When I work with newer students, I often hear some variation of the question “How do I develop my style?” or “What should I specialize in?”
This seems to be a natural progression in jiu-jitsu learning. After a few weeks on the mat, we pick up on the fact that upper belts tend to build their own unique games. We might not understand the mechanics or the strategic importance of one technique or style over another, but we recognize that this black belt always does this submission while this other black belt is always looking for this one type of guard.
From there, reaching the conclusion that you should have your own style or your own game is not a big logical leap. If the people you admire have one, you should too, right?
Well, yes, but reaching that point is a bit more complicated than going to the style store and picking a style off of the shelf. A multitude of factors can contribute to how your style develops. Some of them can be deliberate, but many of them are organic. Here are some of those factors:
Your instructors. It’s not unusual for schools and for even whole associations to be associated with a particular style or approach. That’s because what your instructors teach and how they teach naturally have a huge impact on what goes into your game. At the same time, there is a bit of randomness at play here. Jumping into the right class at the right time could expose you to particular sets of techniques that students on other class schedules might miss. So even if you’re at the same school, the inputs you get can still be a bit random.
- Your training partners. Though your training partners may not be running your drilling sessions, the techniques they are good at naturally force you to work on certain techniques as a response. If you happen to train with a lot of wrestlers, you are forced to work on your anti-wrestling techniques like sprawling or having an aggressive guard. This guides your technique development down a particular path out of pure necessity.
- Your size and body type. Physical attributes can play a big role in the style you develop, whether by choice or by accident. Everything from the length of your limbs to your bodyweight will make some techniques more accessible than others, leading you to naturally gravitate toward a particular approach that someone with different physical assets would.
- Injuries and limitations. Many of the black belts I’ve trained with talk about how they grapple around a lingering injury. Bad hands? Less spider guard and more collar ties. Bad back? Less inversion and less high guard to avoid the stack. Even in the short term, having a bum ankle or a bum finger can force you to adapt in interesting ways, leading to an innovation in your style that a perfectly healthy you might not have uncovered.
- For the fun of it. Sometimes there is no mystical reason for a style choice. You might just find one technique fun to do or more enjoyable than another technique. This approach gets a bad reputation because of how white belts look to YouTube for outlandish silver bullets, but it can also take you down some interesting training paths.
- Strategic interest. With the explosion of instructional content available online, this avenue has become much more common. Students transplant entire styles from the grapplers they admire into their own games. Initially, this can start out as a cloning effort (I want to be Marcelo Garcia or I want to be Rafa Mendes) but results in a more organic adaptation with your own style and your own influences. You might pick up the guard passing system that your favorite athlete uses, but then you find unexpected ways that the passing system integrates with the top game that your instructor teaches, and boom, new style.