Training Partners Trump All

Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu is a strange sport. On the one hand, it’s a highly individual pursuit. We often talk about how comparing your progress to the progress of others is dangerous because so many variables can lead to one student advancing faster than other. So focus on yourself rather than the people around. At the same time, however, we talk about the importance of having a team and community. While debates around gym loyalty wage on, we seem to agree to on some level that belonging to something bigger than ourselves—a school or the jiu-jitsu culture at large—is a good thing.

So there’s this odd balance between being highly individual and highly communal.

Over the years, after swinging from either extreme—at one time feeling like being selfish about your training and at other times feeling like jiu-jiteiros have some weird cosmic responsibility to give as much as you can to the jiu-jitsu community—I’ve settled on this: the most important part of your training from a technical and emotional standpoint are your training partners. Not you, not the amorphously defined community, your training partners.

If you surround yourself with the right training partners and hit the mat with the right mindset, more good will come out of your training than if you were focused solely on your own development or solely on helping everyone else get better. Here’s what I mean:

  • A diverse mix of training partners is ideal. To consistently grow, you need training partners that are more experienced than you to challenge your defense, less experienced than you to challenge your offense, different from your style to challenge your problem-solving, and close to your skill level to challenge the well-roundedness of your game. If your mat habits shut out or make any of these groups feel unwelcome, your training will suffer.

  • Training should be give and take. Teaching newer students or helping your training partners get ready for competition is important, but if you get stuck in a cycle where you’re the only one giving, you will burn out. Your training partners should be contributing to your training as well, whether it’s a more experienced student giving you feedback or other students making themselves available for rolls and for drills.

  • Character counts. Putting aside controversial definitions of jiu-jitsu loyalty, you need to surround yourself with training partners you can trust. My best training partners come to the mat with no ego, and their personalities have a simplistic honesty to them. They treat everyone with the same level of respect and do not compromise the experiences of your training partners just to get themselves ahead. When someone is tugging on your ACL, being able to trust them is important.

  • You have very little control outside of your own gym. For a long time, the jiu-jitsu world was obsessed with lineage. The more the idea of lineage drifts toward marketing and away from many sort of unifying team ideal or philosophy, I’m realizing that the only thing I can really control is who I choose to train with. Yes, bad apples will float in and out of even the best environments, but if your training partners are not supportive and helpful, you might be better off switching them out for new ones.

  • You are not an island. As much as you might want to, you can’t improve your jiu-jitsu in total isolation. You have to be the kind of training partner that you ultimately want to train with. You might not be an instructor, but you can be a leader in your own small way. Be a source of positivity on the mat, and the right training partners will naturally be drawn to you.
No matter how I look at it, I can’t escape the fact that your immediate training partners have the greatest and most profound impact on your training. If you overlook this truth and instead focus selfishly on your own exclusive development or even on nothing but giving to the larger jiu-jitsu community, you will miss a huge opportunity for development. Start your jiu-jitsu overhaul with the people you fist-bump daily. They’re in the same boat with you, and everyone should be rowing in the same direction.