20 March 2018

Improving in Jiu Jitsu as a Beginning Student.

What follows is aimed specifically at white through blue belt, but I hope there are useful tips for all belt and skill levels.

It is pretty rare that anyone comes to Brazilian Jiu Jitsu without the intention of getting better at it. There are the occasional people who just want to have something to do, who just enjoy the camaraderie of a good academy and don’t put undue pressure on themselves to get better at an accelerated rate (perhaps, counter intuitively, I have noticed that sometimes these folks improve the quickest). For the most part, it seems like people come to the Jiu Jitsu academy with some goal of being very good at the art. The reasons are myriad, but the end point for most is the same. Jiu-jitsu people want to achieve extreme proficiency. Whatever kind of student you are, casual or ambitious, here are some pieces of advice I have to improve your game.

Private Lessons

This will seem self-serving. I’m a black belt and I can make a decent buck giving private lessons. “He’s just advertising now,” you might think, or even say.  Here is the thing though, I still take private lessons. I suppose I am an expert on BJJ, but I am not an authority. I am pretty good at my game, but my game isn’t the totality of BJJ. I go to other experts to help me make my game more robust. I’ve always tried to supplement class instruction with private lessons from people better than me. Private lessons have the benefit of giving a student one on one time, with and the focused attention of the coach.

Fundamentals Class.

Does your academy have a fundamentals class? It does? Go to it as often as you can. The keys to the success of almost everything in Jiu Jitsu lie in that class. That is to say, success lay in the basics. There, you will be introduced to the most reliable techniques, key principles of body mechanics, and have the opportunity to practice them over and over again.

I’ve seen advanced belts stuck in headlocks, and kesa gatame, not only unable to escape, but not even knowing where to begin. I’m only guilty of minor hyperbole when I say most of the core mechanics of all escapes can be found in your fundamental headlock escapes. These often don’t get much coverage in your advanced classes, but you get to practice these basics over and over again in Fundamentals. Mastery begins with sound fundamentals.

The following clip is pretty MMA related, but what you will see, over and over, and over, is very basic jiu jitsu honed to perfection. Almost every BJJ related thing you see, you will learn in your Fundamentals class. 

How to Learn and Functionalize a New Technique.

1.     Pay attention to the coach’s details. She or he, isn’t giving them for no reason. Nothing is more frustrating for a coach than the moment immediately following “Got it? Need to see it again” getting head shakes and verbal negatives only to see that, in fact, folks didn’t get it, and needed to see it again. Coaches are often more than willing to accept the problem of not  “getting it” is often theirs, but please don’t say you get if you don’t.  I have not met a coach who was loath to demonstrate Jiu Jitsu to a student.  I haven’t heard “Are you fucking stupid,” seriously posed, since I was a Wing Chun student.

2.     The Steps. Coaches are often building road maps for muscle memory and the formation of sound structures for their students.  They will break a move down into steps. The steps become an order of operations that will become ingrained, and form good habits. Observe the steps, and follow them. If you are a white, or blue belt, or even a purple belt, don’t try to improve on the steps, don’t think, “I can skip this and get straight to X.” Chances are you actually can’t. The steps often anticipate obstacles and common opponent reactions. That is not to say you can’t improve on the technique in the future, but when you are first learning it, its always good to remember that your coach comes from a line of people who taught them, and is also the product of their own experience with the material. The steps, or order of operations, are a refuge in rough spots. They reduce decision time but limiting choices. All you have to think about is achieving the next step. Once that is achieved, you move on to the next step, and so on. As you build a smooth technique, it will seem as if the steps have disappeared (in the same way concrete positions disappear), but their mechanics and basic structures will be there still.

Here is an example of how focusing on the steps your coach lays out can help you perform under pressure.  A lot of my approach to Jiu Jitsu and skills mastery can be attributed to the Steps mindset I learned and cultivated under Marcelo Monteiro. Marcelo was a De la Riva guy, and there were always a lot of steps and rules. What I found was that by following the steps laid out for establishing a position, half-guard say, I was reducing the size of the decision tree I had to deal with, and establishing small goals that are much easier to focus on while under the pressure of a live roll or competition.  For instance, Marcelo had a several steps to regaining the advantage from bottom half. If my opponent was on top, and had head and under-hook control they had the advantage. Marcelo’s steps to get out of that situation were:
1. Get, as much as possible, on your side
2. Build a frame to regain control of your neck and head
3. Gain the under-hook, or
4. Build a frame with your leg and formerly under-hooked arm, and with your bottom-side hand establish sleeve or inside bicep control.

Don’t worry if you don’t know what that terminology means, what I want to highlight is the refuge the steps became in live rolls. Being in a terrible place is rough, and the end goal (being out of said terrible place) can seem enormously daunting. Little steps toward the ultimate goal however are much easier to focus on, and often starting the process, step one, can help you build to the next small goal, until eventually you have completed the chain of steps. The order of operations is your refuge; the steps your coaches are giving you are the order of operations. Pay attention. I have taken that step conscious approach to every academy I’ve trained at since.

As a final point in this section, if you find a particular movement too troublesome, try breaking that movement in to steps. If you can’t do it, ask your coach to help you.

