly why you worked so precisely in drills! Now that your implementation is getting a bit messier in sparring, it is still pretty tight.
If my BJJ sparring tips includes positional sparring, it is only logical to highlight the value of flow-rolling. Flow-rolling is another kind of ‘transitional sparring’ that sits somewhere between drilling and free-rolling. However, it is more free-form than positional sparring, as there’s no set start or end points. This style of sparring is generally at a slower and more relaxed pace than free-rolling and partners are encouraged to: 1) ‘catch and release’ rather than to apply submissions; 2) keep moving by not holding positions for more than a few beats. While flow-rolling can feel really awkward at first, with consistent practice it can help you to develop your timing and your application of techniques that are not yet fully integrated into your game.
BJJ Sparring Tips: Conceptual
To re-cap, some ‘physical BJJ sparring tips’ include precise drilling and including variety in your sparring forms in order to improve your free-rolling. However, there’s more to sparring than the right grip or accurate positioning of the hips, it is as much in the mind as in the body.
1. Goals, Have ‘Em
Sparring with a mission can help you to consolidate and evolve your game. Know what you’re working on and stick at it until you’ve got it working. A gauge I use to determine if I can do a new thing is if I get it consistently on lower belts of all sizes and proportionally less successfully as the skill gap closes. For example, when I was focusing on basic scissor sweeps from the guard as a blue belt, I felt it was ‘mine’ when I could get the sweep on white belts of all sizes on the regular and occasionally with people of my own experience level. By the time I had some ownership of this sweep, my team mates started to have answers to my sweep. In response, I then focussed on a kimora attempt if the sweep failed and they based out with a hand or transitioning to a variation to remove a supporting leg if they based out with a knee.
This is the arms race. Through this escalation, you and your clubmates strengthen and expand your skill-sets. By setting and pursuing clearly defined goals, you can gradually build your toolkit, timing and judgement.
2. Build From a Solid Foundation
Goal-oriented sparring practice is a great way to develop your skill-set and make consistent – if sometimes agonisingly slow – progress. So, how do you choose your goal? Simple, start at the beginning.
You learn lots of cool drills in class. Sometimes these techniques are further along the journey than where you may be. Don’t get me wrong, it is great to be exposed to these techniques and you should try them in positional sparring, flow-rolling and free-rolling. However, when defining your sparring goals, start basic and progress from there.
In other words, if you don’t yet ‘own’ a decent elbow escape from mount, putting energy into spider-guard sweeps is putting the cart before the horse. Therefore, map your goals logically and trace a route from more basic and high percentage defensive and offensive techniques towards more advanced variations. This approach can help you to create a solid foundation of fundamentals while giving you the skills and timing to move towards more ‘advanced’ variations as and when you’re ready. Again, to be clear, yes – don’t be afraid to try stuff! Nevertheless, when identifying your goals, start with the basics and build from there.
3. Defence First
Moreover, when defining your sparring goals, think ‘defence first’. This has multiple advantages. Firstly, from a self-defence perspective, focussing on keeping yourself safe has merit. Likewise, from an injury-prevention point-of-view, working from a defence-first mindset can pay great dividends. Secondly, from an improving-your-sparring vantage point, confidence in your defence can help you to move towards opening up to mount your attacks. In other words, once you’re an excellent nail, you can find yourself getting a share of the hammer-time. Similarly, an excellent understanding of defence, augments your offensive powers. That is, fully understanding how one defends a position, can help you to better develop attacks-by-combination and the subtlety that great offence requires.
4. Fight Fire with Water
From a defence-first practice naturally flows patience and resilience to goading. You know what is really easy for this lightweight 42-year-old woman? Dealing with strength. ‘Cuz guess what, I already know that you are stronger than me; if you take a break from proving that to yourself, you’ll have a much better chance of getting the better of me. Want to know why? I fight fire with water.
