How to be Good at Jiu-jitsu

A Guide for the Perplexed

Is Jiu-jitsu sometimes overwhelming? Definitely. Is it occasionally a frustration of puzzles like trying to get the ring off an impossibly complex iron tavern puzzle? Sure it is! But it’s also tremendously fulfilling when the poetry of motion starts working for you, and you find yourself able to link moves and smoothly execute strategy against skilled opponents, instead of just getting folded in half time and again! I’ve been doing and teaching Brazilian Jiu-jitsu for thirty years and I can give you some useful advice for being able to stay at it long enough to appreciate some improvement (incidentally staying at it long enough to get better at it is key)!

  1. Measure your training time in hours not years. When you’re calculating the time you’ve spent on the mat, a particular key is to remember that most of your life isn’t spent on the mat. And while we love watching videos, and chatting about training, not an iota of that is actually replicating moves (otherwise known as reps) with a partner. A blue belt is someone who has about 300 hrs of mat time, practicing and rolling – some people take longer than others to reach this critical load of training time. It also will require an additional 400 or so hours to reach purple belt. Think of it like getting a bachelor’s degree. Jiu-jitsu takes time training and playing, the best have spent thousands of hours past purple belt, improving their execution of material.
  2. Athleticism is nice, but patient determination and training habit is better. Make your habit about your jiu-jitsu training. Whenever possible find a partner and rep any techniques, especially those you’re not good at. I won’t say that your strength and speed aren’t important, but they’re like trying to summarize a Proust novel with your box jumps. It is too common for athletic people to rely on a scramble or a powerful exertion when something more technical is better (and what you’re paying to learn!). Remember in Jiu-jitsu being told you’re strong isn’t a compliment.
  3. Be a good training partner. The best way to do this is to be available and enthusiastic about repping techniques and not endlessly fighting against your partner and thinking about defeating their training. I’ve often seen the type of partner who literally tries to prove a technique being trained is useless because a choke, or other finishing move, might be applied to stop it! You haven’t created an argument to stop the training, all you’ve done is thought of another technique to train. Good jiu-jitsu relies on a good community of people who love drilling the moves. Training is not always a combat! You need to teach your body to do Jiu-jitsu.
  4. This is also about being a good partner: Show up. Show up. Show up. There’s an old saw about why the friends aren’t calling you to go out anymore. It’s because you don’t go out. You’ve let them down too many times! Show Up! Fight for your Jiu-jitsu schedule. People are counting on you too!
  5. There are hard rolls for fight preparation and mature gentle rolls for improving your game. Mostly you want to stick to rolling not so much with the intention of beating someone, but with the intention of using material you’ve been drilling. I don’t force you to play guard because I think that’s the smartest way to engage with an opponent. It’s just a very likely position that we want to be brilliant at (otherwise known as defense!). I’m not worried about 250lb guys surviving being on top of an opponent. I worry about their skills when they get rolled over, or knocked on their asses. That’s where Jiu-jitsu really shines, in defense. Don’t be silly about training defense, take it seriously. Just because you may be hard to topple doesn’t mean it won’t happen. There’s always a stronger character out there, another bigger opponent we’re preparing for.
  6. While Jiu-jitsu is very big, 1000s of moves and variations, and as many ways to apply them in practice, you don’t need to collect them all like a deck of Pokemon cards. You need a few moves in each position to be able to play the game, to be able to roll. Don’t be in too much of a rush to accumulate techniques, and don’t imagine you need to know fashionable moves from big name fighters. Name dropping doesn’t improve your skills and the reality is, the best are tremendously good at the basics. Drilling the basics as often as you can will make you a mat master.
  7. Relax when you’re training. Playing is how mammals learn. Try not to be stiff, try very hard not to put so much strength into a move that you’re actually shaking with the tension. This defeats your endurance and your ability to feel when a move should be applied. I know this isn’t always easy, but stiffness makes you easy to throw, it makes you easy to avoid and it tires you. You should expect to get passed and tapped a lot in the beginning. It wouldn’t be worth pursuing if it didn’t take time to gain proficiency. Even if you manage to strong-arm someone into a finish in your first week, it is unlikely you’ve gained that skill. It is much more likely you were able to force it on a weaker player. That’s not what you’re after in Jiu-jitsu.
  8. Lastly a word about our sports culture. We concentrate too much on “the best” . The best basketball players, the best fighters. The fact of the matter is “the best” is irrelevant, what matters in Jiu-jitsu is hard work and being your best. It doesn’t matter how good other people you will never train with are. What matters is you in your gym training your Jiu-jitsu.

In summary, Show up, relax, be a good partner, drill your techniques, and try to improve something with your rolling, be inspired by the greats, but don’t obsess about them!

See you on the mat!

your Author of the Fat-jitsu team meeting with Roberto Maia of Boston BJJ

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