Why I Am Better Than You

Why I Am Better Than You

I hope you can already tell that the title of this article is a joke. I don’t truly believe that I am better than anyone by any meaningful measure. On the mat as an instructor, however, I am often by default one of the most skilled people on the mat. That quickly changes when I travel to visit my own instructors, or it changes when of our particularly talented students is having a good day.

When I work with lower ranked students, I can often see them experiencing a frustration that I had when I was in their place. They train hard. They pay attention in class. And when they roll with me they feel like they have not made any progress. I cut them off at every turn. I lure them into traps. I sweep, pass, and submit, seemingly at will (from their perspective).

This is not me boasting. I gladly admit that my jiu-jitsu has a long way to go, but what I see as a simple gap in experience, some students see as evidence that they are not improving. I tapped them out last year. I tapped them out last month. And I tapped them out today. Therefore, in their minds, little has changed.

That trap is incredibly common in our sport. We’re competitive by nature, and we look at who we can beat to measure our own progress. Not only is that woefully inaccurate, but it’s also a miserable way to go about your training, especially if your measuring sticks have a head start spanning several years.

To help you (and my students) close the gap, I want you to understand how skilled grapplers get to be where they are:
  1. Time. This is by far the biggest factor in training. Mat time, in general, tends to trump all other factors. I am hovering around something like 12 years of training, and for several stretches of that time I trained every day for several hours a day. Cumulatively, it is difficult for a blue belt or a purple belt to amass the same amount of experience in a shorter time period. It’s possible, but it’s difficult, especially if you have a career and a family. That’s completely okay! You should not beat yourself up if you are not as good as someone who has trained more than you.

  2. Deliberate Training. This is the practice of entering training sessions with goals in mind. Yes, you work on the material your instructor selects for a class, but when you drill and when you roll, you focus on specific areas or techniques to improve. Grapplers who train this way typically progress more quickly because their focused attention leads to more impactful advances. For example, when I roll I may choose to work on a certain escape or to only attack with armbars, forcing me to get those repetitions and to expose weaknesses that I can then correct.

  3. The Right Instructor. A good instructor for one person may not be a good instructor for another. Teaching styles and learning styles do not always mesh, and even when they do, your instructor might not provide the support and attention you need to continue improving. Unfortunately, not all teachers are created equal, and making progress can sometimes come down to who is guiding your training.

  4. Additional Study. The truly focused jiu-jiteiros often pursue instruction outside of their academy, reading articles, watching videos, traveling to seminars. Part of this can be pure curiosity, but in the most productive situations, it stems from a desire to learn more about something that interests you or to solve a specific problem you are having on the mat. Learning to teach yourself can help you to cover more ground. While it cannot replace the insight of in-person instruction, it does give you the tools to learn material not currently being covered in classes.

  5. Natural Gifts. Each of us has our own strengths and our weaknesses, and sometimes that can mean that we do not learn as quickly or are not as athletic as some of our training partners. That sucks. It sucks really really bad. For all of the blessings that I’ve had in my life, I often encounter grapplers who at blue belt rival what I can do at brown belt. They are stronger, faster, and smarter. Techniques that took me months to figure out they pick up naturally. If you train long enough, you will have this experience on both sides of the coin, so don’t let it frustrate you too much when you’re on the wrong end of that coin flip.
Jiu-jitsu is a difficult sport not only technique but in how it forces us to evaluate ourselves and face difficult questions about our own potential. Improving is hard, and it gets harder the farther down the journey we get, but we cannot lose sight of ourselves along the way. We are not always going to be the best person on the mat, and someone being better than us at jiu-jitsu has little bearing on how well we’ve progressed or how well we are improving.

That’s up to us. It’s not up to them.