I have zero interest in playing the strength game. While I take care of my body including strength and conditioning for BJJ, I lost the absolute strength battle when I got on the mat. Pretty much all of you are bigger and younger than I am. That’s cool, I’m patient and more annoying. Through defence-first training and a focus on ‘not losing’ rather than ‘winning’, I’m able to ride out a storm and pick my timing. Attacks telegraphed with brute force are relatively easy – if exhausting and repetitive – to deal with. And I’m obnoxiously persistent. However, smooth, sneaky, elegant traps blind-side me and are much more likely to get me ruffled.
So, the moral of the story is, stay cool. Work your goals, built on a broad foundation of basics, with an eye towards defence and you’ll find comfort where there is none. In that place, you can chill, find your opening and ply your offence. It might not be today, or tomorrow and it may well be 5 years down the track, but that’s kinda what you signed up for when you walked onto those mats. That in itself took guts, so the ability to remain composed in chaos and weather the storm is in there. Find it. Harness it. Nurture it.
5. Tap Early, Tap Often
No set of BJJ sparring tips is complete without mentioning the importance of tapping. If you’ve spent any time on the mats you’ve doubtless heard common tapping tropes: ‘if you’re not tapping, you’re not learning’, ‘leave your ego at the door’ and so on. Cliche as they might be, these adages are worth keeping close to heart and mind. A willingness to tap is vital to your BJJ sparring. Why?
First of all, safety. Yours and your partner’s. The tap is sacrosanct, and with good reason. What we do is really quite dangerous! Respecting the tap is essential to keeping everyone in one piece and fully functional. Moreover, this cuts both ways. If your partner has you, tap! It isn’t fair to them if you allow ego to take control and put them in a spot where they injure you. Likewise, if you feel or hear a tap – STOP! Not sure if that was your partner or not? Stop anyhow and reset if you erred on the side of caution. You already know this, however it bears repeating.
Next, learning. If you are the smartest person in the room, you need to find a new room. If you are uncomfortable with not being the smartest person in the room, address that right now. Vulnerability to learning is the only way you are going to get better at BJJ sparring. That includes tapping early and often. Feel like you could power out of a sub? Go for it. Congratulations, you just learnt nothing. Forgo the saccharine pleasure of ‘escaping’ through speed/power/force. Pull your big-kid pants on and tap. Well done, you and your body now know where there’s a hole in your boat. See steps 1-4 above, and repeat. Now, you’re really getting somewhere.
Finally, as a bonus, resist the urge to tell someone ‘that wasn’t a real submission’ after you just tapped to it. I get it, perhaps it wasn’t very well applied, or it was some sort of strengthy bend-you-into-a-pretzel move. That’s on them. Your job is to work with your instructor to develop great responses to their attacks, even if they don’t seem to be proper. Help them address their offensive technique with superior defensive technique. Keep the snarky ego-driven sour-grapes for the ‘inside voice’.
Of course, no purple belt’s humble BJJ sparring tips can prepare you for the gruelling self-examination that walks hand-in-hand with levelling up in jiu jitsu. All I can promise is that this formula has been at the heart of my practice and improvement from day 1. My understanding and application of these concepts has advanced and, I can only hope, will continue to do so. Perhaps, there’s helpful BJJ sparring tips here for you too. Because this beautiful thing we do, man, it is tough.
jiu jitsu lifestyle (joo-jit-soo lahyf-stahyl): the habits, attitudes, tastes, moral standards, economic level, and etc that together constitute the mode of living of those engaged in Brazilian jiu jitsu, a martial art and combat sport that teaches a smaller person how to defend herself against a larger adversary by using leverage and proper technique.
