Inverted Gear Blog / Marshal D. Carper

A Jiu-Jitsu Journey Without Gold Medals

Many jiu-jiteiros begin training with aspirations of being a world champion, and I was no exception. So many of our heroes in the sport have incredible competition stories, and perhaps since we aspire to someday acquire their mythic abilities on the mat, we too begin to dream of gold medals and towering podiums. The reality, however, is ruthless. The vast majority of grapplers will never be world champions, and the numbers don’t even look that great for being the best grappler at your gym.

That can be hard to accept, and it’s certainly been difficult for me. In my case, the interest in being the best is less about who I can beat and more about how good I can become.

I first started realizing that I wasn’t world class material around the time that I got my blue belt. Urijah Faber was in Hilo, HI to train with BJ Penn. BJ and Urijah both had fights coming up with opponents whom each were familiar with, so they mixed some of their training camps together. For me, that meant the chance to train with Urijah when he dropped into regularly scheduled classes.

At the time, I was a lockdown fanatic. I was training 16 times a week, so my game was getting sharp enough that purple belts and some brown belts were hesitant to let me anywhere near lockdown. When it was my turn to roll with Urijah, I swooped in and laced his leg, establishing my beloved lockdown. And then something felt weird.

I felt like I had total control of the then WEC champion. I bumped a little at first to feel him out, and then I went for it. I whipped up to my side, shot my hand to his far foot, and started to pull and drive to get the old school sweep.

And it was working!

In that moment, my bright future flashed before my eyes. If I could so handedly dominate someone of Urijah’s caliber, then surely I could roll through the bums he had beat. After that, I could repeat this performance on the big stage and claim my MMA riches and glory. It would be beautiful. I’d be on PPVs. I’d have sponsors. I’d—

WHAP. The tightest, fastest D’arce choke in the world wrapped around my neck and nearly popped my eyeballs out of my skull.

I laughed. He laughed. And I recognized how easy it was to get carried away with big dreams.

While the realization that I probably won’t ever be a world champion hasn’t always been easy, it has helped me to approach my training with a healthier mindset and to be a better training partner. The idea of “winning the training” (as Val Worthington would put it) or the idea of measuring your worth based on who you can tap and who you can’t are slippery slopes to dangerous behaviors that will actually make you a worse grappler in the long run.

I am no guru, but here are the observations I’ve had that might be helpful to you:

  • Just because you don’t win gold medals or don’t become famous does not mean that your jiu-jitsu journey is any less meaningful or less important than someone else’s. If jiu-jitsu is a tool for you to relax and stay in shape, that’s incredible. If you are worried about your legacy, some of the most important people in my own jiu-jitsu journey have been the humblest, quietest people in the room, but they still made a difference in me.
  • The competitive spirit is part of what makes the sport compelling, but when you tap you aren’t “losing” in the traditional sense. The only things at stake in the gym are your enjoyment and your learning, and neither of those are hindered by tapping unless you let them.
  • Being the “best” is so relative that it’s not worth trying to nail down. If there are people at your gym that tap you out, that’s amazing. I’ve been in situations where I was the best grappler in the room (because I founded clubs or opened satellite locations where I was the best dude by default, not by any meaningful measure) and it’s not as awesome as you might think. It’s difficult to grow and improve when you don’t have people who can handily humble you.
  • A teammate’s improvement is a victory for you. Just because you don’t learn as fast or can train as much as someone you train with does not mean you have to get frustrated by it. You have different contexts and different life paths. Be happy that your friend is making progress, and recognize that their advancing does not diminish the progress you are also making.
  • The art was designed for the awkward non-athletes. Our competitive heroes are often genetic talent freaks whose abs have abs. They are great examples of what the art can do, but the art was originally designed for the everyman and everywoman, the scrawny nerd who probably ran home from the house because the super athlete freaks were chasing him or her (oh that hits too close home for me). Celebrate your own technical mastery without feeling like you are less than because of some perceived athletic shortcoming.
  • At the same time, there is nothing wrong with pursuing competitive glory, if that’s what you aspire to accomplish.
Jiu-jitsu is hard enough without our own self-assessments and ego challenges muddying the waters even more. The sport is for you and for your journey. You don’t have to be the best or the greatest or stack of accolades to make a difference or to have an impactful experience.

