Inverted Gear Blog / Marshal D. Carper
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.
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.
I’ve been writing about jiu-jitsu for ten years. Along the way, I’ve had a number of grapplers reach out to me for advice. I’m not sure why (I wouldn’t trust me), but the emails and Facebook messages have been relatively consistent with topics ranging from “How can I be a writer?” to “This really terrible thing happened to me; what should I do now?”
One of these conversations sticks in my mind.
A young student was reeling from a conversation with his instructor. The student had been training hard, and somehow a conversation with the instructor turned to comparing their respective development paths. The instructor said to the student, “You’ll never be better than me.”
That’s the story I got anyway. I wasn’t there and have no way of knowing what the tone or even the actual substance was—such is the nature of a random internet message—but the sentiment is oddly familiar. The changing of the guard seems to be happening more rapidly than ever, and it’s creating a strange climate in the jiu-jitsu community.
Do you seek out the 60-year-old instructor who is worn and battered and perhaps ekes out a roll once a week? Or do you chase down the 22-year-old phenom who has been wrecking the tournament circuit? I’ve had grapplers ask me this question to, and this question comes up so often that it can create tension between the age groups on the mat.
The challenge is an odd one because the idea of measuring who is better is incredibly murky. For me, I’d pick the grizzled veteran any day because I want to last that long while supplementing my training with the new age techniques that are turning heads at tournaments. But that’s me, and I’m an odd case. I don’t even care about local tournaments let alone winning a world championship. All I want to do is train a few days and suck a little less each time.
So if you’re gunning for Worlds, like this particular student was, hearing that you won’t be better than your instructor is troubling when you’re already assuming that he isn’t as good as the competitors you someday want to beat. The deeper issue, I think, is actually a matter of ego. No, I don’t mean about the instructor wanting to always be the best grappler in the room (that’s a conversation for another time). The deeper issue is that the changing of the guard in jiu-jitsu is something that everyone, on both sides of the fence, needs to give more thought to.
Even in jiu-jitsu’s relatively young life as a martial art, we haven’t escaped the challenging advantage of youth. I’m just now closing in on 30, and there are times when I have to take a deep breath before I roll with a 20 year old. I’ve started to see similar expressions on my older training partners before they roll with me. Man, it sucks getting older in this sport, and it seems like it gets harder and harder to be old in the sport every day. The level of talent is rising rapidly, and the acceleration of our students is rising rapidly as well. I can understand how resentment from one direction could fuel frustration from the other.
As teachers, our job is to make our students better than we are, but then what happens to the older grapplers when our students have passed us by?
Well, it turns out that they still need us. And we need them.
For the sport to grow in a healthy direction, both ends of the spectrum need to come to realize a few things.
The older grapplers: Youth will never stop being an advantage, and a few internet discussions have equated a size or a youth disadvantage to actual belt levels so the challenge is very very real. At the same time, the older we get, the more we become the historical records for technique and growth. The jiu-jiteiros with decades of experience might not out perform a young competitor on the mat, but they are invaluable sources for technical knowledge and guidance. Anyone that has been able to survive the mats for 15 years of more has the potential to be an invaluable training asset, whether they win every roll or not.
The younger grapplers: While the older grapplers refine technique, the younger grapplers are more likely to innovate. They bring a fresh perspective to the sport and can see opportunities in positions that previous generations might have missed. At the same time, they challenge us to work harder and train smarter, to find technique that can help us cope with grapplers that are quickly nearing our knowledge and ability.
Both ends of the spectrum ultimately need to realize that they need each other. It doesn’t matter if you tap an old guy who outranks you, and it doesn’t matter if a young buck taps you out. The ego games are getting in the way of training.
The notion of pay-per-view jiu-jitsu is relatively new. Copa Podio and Metamoris were early adopters of the live stream model, and their efforts helped to inspire organizations like Polaris, Budo Videos, IBJJF, Flo Grappling, and the Eddie Bravo Invitational to follow suit. The collective goal is a simple win: Elevate professional jiu-jitsu closer to the height of professional MMA and boxing. If this is successful, the sport as a whole benefits from increased attention, and jiu-jitsu businesses as well as athletes would enjoy additional revenue.
Here's the thing. Running a professional grappling organization is really really hard.
- The logistics are complex. You have to set up a venue, book athletes and their arrangements, and also coordinate all of the technology necessary for a smooth live stream.
- It’s expensive. Putting up the capital for a venue, hardware, and decent athlete pay requires some deep pockets or generous backers.
- The market is still in its infancy. Yes, events have been streaming for a few years, but the sport isn’t that big yet. Energizing an audience to pay for an event is not easy, and the pool of potential customers is pretty small.
We are at a point in our sport where we have grown at such a rate that pay-per-view grappling events are even viable, but we aren’t to the point where we can take them for granted. If we don’t support these events now while they are in their early stages, we might miss out on what professional grappling could become. While most of us in the sport are reasonable enough to admit that professional grappling is unlikely to ever rival MMA or boxing—let’s face it, we are a niche sport—we do hope that the world class athletes in our midst could make a reasonable living for devoting their lives to pushing the envelope of grappling technique.