‘The habits, attitudes, tastes, moral standards & etc’. In other words, the fundamental components and expressions of one’s worldview. When jiu jitsu is your lifestyle, no matter what else comes your way, quitting is not an option. Injuries, big moves across cities, states or oceans, babies, elderly family, work pressures, money pressures, time pressures all conspire to cut our time with jiu jitsu short. Living the jiu jitsu lifestyle isn’t just about acai bowls and being mad on kimono. Those things are part of it, but just the tip of this ‘berg. At some stage, not sure when, like with a sweep, there’s a point of no return and your relationship with jiu jitsu is no longer negotiable; it takes on a life and momentum of its own – think that’s called ‘love’.
Love is easy at the start. It is all hormones and handsy and sweaty and fun. With the miles come the struggles and the pressure tests and the challenges. In love as in jiu jitsu, endurance offers great rewards. In love as in jiu jitsu, some drop out and some commit for the long haul, for better or worse.
I know now that I am in this thing, come what may. 5 years ago jiu jitsu was easy. It wasn’t really, but after 7 years my confidence in my defence let me work my offence. I was putting myself in triangles and all sorts of bad spots with good level, bigger people and escaping, reversing and submitting. After intense toil and self-scrutiny I could finally sniff the experience that seemed so common and ‘easy’ for the men in my club. Then, KABOOM!
ACL surgery; pregnancy; birth and caring for an infant (plus a sprinkle of postpartum depression for good measure); trans-Atlantic move; re-entry shock; refurbishing a new house; new jobs; and homesickness. For the record, my worst days are better than most of the worlds’ bad days – I get that – nonetheless, my life got mangled.
Jiu jitsu stayed with me, and I with jiu jitsu. My pregnancy was active and included drills and some sparring. Infancy was the toughest to balance, and while infrequent, privates with my UK coach, Dave Birkett from Dartford Academia de Jiu Jitsu, kept me in the game. Within 12 months of the baby, Friday night training was more and more regular. 2 and a half years on, we moved to the States where I scrambled to find the right club for me. Serendipty! Gracie Jiu Jitsu Victor had just opened its doors. Likewise, up the street was Wolf Brigade, a strength and conditioning gym, that has empowered me to take my body back after a rocky recovery from ACL reconstruction / pregnancy / birth / infancy-sans-self-care. In all the chaos of becoming parents and moving overseas, jiu jitsu – and what Greg Walsh at Wolf Brigade calls ‘physical culture’ – kept me steady and on course.
The Jiu Jitsu Lifestyle Doesn’t Always Move Forward
Sometimes, one has to step back to truly move forward. Readers may be aware that I chose to wear a white belt when I started at Gracie Victor. With all the disruption to my training, my body, and my fitness, this was the right place for me to start in a new town and with a new club. This decision was all about me. It was about what I needed to rebuild. It was about my need to feel worthy of my belt. It wasn’t asked or expected of me.
Gracie Academy respects the belts of students that come from outside. I needed to take a step back and methodically re-work my core jiu jitsu. The Academy offers a clear path for someone in my position: belt verification. ‘Verification’ is the process whereby the Gracie Academy verifies that one’s skillset and mindset harmonises with the priorities of Gracie Jiu Jitsu. Pre-requisites for a verification are passing the Gracie Combatives and Blue Belt Stripe 1 tests. This is a lot of material. Dozens of techniques and their ‘slices’ along the full spectrum of ‘self defence’ to ‘sportive’. The material was familiar to me, but in the way a language I was once fluent in and haven’t used for many years years is familiar.
My coach at Gracie Victor, John Ingallina, has been by my side pushing and pulling me along to my verification since the day I arrived at his door. From Spring 2016 he and I trained together for my BBS1 and his BBS2 exam. We trained intensively for our exams, drilling controls, submissions and counters from mount, sidemount, guard, half-guard, back mount, leg locks and standing. It is a comprehensive and intuitive syllabus though quite overwhelming at the start.
It was a great pleasure to work with John on this. He’s a fantastic training partner and picks things up freakishly fast. He’s a solid grappler and while a lesser person might be threatened by a higher-ranked student, John’s been nothing but encouraging and invested in my progress. This speaks volumes. He’s a deft coach and instructor, far exceeding any experience or expertise I have in those areas. We’ve become fast and true friends; I feel really lucky to train with him and his club.
