BJJ Myths Part 1: You Have to Train at Competition Speed with the Best if You Want to Be the Best
I think that this is one of the biggest misconceptions out there right now for many jiujiteiros, especially those who are just hobbyist practitioners, i.e. those who train maybe 3x/wk or less and don’t compete on a regular basis. Us grapplers are always looking for more efficient, and overall better ways to grow and become more competent on the mats, and many of us mistakenly feel that maybe if we attend a class run by a higher-level grappler, we will be on the receiving end of the best possible training to reach our goals of becoming jiu-jitsu gods.
Many years ago, I was a college wrestler. I was a very horrible college wrestler, at that. I thought that I could just show up for preseason training, get in shape, and somehow make it to the podium at the various open tournaments that were held in the area. I thought that if these high-level DII Midwestern college guys just smashed my face into the mat over a short period of time, that I would eventually be able to hang with someone who’s been on the mats since they could walk. As a result, I was last string in my division, and I went on to accrue a perfect 0-6 record my Junior year in college.
When you’re 20 years old, sometimes you don’t make super smart decisions, and I was no exception. I didn’t realize at the time that I would have been better off had I sought out a high school wrestling program that was training over the summer, joined some wrestling camps, or otherwise stayed involved in actually getting on the mats and wrestling, even though it wasn’t in season. I should have been trying out new, time-tested moves on the new guys, while occasionally meeting up with my college teammates and doing some sparring to supplement my development. Maybe if I had trained a little smarter I would have at least won a match in 2001-2.
Fast forward 20 years or so, and now there is no BJJ “season” to speak of, and I’m training pretty much all the time. I have the wisdom and experience to look back on how I used to train in my 20’s and to make changes in my behavior.
These days I try and make an effort to compete, at a minimum, four times a year. I’m by no means the best guy out there, but I do win roughly two thirds of my matches which is definitely better than losing every time. And with almost 100 some-odd competition matches in BJJ and Judo, I’m possibly a little more knowledgeable and experienced than those who have only competed a handful of times in their entire BJJ journey.
I first became aware of the fact that you can continue to develop at a faster pace in BJJ by training with people less skilled than you, when I began training down in Pharr, TX with Carlos Diego Ferreira, a current (ATOW) UFC fighter and former IBJJF Nogi World runner-up. Diego lives in the middle of nowhere in a town nobody’s ever heard of in Texas, but he’s made it to the upper echelons of BJJ and MMA without running a camp (assembling a team of trainers and training partners to specifically prepare for a particular competition) or training with anybody who doesn’t show up to his gym in the middle of nowhere.
Is he just so talented and gifted that he can have such success by only occasionally flying somewhere to train with some of the best in the world, guys who can beat him soundly without any problems? I don’t think so. I think he’s on to something.
While I’m not a huge fan of Joe Rogan, I don’t listen to his podcast, and I’m generally just annoyed every time I hear him say something, he does share a similar philosophy on how to get better at BJJ:
“The best way to get good at jiu-jitsu is to strangle blue belts. You go and you find people that are just learning but they’re not as good as you and you choke the f*ck out of them.”
Obviously, this was said from the perspective of a black belt, but I would argue that a blue belt can take a similar approach with white belts, especially white belts who happen to be a little more competent during sparring.
My personal formula for myself when I’m trying to learn a new move or to train my subconscious to respond a certain (new) way to specific stimuli, is to first drill the move until I understand the mechanics, then I will try and implement the novel move on my students during sparring. Only after literally dozens of hours spent trying to get the move to work on white and blue belts will I be able to catch a purple or brown belt in it. Even then I may choose to abandon the move/sequence, as maybe it doesn’t fit my game, or otherwise I feel I understand it enough to be able to speak generally on it, or defend myself against an opponent who uses that move as part of their A Game.
This entire process takes quite a bit of time to pull off. Therefore, it would prove to be more practical to my development, if I were to spend about 80-90% of my sparring time sparring with people who I would otherwise be able to beat 95-100% of the time in competition, and fully expect that I’m going to lose a lot to them in the beginning.
Now, how does all of this relate to competition?
Most of the time, I’m not planning on trying to make a NEW move work for myself in a tournament, especially if it’s still failing at a regular rate against white/blue belts who are my size. Regular competition then allows me to use training time as my laboratory, to see what does and doesn’t work, to not be afraid to fail. In fact, I EXPECT to fail, and I’m not going to get butt-hurt about it because now, my sparring sessions are very different from competition.
On a related note, the (arguably) GOAT of competition BJJ, Roger Gracie, famously said that he never drills; rather, he’ll do minimal drilling to figure out a move, and then he’ll try to hit the new move during sparring very soon thereafter. Because anybody in his gym is pretty much guaranteed to be not as good as Roger Gracie, now he is basically “drilling with resistance”, and doing pretty much the same thing I outlined above, albeit against competitive black belts.
Does hard training, and especially training against people who can beat you have its time and place? Absolutely! You definitely NEED to try out your best stuff against tough training partners, but in my opinion this only needs to happen maybe 10-20% of the time, in most cases.
What if you’re the lowest peg on the totem pole? Literally everybody in the gym can beat you! Well, drilling will be your best friend then, so get your reps in!!! :). I can guarantee that this is a far better approach to becoming a competent grappler than downloading the new Danaher videos that you will only watch a couple times, rarely if ever drill, and then wonder why nothing is working against the biggest, baddest black belt in town.