Inverted Gear Blog / Marshal D. Carper
A new year is upon us, and in gyms around the world a new crowd of well-intentioned members are getting memberships and trying to make a change in their life. Jiu-jitsu schools across the country will see an influx as well. While the jokes about how poorly these life changes go for the resolution crowd are painfully accurate, someone trying BJJ for the first time—regardless of the reason—is a huge opportunity for your school and for your team.
Instead of looking down on the resolution crowd, give them the welcome and support they might need to stick with the sport when that new gi smells wears off.
Let’s start with some empathy. Once you’ve training jiu-jitsu for a year or more, you might forget just how hard it is to get started. Walking in the door of a gym is awkward and uncomfortable, especially when everyone on the mat looks at you to size you up. I don’t care how friendly you say your gym is, I’ve never been to a school that doesn’t do this, and even after 10 years in the sport it still makes me want to turn around and leave.
So just showing up is hard. Now remember what it’s like to be out of shape and have absolutely no context for any of the technique you’re learning. In a few minutes, a new student is likely sucking wind and experiencing that painful sensation of not being good at something. If we’re honest, this is one of the big reasons why new gym sign-ups bail after a few weeks. It’s not just about discipline; it’s about facing and coping with a steady stream of uncomfortable truths. Quitting is just easier sometimes.
You can help though, even if you’re not yet a veteran student yourself. Here’s what to do:
For the love of Helio, smile and say hi. When you train regularly, you get a good sense for who the regulars are. If you think someone is brand new (and it’s typically obvious), get up out of your private little jiu-jitsu clique and introduce yourself. Putting a positive spin on the first few minutes of being in the gym can be a miracle for an unconfident new student.
Introduce a new student to other students. If you’re brave enough to introduce yourself to a new student, be a good ambassador and introduce that student to other people in the class. Super nice training partners are often very shy, but you can help open that door but just creating the opportunity for people to shake hands and exchange names.
Be patient and supportive. Being new sucks, and jiu-jitsu schools are notoriously terrible at teaching decorum and procedure. If your school has specific rules about where students line up or something similar, give the new student a heads up, and give them a friendly heads-up if they are getting something wrong. As long as you are kind about it, the new student will appreciate it very much and will be spared embarrassment.
Tell them about your first day. When you’re the low man on the totem pole, imagining the slick tough purple as someone who was once out of shape and terrible at jiu-jitsu can be impossible. Offer up a casual story about what it was like when you started to give the new student some hope.
- Stop the binge before it starts. A new student will inevitably ask what they should do to get better. Try to help them avoid the pitfall of going too hard too soon. Encourage them to pick up a training schedule that is sustainable, even if they want to train 6 days a week right off the bat. And also suggest that coming to class is the most important thing, more important than instructionals or magic jiu-jitsu-improving workout gimmicks.
Embrace the new student rush, and use it to help jiu-jitsu grow. White belts can be awkward and annoying, but we all started there, and bringing more of them in the door is the only way for your school to survive and for you to have good training partners. Be a part of the effort to keep the sport open and accepting by helping a new student when you can.
The jiu-jitsu world is rich with instructionals, and in the early years, swapping bootleg VHS tapes and tattered magazine techniques—many of which were in Japanese or Portuguese—was the only way schools in remote locations could get new techniques. In those years, remote meant any non-major city that doesn’t have a beach.
Today, instructionals are readily available—books, DVDs, magazines, YouTube, webinars, and subscription sites. At the same time, instruction in schools has vastly improved. Seminars are far more accessible. Most schools are run by black belts. Finding an instructor with a large breadth of knowledge isn’t as hard as it used to be, but the instructional industry is still booming. The formats might be different, but we are still seeing high-level grapplers produce and sell instructionals.
Are they still relevant? Are they still helpful? How should you use an instructional?
White belts ask me these sorts of questions, and here’s the high points of how instructionals fit into a modern jiu-jitsu training routine:
- First-off, nothing is more valuable than in-person instruction from a qualified instructor. This will always be the best way to learn jiu-jitsu, and you shouldn’t do the weird thing of ignoring great learning opportunities down the street to instead try to learn from a DVD. You’ll have a bad time.
- Instructionals are great for troubleshooting and problem-solving. If you are struggling with a specific position, instructionals can give you ideas for what you could try now instead of hoping for the next class to teach exactly what you need. Once you’ve tried solving the problem yourself—a valuable learning opportunity in its own right—you will actually get more out of asking an upper belt or taking a private lesson because you have some context.
- Gyms often develop overall styles based around how an instructor teaches. This isn’t bad; it’s just difficult for a smaller gym especially to expose students to the wide range of jiu-jitsu techniques available. Grabbing a move from an instructional can help to inject some variety into a gym, which ends up being good for everyone.
- Jiu-jitsu is evolving quickly, and instructionals can help you stay on the cutting edge. With digital formats, you can now see a competitor’s latest innovation almost instantly, whether through competition footage or through their own content releases. There’s no way for even the best instructors to stay on top of everything, so instructionals can help on this front as well.
So instructionals are helpful provided that you are still training with legitimate instructors with equally legitimate training partners. That should be extremely clear.