As it stands now, a professional grappler makes most of their money from sponsorships and seminars and very little from actually competing. A growing PPV market would help to boost the size of purses, but more than that, it would boost interest from sponsors and accelerate seminar opportunities. So while competing itself might not become a fulltime career any time soon, elevating the stage even a little bit can create a number of positive ripples.
At Inverted Gear, we are fans of pretty every grappling organization (except the ones that don’t pay their athletes), so when we encourage you to support Polaris, we are not saying that you should be against other grappling organizations. Not at all. Instead, we want to highlight the things that we think Polaris is doing right in the hopes that other organizations follow suit:
- Athletes first. Nelson and Hillary got to travel to England alongside Reilly Bodycomb and spent time backstage with the other fighters. They reported that on the backend—the part of the event that few spectators ever hear about—fighters were taken care of and treated well. That’s a big deal.
- Credibility. Speaking from personally experience, the folks behind Polaris are a class act. I’ve had the pleasure of working with Matt Benyon (best known for his work with Scramble) on a number of projects, including a cross-promotion for Polaris 2, and he has never turned away someone looking for help or reneged on a promise. His word is his word, and you never have to worry about the contrary.
- Diversity. From the beginning Polaris has gone to great lengths to bring together a variety of grapplers, from different background, genders, and hemispheres. Polaris makes a deliberate effort to represent the grappling world rather than any single region or style.
- Engagement. Polaris actively participates in and listens to the community. If you interact with professional grapplers on Instagram or Twitter or post in r/BJJ, you have probably talked to someone that works for Polaris without even realizing it. By staying grounded in the grappling community, Polaris not only creates the match-ups fans wants to see but also runs their business in a way that is transparent and responsive.
- Quality. Polaris doesn’t skimp on production value. The event is run well and looks great, making you feel as though you got your money’s worth.
My childhood leisure time was a montage of Earthbound, Super Mario RPG, Final Fantasy 7, Ultima Online, Halo (16 dudes crammed in a basement playing capture the flag), Pokemon Blue, Pokemon cards, late night Dungeons & Dragons campaigns, and hours upon hours of television, movies and books.
I was happiest grinding my way toward a Golden Chocobo or grabbing the rocket launcher on Blood Gulch. All of the other stuff about being a kid—homework, chores, running from bullies—didn’t much matter to me. My hobbies made more sense to me than the “real” world ever did. I could figure out how these fantasy worlds worked, and with a bit of effort, I could become a real force within them. I just had to be smart, pay attention, and put in the time to level-up. There was a lot of comfort in that for a kid like me.
15 years later, I’m doing my best to be an adult. You know the dance: health insurance, mortgage, car payment, some semblance of a career. I still love my childhood pastimes, but sitting down to play a video game is more and more difficult, and all of the people I used to game with have all gone their own way, each doing their own dance somewhere else in the country.
A few years ago, however, I discovered that my interest in jiu-jitsu had embedded me in a community of super nerds.
I was a blue belt when I first had the realization that jiu-jitsu might be a nerd oasis. Jimmy, one of our resident brown belts, had just thrashed me, and myself and a few other students were joking about how badly he beats all of us.
Then one person said, “Yeah, he’s like Clark Kent by day, blue belt destroyer by night.”
“What do you mean?”
“Jimmy has a PhD in engineering. He does mathematical models of helicopter flights or some s***.”
Since then, I’ve come to realize that many of my training partners were like me. They grew up reading Nintendo Power and comic books. Somewhere along their fascination with Tekken fueled a curiosity in martial arts, bringing them on to the mat to learn jiu-jitsu as adults. From there, the information obsessed nature of jiu-jitsu culture feels like home. Strategy guides are in great supply, so are highlight videos and technical breakdowns. And you even get to level up with a new stripe and eventually a new belt! It’s character customization at its finest inside of an environment that feels structured, with defined rules and defined goals.
These days, it’s not so difficult to unmask the nerds hiding in gis around me. All I have to do is bungle a Star Wars or X-Men reference and wait for the correction to step forward.
Here are some of my jiu-jitsu nerd highlights:
A chef with a collection of Transformerss and Gundam action figures that rival the value of most people’s 401ks.
A professor whose research on lie detectors played in a role in their being removed from admissible court evidence.
A sambo grappler that cosplays and loves Magic the Gathering.
A comic book fan that is perhaps more excited about finally having a place to show off his super hero patches than actually training (he still loves training, but you know, Green Lantern!).
The young woman who reads Dostoyevsky between classes.
And the list goes on.
Every time I discover nerd on the mat, it feels even more like home. I like to think that we are training jiu-jitsu, in part, because we never actually grew out of the things we loved as kids. We’ve just found a new way to express and feed those passions.