originally written April 2017
I recently received my purple belt in BJJ and our school is notoriously conservative at promoting people. I was a blue belt for just over 3 years, and this is 5 1/2 years total training time there with a prior year at another school that didn’t have a real bjj program at the time. So this is a fairly short time to make it to purple at our school where blue for 4-5 years is the generally accepted norm if your training regularly.
My coach, Warren Stout, always says some words about the people he’s promoting and it struck me that he spoke about the improvements I have made quickly and how while sometimes you want to just come in and get some mat time or roll with your friends he always sees me studying and drilling and taking a lot of care in improving. Due to that I’ve had some questions from people and some great interactions revolving around training methods with my teammates.
I do not claim to be any sort of expert, and I feel like purple is just the beginning of starting to get deeper into my base, but I do feel confident in my thoughts on learning in general and applying them to this area so I’d like to share those thoughts and ask for feedback from the community, especially those who have come down through this space before me and can give me guidance as I try to move forward. If I’m off on anything or there are considerations I haven’t perceived I ask for your help.
Having strong mentors is fantastic, using them is what makes the resource work though. The people who gave me so much support and guidance thus far have been amazing to me. They have always given freely of their time and experience but it is always up to me to ask for that help. No one hunted me down to answer questions I had not asked. I would have quit entirely had not Jeff Bloovman given me an epic beat down and Craig Douglas not reached out to me. Craig has guided me and supported me beyond my ability to express, but it has always been on me to do the work, to ask the questions, and to keep showing up.
Something is better than nothing. I have friends who never got past just getting started, who ask about how I train so damn much. I wish they would just show up two days a week. Over a year or so that’s better than nothing, and its better than the inconsistent three days this week , no days the next and so on. When I started two or three days a week kicked my ass! I couldn’t get out of my car when I got home, everything hurt every day. Over time it got easier and easier to do more. But it started with just something, with just two days. I imagine if I was convinced it had to be all or nothing I would have gotten nothing, never gotten started, and never had the opportunity to enjoy training like I do now. This is where it starts, taking that first step, doing as much as I can, and giving it a chance.
Consistency over time. Cecil Burch told me early on a parable about consistency over time, about laying one piece of paper on a desk each day not seeming like much but over time it will be a book. Over time the volume of training hours I have put in has grown as I’ve learned to manage my time and energy better but I have stayed consistent. I have taken no time off, no breaks, no pauses except for the small injuries I have had and even then I stayed active showing up to watch, studying video, or modifying my training. In my promotion picture my hand is all taped up because I have been training with some sprained tendons in my hand for a few weeks. I trained with no hands for solid week with my finger in a brace, then one handed for a week after, and had just then started training carefully with it taped. In the mean time I broke a toe. I did not miss one day. I worked around it as I was able, and had terrific training partners I trusted who worked with me.
I have plenty of friends who started when or before I did who have taken breaks, sometimes of their own choice, some not, and plenty who have lost interest for times. That’s fine, I have committed to staying locked in. If my interest wanes I double down, if I’m tired I double down, if life gets in the way I adjust as best I can and get that work in. I may not enjoy training today, but I will enjoy the fruits of my labor when they ripen. I trust the process and drive forward.
Volume Volume Volume. There is a big difference between saying I train 5-6 days a week and I train 10-12 hours a week. I started to log actual mat hours last year and try to find ways to increase that number. We may both train one day, but if I come for a one hour class then stay for an hour of open mat after and you only come to class I am getting double the volume. That adds up. I will caution against doing more than the body and mind can handle in one session, but also against doing less. The only way to get better at doing more is to do more. I found out quickly if I could get in a half hour before class and drill with someone I could increase my hours dramatically over time (see consistency). On Wednesday nights I do no gi open mat, then there is an hour until I teach my class, I grab a corner of mat space and a partner and drill or work back through anything interesting from open mat I need to dissect or sharpen up on before I teach.
Pablo Casals is 81. He agreed to have Robert Snyder make a movie short, “A Day in the Life of Pablo Casals.” Snyder asked Casals, the world’s foremost cellist, why he continues to practice four and five hours a day. Casals answered: “Because I think I am making progress.”
Larry Lindenman told me to “practice in the dead spaces”. Sometimes that means getting up from my desk at work to do air squats, sometimes that means practicing a grappling stance and movement for a sec or two throughout the day, and other times I find a lot of useful reps by using useful movements as warm ups. I lift usually 2-3 days early before work during the week (and one day on the weekend) and when I wake up and splash some water on my face at 530AM I warm up with some quick ground movements. I tell new people in my class all the time that doing a set of hip escapes, hip heists, sit outs, and technical get ups every day will only cost you 10 minutes but it will both get you moving and over time get your body better at core movements.
