Since most of us spend a great deal of time sparring or rolling, it makes sense to strive to maximize our gains from this practice. Your focus determines your outcome, so if your focusing simply on winning, not tapping, overcoming uncomfortable situations, or simply surviving, your results over time will be a direct reflection of your most commonly occurring focus. Here are some notes to help you focus your sparring sessions in a direction that will give you the greatest gains in skill, efficiency, and competition.
First of all, we need to distinguish between flow rolling and regular rolling. Flow rolling focuses on moving from position to position with fluidity and fluency. The focus is not necessarily on winning or tapping your partner out, but rather on being able to respond and react to situations as they arise in a sequential fashion. This type of sparring is essential and has its place in your training regimen, but it’s not the type of sparring that I’ll be focusing on here.
Here are 8 tips to help you get the most our of your BJJ Sparring sessions.
1. Spar for points. Points are not everything, but they do represent how effective or ineffective you’re being.
2. Mentally keep track of the score. It may help to announce your points to your partner as you score them.
3. Use the time effectively. Don’t wait till the last 10 seconds to tap your opponent out because you’re behind on points. Be proactive, set the tone of the match from the beginning.
4. If you’re ahead on points, practice using up time by controlling the position or keeping your opponent busy with attacks.
5. Play for the submission. At it’s original core, jiu jitsu is a martial art, not a game with rules. Always look to finish off your opponent. If your opponent is of a significantly lower ability or technique level than you, go to the point of submission but don’t finish. Allow your opponent the chance to learn how to escape and then look for the next submission.
6. Always focus on practicing the core principles of jiu jitsu: leverage, timing, technique, efficiency, and strategy.
7. Consciously practice different strategies to defeat your opponent. If they are bigger and stronger, focus on utilizing speed, technique, and timing. If they are weaker, focus on using proper technique and minimize reliance on strength and weight.
8. Focus on perfecting your strengths and developing your weaknesses. Know what you’re good at and practice those things to get even better at them. Also know your weaknesses and look for opportunities to practice those skills or situations.
Learning is not always easy. Human beings often struggle to learn new lessons. Learning is especially difficult in problem situations where we’ve been using a previously learned coping strategy. We often use behaviors that have worked for us in the past to solve or cope with situations (ineffectively) in the present context. For example, if someone can’t hear what you’re saying, you might speak louder so they can hear you. If someone is giving you a tough time, you might snap at them or give them a push in order to get them to leave you alone. Crying and complaining is a previously learned, and immature way of solving problems in adulthood.
Dealing with difficult situations in BJJ is no different. On the mat, this looks like people using force or muscle to get out of undesirable positions. Or perhaps using a go to move (a choke or escape) inappropriately in a situation you’ve never encountered before.
While sparring, watch yourself to see if you’re repeatedly reacting to a particular situation in an ineffective way. This is a sure sign that you are using some previously learned coping strategy in a situation where that old strategy is the wrong answer. We often hold onto the use of force and outdated coping strategies when we feel at a loss, less than, or disadvantaged.
The key here is to avoid doing what you normally do. Instead, stop and think your way through. “What do I usually do in that situation? Let’s try something else.” This “place” or situation that I’m describing here is the unchartered territory in your BJJ development. This is where it seems risky for you. And this is where the great breakthroughs and “aha!” moments emerge. Be free to experiment and find a better solution through trial and error. If you tap, who cares. You’re one step closer to discovering what works.
I was rolling with a training partner today and I felt a weird “something isn’t right” kind of feeling in my foot. After pausing to look down, I saw that my second toe looked like the number “4”. I thought to myself, “that’s probably not a good thing”. Yeah it was painful, but I could really care less about the dislocation. I wasn’t focused on the pain in that moment. All I could really think about was how this would affect my ability to keep training at a high level and reach my short-term goals.
As we know, pain for the jiu jitsu fighter is completely normal. It’s like feeling the wind blow on our skin; it’s simply a part of daily life. We learn to deal with it and avoid blowing it out of proportion. We don’t give pain power by being at its mercy.
I had no concern for pain, but for injury I did. Let’s distinguish the two. Pain at its most basic level is a sensation – one of many that are constantly being registered by our brains (e.g., hot, cold, rough, smooth, heavy, light). An injury is a form of damage to the body, which if serious enough can limit our ability to move and train.
Jiu jitsu helps us to ignore the potential distractions and negative feedback that can deter us from reaching our goals. Deal with the pressure, find a way out, and capitalize on the next opportunity. The goal, the submission, the success we desire is always only a few more moves away. Osss!