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This Technique Doesn’t Work

Usually—and I have been guilty of this myself—this thinking is rooted in frustration. After many attempts to learn and apply a technique and failing, you give up on a move. Unfortunately, many fundamental techniques get this treatment. I was inspired to write this article in the first place because the scissor sweep is one of these misunderstood techniques, yet we recently saw Ricardo Evangelista hit one on Leandro Lo. Other techniques that get this treatment include Americanas, sit-up sweeps, and even the mount position as a whole.

Side note: mount often frustrates students to the point that they don’t bother taking it in pure grappling matches, opting instead to work from side control and north-south.

Side side note: I too once lost faith in the Americana until Matt Kirtley spent an entire weekend hitting it on me every 15 seconds.

As I attempt to behave like a more mature instructor, I’ve revisited how I think about and how I teach techniques that commonly frustrate students. In addition to some modifications to class structure, we cover the following discussion points:

1. The right technique in the wrong situation will almost always fail. Even when you are able to execute a movement with technical proficiency, if you use it to solve the wrong problem, you may start to believe the technique itself is to blame. This is more common with new students, but it happens with experienced grapplers sometimes as well. If one of your attacks is not working, perhaps you should think more critically about when you are applying it. You might find that a key detail of your opponent’s positioning is off.

2. Timing is important too. Even if you use the right technique for the right scenario, subtle nuances in timing can mean the difference between success or failure. Especially in sweeps, a few seconds of hesitation can result in your missing the window you needed for success. If you incorporate some trigger drills into your training, you can refine your ability to recognize an opportunity more rapidly and thus execute closer to the ideal moment.

3. You might be bringing a knife to a gun fight. Even if you are using the right technique at the right time, you can feel as though the technique is failing if your offense is simply not as good as your opponent’s defense. This experience is most pronounced when there is a huge disparity in skill level (blue belt vs. black belt), but you can encounter this problem within your own belt level and not realize it. If you have only spent 20 hours on your de la Riva guard but your training partner has spent 60 hours passing de la Riva guard, you may lose a dozen micro battles that can be easy to miss. Keep practicing your technique, and gradually apply it against better and better defenders.

4. Consider the larger context. Sometimes, your ability to effectively apply a technique is tied to the bigger picture of how you grapple. Certain styles of grappling lend themselves more strongly to certain techniques, so you may find that some techniques just don’t fit into the game plan you are trying to play. If you try to shoehorn in a technique that takes you too far from you’re a game, it can feel as though that technique is not very effective because you don’t have the right techniques to set it up and to capitalize on where it takes you.

Jiu-jitsu technique can be strange sometimes. For as scientific as grappling as feel—playing strategy and tactics with very precise applications of leverage and movement—the artistic aspects of it can lead to strong opinions of what techniques you should and should not use. When you start to develop those sorts of opinions, challenge yourself to be more critical of those feelings so that you don’t miss out on a potentially powerful option for your game.

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Coping with Contradictory Instruction

When you teach jiu-jitsu, you will routinely encounter uncomfortable situations. You might have to discretely tell someone that they need to trim their toenails. You might have to explain why pressing one’s chin into a training partner’s eye socket is in fact not a good idea. And you might have to field any number of questions about jiu-jitsu and about technique, from the benign to the bizarre.

For all the weirdness, one of the most difficult scenarios for me to navigate—both as an instructor and as a student myself—is the contradictory instruction problem. One instructor shows the technique one way, and another instructor shows it another. In isolation, the problem is less pronounced, but isolation is a rarity in jiu-jitsu.

I’ve had both of these situations happen to me as a student: I traveled to take a lesson with a black belt whom I admired, but when I returned to my home gym I was told that I was doing a technique incorrectly, even in cases where what I was doing was explicitly based on the input of the black belt I visited.

Or, and this is a true story as well, I was in a class being co-taught by two black belts. When one black belt came around, he would give advice and correct my mistakes. When the next one came around, he would say that I was doing it incorrectly and set me back to executing the move how I was before the first black belt came around. But then the first black belt would come back around and be visibly frustrated that I was back to making the same errors again.

To be entirely fair, these scenarios can be equally confusing and frustrating for an instructor. One of the hardest minefields to navigate in jiu-jitsu instruction is when a student says, “Mr. Miyagi does it this way. Why don’t you do that?” That leaves the instructor trying to maintain some semblance of expertise on the subject while at the same time avoiding any statement or action that discredits the other instructor. And even when you try your hardest to be respectful, a student will still very often go back to the original instructor with a story about how you said that he or she was wrong.