Slow down. 
Read that again, I mean it. Or as I think I have heard Jay Jack put it, “Slow the fuck down.”

Your coach has just given you the steps, demonstrated the technique and sent you off to practice. How do you remember the steps? How do you ingrain that technique properly into your muscle memory?

Don’t start with speed. Slow Down. Trying to do a new thing with speed is a great way to start missing steps, losing the body mechanics, and generally building bad habits or no habits. That is building failure into the new move.

While you learn and practice a new technique you should focus on performing each component perfectly and acquiring the quality of smooth movement (be sure to ask questions if you are having trouble). Speed will come with internalization of the steps and the increasing smoothness of your movement. Do not worry if your training partner is faster or smoother than you. Maybe they have trained the move before, or have been training longer, and have some idea of their own body’s capacity for movement.

Progressive Resistance

You have been practicing a new technique, you are mastering the steps, you are getting smooth, now how do you apply that technique in live rolling? Do you try your new flying triangle on a brown belt? You can, but don’t expect to build on the timing and intuitions of the attack there, your new flying triangle is bound to get stuffed in that context. You build your attacks with progressively harder people, but you don’t start building mastery with the toughest, and most technical training partners in your gym. You try new techniques on people your skill level and lower. The higher your rank the more you should be able to make this kind of focused training really work. A purple, brown, or black belt can direct the roll to the same situation again, and again against white and blue belt.  However anyone can use the principle of progressive training. You begin building the technique in a situation of alive rolling, where resistance is present and will keep you honest, but where you can concentrate on doing the technique. Once you are confident in the technique in that that setting, you begin to try to apply it at the next skill level.  This kind of progression is often its own trouble shooting. Timing improves, the mechanics tighten, you see the common obstacles, and you either figure out the answers to those obstacles, or you ask a coach who has. Eventually you are applying the technique to equally skilled peers and even people who are generally better than you. Progressive resistance doesn’t just build muscle.

Trust the Jiu Jitsu

This is something that comes up a lot. People get shown a technique, they practice it in class, and then, in live rolls, do a lot of other things that aren’t really sound Jiu Jitsu. They do everything but the technique. They panic at resistance or the initial failure of the technique and go to things that may occasionally work, or that give an illusion of progression toward some end goal, passing the guard, escaping the mount, achieving side control, whatever, but will get them no where against opponents possessing superior skills or attributes.  Rejecting Jiu Jitsu is not the path to improved Jiu Jitsu. 

If you think you are at a good school (a topic of another essay perhaps) then you should trust what your coaches are telling you. As a blue belt, or a white belt, you aren’t yet an expert in Jiu Jitsu, or even in what works for your body. Your coaches have the benefit of thousands of hours of learning, rolling, thinking about Jiu Jitsu and teaching. You should definitely ask a lot of questions. Ask for help. “Can you help me figure out X?” Coaches are pretty generous with their time, and want you to get better.  If they have time, they will help you figure it out. If they don’t have time, consider that private lesson!

Here are two further ideas suggested by friends who reviewed this piece that I thought were great ideas.

Dan Neumann, a Jay Jack Academy teammate, suggested the use of emulation as an aid in technical development. You like Jiu Jitsu, you probably watch a lot of competition, you probably have players, in MMA, no-gi, or gi competition that you admire and whose game you are amazed by. It actually isn’t a bad idea to try to play like someone you know to be an exemplar of the art. Is there a rule that says this exemplar can’t be your own coach or someone in your academy? No, not at all. However, I have found that people often utilize models outside their academy for this emulative experimentation.  I think the reason for this is that we actually don’t get to watch our teammates or coaches roll in practice. We are too busy training ourselves. I won’t tell you who Dan said his models were, but one of my early models was Minotauro Noguiera. At the time he had probably the best heavy weight BJJ for MMA around. We were built similarly, small-framed heavyweights (230-240 lbs, which can be small in modern heavyweight divisions). His style of play was pretty similar to stuff I was doing at Marcelo Monteiro’s academy in Indianapolis. The similarity made some sense, they were friends and trained together in and under the Carlson Gracie umbrella. I tried to do what he did. I got my ass kicked a lot, but in so doing, I learned a lot about escaping bad positions, and I also rolled with people, upper ranks and people who had trained longer, who understood what I was trying to do and helped me tweek this or that position, or sweep. You probably have someone whose game you like, even if you don’t understand it fully. Try it out.

Alex Trafton, a friend who does high-end security and trains grappling for a robust set of applications, suggested, cross training. This is a great idea. How much you can do is probably time, finance and location dependent but it is worth your time to do however much you can do. Not everyone can be as thorough as Alex is with his cross-training (he shoots, he boxes, he grapples in a variety of systems, he has trained extensively in Muay Thai, and probably a bunch of stuff I am missing). Not everyone has the time or money to do as much as they would like, or train at a location that can provide many different arts to explore. You can always do a bit of cross training though. So, try other grappling arts out if you can, and definitely drop into to other BJJ academies, as that experience can often be as different as training in another art. Across BJJ schools you will see a lot of similarities, but there are different styles of play, different games that, whether you adopt them into your own game, are good to be exposed to. Call ahead, see if it is okay to drop in for a class or open mat (it almost always is, there is often a reasonable drop-in fee) and explore!

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