Instructionals can be a powerful tool for your training, but they can also turn into something of a black hole if you don’t approach them correctly. You have probably seen someone fall into this trap, probably a white belt. He has a new favorite move every week, can’t stop talking about the latest thing he saw on YouTube, and seems to improve at a far slower pace than his peers. This is what happens when you dive too deep too quickly.
Here’s the better way to do it:
- Understand the difference between mental awareness and skill acquisition. If you watch an entire DVD from beginning to end, you likely won’t be able to execute much of what you saw, but your general awareness for what techniques exist increases, which is actually helpful from a big picture point of view. To actually apply what you watched, you need to dedicate serious time to practice and drilling.
- Drilling techniques is essential. Follow the same path that you follow in normal classes, ramping up from drilling against a non-resisting partner to experimenting with the technique in live training. The key here is to only drill one or two techniques from your instructional of choice. Expect to do that for at least a month for the techniques to really sink in.
- Notes and reviews are helpful. As you watch an instructional, take notes on what you need to remember so you have a reference point when you are in the gym. Once you drill the technique a bit, re-watch the instructional to make sure you are doing it correctly. You are likely to pick up on an additional nuance once you’ve tried the move a few times.
- Working with a buddy is more effective. If you have a training partner watching the same material to drill with, you will have better open mat experiences and are more likely to uncover insights into the technique (two heads are better than one). If you go solo, you can still get the job done, but it takes more work and probably won’t be as much fun.
- You don’t need to master an entire instructional for it to be valuable. If you walk away from a book or DVD with even just one new tip that you can actually apply, it’s worth it. As you progress on your journey, these insights will be harder to come by, so get used to working hard to find them.
Instructionals are a great supplement to your training, but please please please don’t forget that your instructors and training partners are there to help you too. If you make the most out of your gym time and your off time, you will see significant improvements in your game.
When jiu-jitsu tourism was sort of my job, I was in Hawaii training at the BJ Penn Academy. I was still new to the sport, working on getting a blue belt, which meant that I was simply too fresh to understand some of the sport’s biggest challenges. As a white belt, I thought that the hardest parts of jiu-jitsu were things like training consistently, or getting in shape, or having to get used to upper belts beating up on you.
Then I met Sam (not his real name). Sam was a local, late 30s, and barely taller than five feet. He was comically round and almost always laughed, mostly at himself. Technically, Sam was a blue belt, but he had stepped away from the sport for six years to take care of his family. In that time, he said he always thought about jiu-jitsu. Even though he was out of shape and out of practice, he was happy to be back.
But it wasn’t easy for Sam. If he was a normal white belt starting from the beginning, being out of shape and out of practice would probably have been easier to take. When someone made a joke like, “Brah, you sweat pork grease!” he laughed, but I could catch the faintest glimmer in his eyes that seemed to say “I didn’t use to.”
And that’s one of jiu-jitsu’s greatest hidden challenges. Eventually, for some reason or another, you will have to step away from the mat and make the choice to come back. You might be gone for a month, a few months, a year, or even longer. In almost every case, coming back is hard. You lose that sharpness and that awareness that comes with consistent training, but losing those things is not the worst part.
The worst part is feeling that they used to be there, like an amputated limb that still tingles like it’s there but is just not, no matter how much you might wish it to be.
I’ve written a lot about my long list of injuries, so I’ll spare you the re-run. The short version is that I’ve gone through a truncated version of Sam’s story half a dozen times over, never that long, but I’ve had to come back from an injury or a family issue on multiple occasions. And it sucks every time. Your training partners keep getting better while you’re gone. The younger guys are improving as well. You just can’t catch your breath sometimes. You put on a little bit of weight. You can’t move that joint the way you used to. The doctors stop describing you as a “young athlete” and instead start talking about pain management and joint replacements.
When you love the art, it’s hard not to get angry and frustrated when you go through this.
But that’s where Sam taught me an important lesson. He struggled through warm ups. Fought to remember techniques. Got mopped by white belts who were more than happy to beat up on a blue belt. Sam never yelled. He never punched the mat, and he never sulked. Any frustration he experienced was mostly invisible, just those quick glimmers of a passing memory of what he used to be, but then he was back smiling.
Sam had endured enough off the mat, had been away so long coping with issues far more serious than a young buck white belt coming after you that being on the mat was nothing but a blessing for him. No matter how out of shape or out of practice he was, he knew that he was fortunate every time he stepped through the door to train.
I don’t have a top five steps or a list of tips to give you on how to be like Sam because I’m still working on it myself. What I can say is that it appears that the first step is humbling yourself to the point where you can imagine your life with or without jiu-jitsu.
Even though starting over is hard, it’s not as hard as walking away from the joy that training can bring you.
Photo credit to Ricardo's Photography https://flic.kr/p/a9Nie5
Hitting a training rut is one of the inevitabilities of jiu-jitsu. If you stay on the mat long enough, you will eventually hit a plateau, and the worst of plateaus will make you feel like you are moving backward. You won’t know why. You’ll be training as hard as usual. You’ll be at every class. And you’ll just feel lackluster. After a few weeks, you see your training partners start to outmatch you at every turn.