In early autumn we submitted our examination materials. Proud to say we crushed our exams and sights were now locked on purple belt verification.
The verification process was rigourous and fair. Once I’d passed muster with the Combatives and BBS1 exams, John arranged for a live verification exam with a Gracie Academy black belt. Frack Cucci of Linxx Martial Arts Academy in Virginia Beach made the journey to Western NY for a seminar and a verification exam.
A word on Professor Cucci. He’s tremendous. A former Navy SEAL with over 30 years of martial arts under his belt, he came to jiu jitsu – as did so many – after Royce Gracie’s performance in the early UFC. His instruction is calm and measured and the seminar – a 2 hour session on guard sweeps and a 2 hour session on guillotine mastery – was a delight. His work with military and law enforcement gives a really interesting insight. Technical tweaks for LE in light of cuffing procedures, common circumstances and unique tactical situations, as well as subduing suspects while keeping tasers and sidearms ‘out of the party’ was eye-opening. After 4 hours of a steady drill pace with my training partner, Kyle Bagshaw from Gracie Victor – if you have the opportunity I highly recommend training with him, he just reps, it’s fabulous – it was verification time.
While in someways a formality – afterall the process leading up to requesting a live verification is quite thorough – the verification exam was legit. I rolled with Frank – gi, no gi and gloves-on – for over an hour. It felt relentless and put my technique, mindset and energy conservation through their paces. It was a bigger challenge than I’d expected in terms of endurance. I really appreciated being taken seriously and given a proper test. I felt valued and respected and not ‘rubberstamped’. Frank’s comments for improvement were helpful as well as hard to hear. The issues that have plagued my jiu jitsu from the get-go persist. In particular, I’m far too hesitant with my offence. On the upside, the feedback was more positive than negative. I have clear areas for improvement and John and my clubmates are by my side to help me address them.
5 years ago, I was out with an ACL reconstruction. Since then, I’ve recovered from a knee op, had a baby, moved overseas and generally shaken things up. Today, I’m close to my pre-natal game. Steps forwards, backwards and forwards again. Here we are jiu jitsu, still dancing, and I am ready to work some new moves with you. Now that we’ve gotten ‘back’, let’s get ‘better’.
Take the Suck Over the Quit
Gentle reader, I know you go through things on and off the mats that make it seem that jiu jitsu just isn’t worth it. And perhaps, for you, it isn’t. But, if you’re here, reading this, then perhaps it is. If not yet, there will come a time when your jiu jitsu faith may be tested. Whether babies or jobs or injury, some wedge will seek to insert itself between you and jiu jitsu. But without jiu jitsu who are ‘you’?
I lost my name at toddler group. From Hollie, or Hols, or Hollie McNish. I’m now known as so-and-so’s mom. However, the mom isn’t complaining about this loss of her name, as she does the same to others when she says she “got a drink with Izzy’s dad” or “ran into Molly’s gran.” Once a person becomes a parent, they are forever labeled as “mom” or “dad,” that’s just how it goes.
It’s only when the stars are out and everything’s dark that my own name creeps out from under the table and I’m able to remember the person I am, with a hot cup of tea and a book in my hand and a two hour slot to remember my own plans before I turn off the light.
Jiu jitsu is where I live. The ‘me’ apart from work, or family, or money, or my early 40s. It is my spirit, whimsy, vitality, grit, and madness. Without it, I’d be a husk.
Jiu jitsu takes but jiu jitsu gives and gives and gives. With my verification came congratulations from friends old and new and training partners on either side of the Atlantic. While there is no me without jiu jitsu, there is no jiu jitsu without you. We are in this together and as ships on a rising tide we sail together forever part of each others’ journies. In what seem to be dark, uncertain and divided times, that’s pure and that is good. Jiu jitsu is love.