Dealing with seemingly contradictory instruction can create enough problems that it hinders progress for everyone involved. At the same time, it’s inevitable. The nature of Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu as a martial art is that it will be expressed differently from person to person based on a host of factors.

So, what’s a student to do? Well, try these suggestions:

1. Do as the Romans do. If you are taking a class from an instructor, do the technique the way he or she is teaching it, even if you learned it differently from someone else in another class. This is not only respectful, but it’s good for your jiu-jitsu. You might find that the new variation works better for you—or perhaps a piece of it does—and even if it does not, you will have a better understanding of what’s happening if someone uses the variation on you.

2. Weigh the pros and cons. Many technical variations are the result of careful calculations of pros and cons. For example, I once had a scissor sweep debate about whether the top knee should be parallel to the mat for the sweep or kept more vertical. For me, I like to drop the knee to parallel to get the full power of the sweep, but the other instructor preferred to keep the knee erect to lower the chances of his legs getting smashed together. One is not necessarily wrong, and no variation of a technique is without its weaknesses. Even if your teachers do not call out the specific differences in variations, you should be able to work them out through experimentation in drills and in rolling

3. Consider the context. Techniques that seem similar can often be mistaken for being the “same,” but in actuality a key difference in positioning or timing can be the differentiating factor. This problem is less common as you climb the ranks, but for newer students the nuance between why you might execute a cross collar choke with the second hand on top versus the second hand underneath can be easily overlooked.

4. Word your questions carefully. There is nothing wrong with asking an instructor to go into more detail about the technique he or she is teaching, but you can make it easier on everyone if you frame your questions thoughtfully. If you say something to the effect of “Sensei Kreese shows it this way, so why do you do it differently?” you might create a problem. If you instead say something to the effect of “Why do you like to grip the collar this way as opposed to this option or this option?” you make the conversation more about the content of the lesson and less about which instructor is right and which instructor is wrong.

5. Remember the problems of remembering. In your mind, you may believe that you perfectly recall how a technique was taught, but the possibility of your being incorrect is very real. If you have not put considerable effort into drilling a move and have not seen it taught multiple times by the same instructor, you might actually have it wrong, so tread carefully when you start thinking in terms of one instructor having it right or wrong.

The more gyms leave behind the tribal mentality of us versus them (we are right, and they are wrong), the less contradictory instruction becomes an issue. At the same time, however, we have a responsibility as students to be thoughtful about our own training and to consider how our own interactions with class material can flavor a discussion. If you are considerate about how you learn and how you ask questions, you can make the challenge of contradictory instruction easier for yourself and for your teachers.

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Enhance Your Privates

In my early days of training, I was a broke college student. I convinced a few friends to start training around the time that I did, and the four of us would carpool for the hour drive from campus to the closest gym, pooling together what would have otherwise been beer money to pay for gas, tolls, and the occasional post-roll pizza. Since it was a drive and money was tight, we used up our two-class-a-week plan in a single Saturday. To train during the week, we removed the only set of mats on campus—ratty gross green ones—from the dance studio under the cover of darkness after an understanding school administrator “accidently” dropped her keys.

I didn’t get to take many private lessons in those days because paying for training and gas was difficult enough, but when I did take a private, I knew that I wanted to wring as much insight from it as I possibly could. More than 10 years later, and after teaching a few hundred private lessons myself, I’ve been fortunate enough to be on both sides of a private lesson. I’ve seen how instructors I respect handle them, and I’ve seen some of the curve balls that students can inadvertently throw when they sign up to take one.

Private lessons can be a powerful tool, and whether or not you have the money to take them regularly, a few pieces of advice will help you to take your private lessons even farther:

1. Prepare specific questions. Teaching jiu-jitsu can be mentally taxing, and coming up with a private lesson itinerary on the spot is tough after a week of running classes. Try to come to your lesson with an idea of what you want to address, even if it’s as simple as “I keep getting stuck in this” or “I have been trying to do X but it never works.” If you want your instructor to decide what to teach, give him or her advanced notice so that they can watch you roll, or ask the instructor to teach something they have been working on and are excited about.