Training ruts can become like quicksand, dragging you and your morale to a dark and frustrating place.
Whether you’re in a rut now or are prepping for when the day will come, here are the steps you need to take (based on my 10 years in the sport; your results may vary):
1. Calm the hell down. Jiu-jitsu is important and our passion for the sport runs deep, but let’s put your rut in context. In the scheme of problems that you could face, a training rut is pretty minor. You could be staring down a serious injury or facing difficult challenges at work. Training ruts suck, but they are perfectly normal and are only made worse by over-obsession.
2. Take a day off. Your instructor might not like my giving this advice, but it’s helpful. If you are nose-to-the-grindstone five days a week, skip a day to go watch a movie or to binge-watch Gilmore Girls on Netflix (the new season will be here soon!). Sometimes your mind and body just need some rest, which can give you the fresh start you need to make progress again.
3. Get a new perspective. Sometimes the trick to beating a rut is to jumpstart your training with completely new ideas. Book a private or head to a seminar to inject something different into your game. My suggestion here is not to worry about finding the “right” technique that you should be working on. Instead, just get your creativity flowing again. If you take a private lesson, for example, ask your instructor to show you something they like or are working on that you haven’t used before.
4. Go back to basics. Does nothing seem to be able to push your progress forward? Go back to the absolute basics and work on those. Insist on catching everyone in a cross collar choke or an Americana. Chances are that you’ll still lose as often as you have been, but that’s okay. You’ll be working outside of your comfort zone and trying new things to solve your self-imposed challenge. That process can uncover a surprisingly plentiful pool of learning opportunities.
5. Devote more time to teaching. If you are moving into the upper belts, ask your instructor if you can help with the beginner or kids class. You don’t have to be leading the class. Simply walking around to offer some extra tips here and there will do. In doing this, you take your mind off of your own training, which is healthy in its own right, but you also force yourself to think about your jiu-jitsu from a new person’s perspective. Teaching others can also reveal a lot for you a swell.
We love jiu-jitsu, and we take our training very seriously. We’ve been at it for a while, so we naturally want to continue seeing returns on the hard work and time that we invest. All of that is fair, but the harder you are on yourself about a training rut, the worse it can get. Take a few steps back and work through these suggestions. You’ll be out of your rut in no time.
Raf Esparza, one of the hosts of Verbal Tap Cast, reached out to me the other day with a question. He said, “You’re a BJJ Historian (of sorts).” That sort of half-compliment is on par with our usual banter, but I digress. He continued, “Have you ever seen s*** talking like this?”
Esparza was referring to the apparent increase in trash talk between jiu-jitsu athletes. We have Gordon Ryan doing the jiu-jitsu equivalent of a “send all” email for issuing challenge matches. We had AJ Agazarm takeover the Metamoris Instagram account earlier this year. We had Saulo Ribeiro replying to one of John Danaher’s Instagram novels, questioning his authority on BJJ competition. And of course Garry Tonon jumped in the fray as well.
There is more of course, but you get the idea. A lot of jiu-jitsu athletes use social media, and it seems as though more and more of them are willing to court controversy to get attention, sell matches, and win fans.
To Esparza’s point, is this new?
Well, no. Beef and rivalries have been a part of jiu-jitsu since the beginning. In the past, these rivalries and beefs took place mostly in-person and more often involved actual fights rather than Instagram comments. As Drake says, “trigger fingers turn to Twitter fingers.” To be perfectly clear, I am not an advocate of either forms of this behavior, but let’s look at some historical data points:
Trash talk is not new. Political opponents wrote out their trash talk before pistol duels in the early days of America. Muhammed Ali built half of his notoriety on the back of his wit. Tito Ortiz was engaging in questionable pre, mid, and post-fight antics long before Connor McGregor ever thought about throwing a water bottle.
Challenge matches are not new either. The Gracie family forged a legacy through challenge matches and VHS tapes, which perhaps played a critical role in the expansion of jiu-jitsu as an art. We might remember the kind and respectful edits where jiu-jitsu is described as the merciful art, but we shouldn’t forget that Rickson Gracie once said, “If we fight for money, I'll stop hitting you when you ask me to. If we fight for honor, I'll stop hitting you when I feel like it.”
- Street fights and brawls are in our roots. Videos of Gracie family members street fighting are not hard to find, and even locker room fights or post-match brawls aren’t off the table for jiu-jitsu athletes. Who can forget Krazy Horse picking a fight with one of Wanderlei Silva’s training partners back stage at Pride?
Anecdotally—with absolutely no hard data whatsoever to back up my claim—I would argue that we are actually seeing less unsavory behavior today than we did even five or six years ago. What we do see is more visible because of the potential reach that social media gives to any jiu-jitsu athlete. That reach is then amplified by jiu-jitsu news sites following in the footsteps of E! News by treating tweets and Instagram posts as news (and here I am doing the same thing).
The tools might be different, but the sport doesn’t seem to have changed all that much from my perspective. Whether that’s good or bad is another discussion entirely.