Just got back from refereeing the SJJIF Worlds Tournament this weekend! I love refereeing because it keeps me up to date on the cutting edge evolution of our sport. What was evident in the most successful grapplers was the quickness and ease with which they executed techniques.
It reminded me of this excellent passage from the book 7 Habits of Highly Effective People by Steven Covey.
“I am your constant companion. I am your greatest helper or heaviest burden. I will push you onward or drag you down to failure. I am completely at your command. Half of the things you do you might just as well turn over to me and I will be able to do them quickly and correctly.
I am easily managed – you must merely be firm with me. Show me exactly how you want something done and after a few lessons, I will do it automatically. I am the servant of all great individuals and, alas, of all failures, as well. Those who are great, I have made great. Those who are failures, I have made failures.
I am not a machine, though I work with the precision of a machine plus the intelligence of a human. You may run me for profit or run me for ruin – it makes no difference to me.
Take me, train me, be firm with me, and I will place the world at your feet. Be easy with me and I will destroy you.
Who am I?
I am Habit.”
Pretty powerful right? Habits determine who you are in terms of your skill level, belt level, degree of success, and degree of failure. What are your jiu jitsu habits (the good and the bad)? How do these habits contribute to who you are as a jiujiteiro? And what can you do to modify them so that you can become a better practitioner?
Our experience in life is a function of the games we play. Some of the most commonly played games are winning/losing, being rich/poor, and feeling happy/sad. These games are pervasive and billions of dollars are made by companies seeking to capitalize on the impact these games have on us.
Most of us are totally unaware that we’ve been playing these games all our life. This is due to the unconscious programming society lays over us from an early age. What’s more is that our brains are hardwired for dichotomous, black and white thinking; its human nature to perceive the world in either or terms.
Though there’s nothing wrong with the game of winning and loosing, being consumed by this game (as many of us are) often leads to a great deal of anxiety, disappointment, and burnout.
Dichotomous games overlook the complexity and richness of life. Being so focused on the final outcome, we often lose sight of all the beauty that lies in between. The fear of losing becomes so great that we psych ourselves out and become anxiously attached to the idea of winning. And by doing this, your focus gets misplaced into the future and what’s at stake, instead of the present and what you can do.
What if we were to change the game we play? The game of winning and loosing is simply too small to capture all that competition is and can be. How about switching over to a game of growth and self-mastery? This is a game of improvement and enrichment, two things that can always occur during competition regardless of outcome. Playing this type of game will redirect your attention and focus to the things that will ultimately lead to success: applying techniques, countering moves, and dealing with the situation in front of you (complete immersion in the present – being in the zone). Winning then becomes a symptom of you’re efforts, rather than the end all goal. Win or lose, in this game, you will always go home a winner.
As the year comes to an end I take a moment to reflect on what is my 8th year of training in jiu-jitsu. My year has been intensively filled with personal development reading, seminars, and challenges. I’m left with a feeling growth and emergence of Self, the essential core of who I am as a human being.
Along side this emergence of Self is also the emergence of my Self as a martial artist. Training in jiu-jitsu is so much more that just becoming proficient in the style. Even though the focus of my training is in learning techniques, I’ve come to the point where all life lessons become applicable to my jiu-jitsu game. At the same time, all things I learn in jiu-jitsu become applicable to life in general.
There are probably as many definitions of what a martial artist is as there are martial artists; this is no coincidence. Every movement, breath, and reaction a marital artist displays on the mat is an opportunity to authentically express their Self. These movements and expressions are not reproductions or imitations of moves that other people do, rather they are true expressions of who they are as a human beings. Perhaps it is impossible be in this way 100% of the time. As Bruce Lee said, “to experience one’s Self honestly, not lying to one’s Self, and to express my Self honestly, now that is very hard to do..” Certainly, it’s something worthy enough to shoot for.
If you’re training simply to become proficient in a style, I invite you to step back and take a look at the bigger picture. Are you being honest to who you are while rolling with your training partners? Are you allowing jiu-jitsu to flow out into other areas of your life? And what is the ultimate goal behind your countless hours and sacrifices on the mat?
Everything in jiu jitsu is Compassion.
I love this definition by Merriam-Webster online: “sympathetic consciousness of other’s distress together with a desire to alleviate it.”
One might ask, “how can there be compassion when you submit someone, which is essentially the equivalent of killing them off?”
You see, when I submit someone, I know they will come back hungry, more determined, maybe even vengeful. By submitting them, I’ll bruise their ego such that they will want to train harder, practice more, and perhaps even tap me out the next time around. Understand that I don’t tap them out for me, because I already know I can tap someone out. I tap them out for them, to make them better. This is true compassion. If you are not training with this principle in mind, I encourage you to examine the reasons behind your training.