2. Embrace deviations. Coming to a lesson with specific questions helps to start the dialog between you and your instructor, but also be prepared for your lesson to take an unexpected turn. Sometimes the problem you think you have is actually related to a mistake or habit you didn’t notice. For example, a student might ask for armbar finishes, but when the instructor walks through what the student knows and is trying to do, the instructor may discover that the armbar finishes are not the problem but rather the student’s set up for the armbar is poor, leading to difficulties in finishing.

3. Less is more. Glen Cordoza, the author of probably a dozen jiu-jitsu instructionals, once told me that if you pick up a $50 book and get just one useful technique out of it, that’s a huge victory. Private lessons are the same way. Yes, you might want to cram as many techniques into one session as possible, but the long-term impact on your training will be greatest if you take the time to fully absorb a few select movements. If you take the buffet approach, you are far less likely to remember the details that make the difference.

4. Learn about your instructor. Many gyms have more than one person teaching classes, so you likely have a few options as to who you can take private lessons from. Before you book a private lesson, observe what your instructors do when they roll and pay attention to what material they teach when they run their classes (if they aren’t beholden to a curriculum). Ideally, you should try to match specialized questions with the instructor who is most likely to know that material. For example, asking me to teach berimbolos is a waste of your money. You’ll never see me doing them or willfully teaching them. It’s just not a part of my game. If you are looking for insights into basics, this point is less of a concern.

5. Drill and use what you learned. If you take the time and spend the panda bucks on a private lesson, do your part to review and practice what you learned. Get regular repetitions with basic drills, and actively try to apply what you’ve learned when you roll even if you fail. This is a natural part of the learning process, and your pulling on this thread as a student will likely uncover more material for you to explore, either independently or in your next private lesson.

I’ve never had the opportunity to regularly take private lessons. If you’re one of the lucky ones who can take a monthly or weekly private, please heed this advice. If you are like me and can only take a private lesson here or there, definitely follow this advice. You have even less time to work with than others, and with this advice you will get as much out of it as possible.

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The Art of Sideline BJJ

I’ve often heard the advice that in the event of an injury, you should keep going to class anyway. The thinking goes that staying in the routine of regularly attending class is important, and even if you can’t drill or roll, you can still learn from the instruction. It’s nothing like actually training, but it must count for something.

That advice never worked for me.

When I’m injured, going anywhere near a jiu-jitsu mat is intensely emotionally painful. And even when I try to avoid it while I heal up, I still end up on or near the mat out of respect for my instructors. For example, I was once asked to referee a jiu-jitsu a week after a knee surgery while wearing a full knee brace—the bionic kind that can lock straight so you walk like a pirate—and recently I refereed a tournament with a serious hernia (I’d find out later that my abdominal lining had actually become detached, which is why it hurt more than typical hernias).

Those are extreme cases, but even in casual settings, like dropping in to visit a friend while traveling, being near jiu-jiteiros getting to do their jiu-jiteiro thing is tough. Jiu-jitsu has become such an important part of my identity that I feel like I’m an 8-year-old being made to sit in a corner during the best birthday party of the year.

Here’s the thing though: This is an entirely selfish view of my relationship to jiu-jitsu that completely ignores the community aspect of training.

It turns out that when you train with people long enough, they become your friends, and they might actually miss you when you have to take time off. For my part—in large part because of my permanent social awkwardness—I missed out on this fact until someone made it perfectly clear to me.

“Hey man, I get that you are going through jiu-jitsu withdrawal,” he said, “We just miss having you around and don’t want you to do it alone.”

I had never looked at it that way before, but he was right.

Whether we are going through a layoff ourselves or have friends who are facing that challenge, we shouldn’t forget the community aspect of the sport. Yes, being around jiu-jitsu when you can’t train sucks, but so does cutting yourself off from people who genuinely care about your wellbeing. Finding ways to still be a part of the jiu-jitsu community is a powerful way to take the edge off of the can’t-train-for-a-while misery.

If you’re hurt, stop by during the occasional open mat to say hi (you don’t have to sit through an entire class). Join in on gatherings like fight nights or gym picnics. Jiu-jitsu as a lifestyle has many more components than the training itself. When you’re injured, don’t throw all of it away. And if you know someone who is injured, reach out to check on them. They are probably feeling pretty bummed and could use a kind word from someone they respect.

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