Have you ever noticed a sudden transformation in your game right after being promoted to a higher belt? After moving up in rank, some of us instantly begin to think and move differently. We attack with more confidence, see new opportunities, and give up less positions. What might explain these sudden changes?
If our level of skill and technique evolve rather gradually, then why does this transformation happen so suddenly? I can sum it up in one word, permission. The jump to a higher belt gives us explicit and implicit permission to attempt more advanced moves. This would certainly be the case for brown and black belts who may legally attempt advanced leg locks. Blues and especially purples are permitted to begin experimenting with new guard positions and transition moves. Whites on the other hand are expected to stick to the basics.
The unconscious mind exerts great influence over our behavior and performance. I’m suggesting that because of our self-imposed ceilings, we often ignore, fail to pursue, and even completely block out opportunities to escape, attack, sweep, win, encourage, discourage, tap, etc. Once promoted, we unconsciously permit ourselves to train and perform at a level which we were already capable of achieving, but did not allow ourselves to display. What would happen if you gave yourself permission to perform at a level which you are already fully capable of?
A True Sign of a Warrior: Remaining Mentally Strong While Physically Weak
Have you ever given attention to the fluctuations in your mood and what might cause them? We don’t like to talk about our mood in this society; it’s un-American to admit that you’re in a bad mood or feeling depressed. But seriously, being aware of our mood changes can offer huge insights to how we function and how we can improve ourselves on and off the mat.
I’ve recently become more aware of how fluctuations in blood sugar can have a direct impact on our mood level. When we eat foods high in sugar, we tend to experience a sudden rise in our mood; we become hyper, gleeful, and full of energy. As soon as the sugar high comes crashing down, we then experience a sharp drop in our mood and energy, which brings me to the current topic of interest: the relationship between our physical energy level and the strength of our mental state.
When our energy is low, it becomes more challenging to maintain a strong mental drive. This is what I’ve experienced over the past week as I’ve been fighting off a cold. With my energy low, it’s been difficult to keep a positive mental attitude. It’s a bit unnatural to be all smiles and cheer when you’re feeling drained and under the weather. I’ve also found myself less enthusiastic about reaching my goals and having productive days.
Bear in mind that physical weakness in this sense could result from poor nutrition, infection, substance abuse, stress, cancer, inflammation, environment, etc. The true sign of a warrior is someone who can grapple, if you will, with all of these elements and come out mentally unscathed, perhaps even stronger. It’s those moments when you find yourself in a weakened state that leave you considering defeat, forfeit, or running away. Whether you’re exhausted at the 4th minute of an intense grappling match or feeling run down from a cold, it is absolutely vital to keep your eyes focused on your goal, this is the true moment of truth. If you lose your focus because of a weakened physical state, even if for a moment, your goal, your mission, or submission could fall, quite literally, right through your hands.
Making Contact in BJJ
What is Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu without contact? Contact is at the core of the art. This contact occurs between two students, between student and instructor, between student and mat. Contact is necessary for jiu jitsu to occur, it’s impossible to sweep the air just as you cannot be submitted by empty space. In some cases you need your partner’s physical energy to perform a technique; you can’t do it alone. For example, some techniques rely on your opponent’s downward falling inertia for properly execution. In many cases, we use this energy to pull us up into a dominant position. We are in fact reliant on the other person, we need the other person to create, to take action, to execute, and most importantly to mature.
The Dynamic Process
In making contact on the mat, there occurs the opportunity for dynamics to occur. We each have different relational dynamics with different people in our lives. The dynamics we form with our immediate family members during childhood (mother, father, brother, sister) serve as templates for our dynamics with other people later in life. As an example, some of you may interact with your instructor in a way that resembles the way you act(ed) toward your own father. You may also interact with fellow students in the same way you interact with your siblings. How about the way you handle responsibilities, authority, pain, and challenges on the mat? Any resemblance to how you dealt with these issues as a child or how you currently deal with them in the present? This is all related to our personality, our upbringing, tendencies, and how we make sense of the world around us. I’ll speak more about this in later posts, but for now I’ll simply say that the relational character of jiu jitsu provides a potent environment for childhood issues to reappear and be re-experienced, for both student and instructor. Understand that this is not a bad thing, on the contrary it can be an opportunity for growth.
Black Belt as the Sum of All Contact
Perhaps I’m stating the obvious, but I believe this to be the fundamental element in jiu jitsu. BJJ is a contact sport, not in the sense that there is pushing and shoving, but in that we need to make contact with another person in order for magic to occur. We must make contact to apply technique, we must make contact to pass on knowledge, and we must make contact to create real changes in each other’s development. Black belt is the accumulation of all these contacts.