Regulating intensity levels. If I’m going to train as much as possible I can’t go 100% every day. Some days I need hard competitive rounds, but those are generally fewer by magnitudes. As I improve I find this is easier, both because I’m better capable of dealing with a variety of partners and because I can use less energy to do more work. As an example one week may look like:
Monday: train at home 45 min drilling/ 45 min positional sparring (light)
Tuesday: Drill before open mat (light) , open mat (med to high), Fundamentals class (light)
Wednesday: Open mat (high) drill an hour before I teach (light) , after my class try to get a couple rounds in if I can with whatever I left in the tank sometimes mma rounds rolling with little gloves (high)
Thursday: Shooting day (rest)
Friday : Advanced Gi class (high)
Saturday: Early morning with the killers open mat(HIGH), drill (light), then teach
Sunday: Back at it with open mat early (High), or lately if I’m shooting Sunday I try to also schedule some drilling at home (light)
Paul Sharp told me there’s no win/loss record at open mat. That hit me immediately at the time. I see it all the time, train to improve but compete to win. I do need some hard competitive rounds but if I’m going to improve I have to learn new movements, test strategies in real time against tough opponents, and get out of my comfort zone. That’s a lot of getting beat. Suck it the fuck up. This also means it is not worth getting injured during training. If a new white belt gets my neck all twisted up as he’s going for a spazoplata its ok to tap, its ok to tap once there is no technical way out. If I have to resort to escape through superior athleticism (not something I really have to begin with) then I have already lost. I’ve learned to frame most training as playing a game, yes it’s a violent game, but it’s still a game.
Don’t get injured. This is a meshing of the “no win/ loss at open mat” and “managing intensity levels” above. It’s a contact sport, I cannot 100% avoid all risk. I can avoid needless risk and people who I don’t trust. There is a difference between people who will go hard, smash me, crush my soul and people who will break my arm if I don’t tap in time. What little I may gain from rolling with those people is not worth an injury that may take me off the mat for 6 or 9 months or worse. This goes both ways, I am fully dedicated to not hurting my training partners. My #1 goal needs to be to not injure anyone or get injured during training. So long as that happens even if I don’t improve that day I can continue to train and be exposed to the chance of improvement later.
Study. One of my earliest mentors on the mat, Mike Flor, told me if he was going to do this thing he was going to take it seriously, he was going to treat it like going to school. Private lessons I did with him came with a printed curriculum of what we covered. He would take notes after class, he would truly study. This approach has in my opinion been the biggest factor in me improving.
I try not to come in without a plan, and I spend time thinking about and studying that plan. I know ahead of time that for example right now I’m working on a series from lasso guard when my opponent brings up his near knee behind my lasso thigh. I will drill the permutations of this position in my drilling sessions that week and focus my rolling on getting there and getting that reaction from my opponent and executing my plan. I will make note of my successes and failures, study those, ask for feedback from the more experienced, and go back at it again. I very rarely come to open mat just trying to get some rounds in. I like to tell myself, out loud, before I get to the gym, “ok, today you’re going to get to X position and work that series” , “today is leg locks on blue belts and up, and getting to the back on white belts” etc.
Video study. I spent close to a year studying Romulo Barral’s spider guard DVD set. I would watch one excerpt at a time and drill it and work to pull it off before moving onto the next. I had a friend who was out for 9 months with an injury come back, he asked me when he got back what I was working on, I told him oh this spider guard series. He said “you were working on that when I got injured!” . Yep, and I think I’m starting to get it! While working on that DVD I also found it incredibly helpful to watch his competition videos. I would study and look for the techniques in real time and review and replay the exchanges to see what the real timing against high level players looks like.
Finding my game. Wow, this could be a whole book! I prob spent the first year of blue just learning how to pass, then I spent months focusing on one guard then another. I didn’t want to perfect any of them, but I didn’t want there to be huge gaps in my knowledge either. I don’t need to master deep half, but I should at least learn how it works and what it feels like. I would say ok, this month I’m doing nothing but knee cut passes, or half guard, and along the way I found some things that fit my purposes and that I really enjoyed and discarded stuff that used to be my game. The second year of blue belt was almost entirely this type of experimentation and switching of focus. While I did not get better in my ability to win against those of my partners that focused more, I do feel I was able to broaden my understanding of jiu jitsu and also find things that were not before on my radar.
Get some solid training partners. I cannot drill, study, and stay consistent over time without good partners. My friend Jeptha said once about finding people near enough your size and skill that you can be evenly matched and always pushing each other, and that this was one of the biggest factors in his improvement. When I heard that I took it seriously. To have a good partner first you must also be a good partner. I try my best to not only get my work in, but to do as much as I can for others. Injured and need a dummy play light bottom for you while get back to just moving on the mat? I’m grateful for the opportunity to help. Took some time off and need to work back in? Hit me up! Need someone to get swept 50 times in a row while you work your timing? I am your man! I cannot take take take and not give back.
The arms race. Good consistent partners who push me and know my game force me to become ever more technical. I learn spider, they learn a spider pass, I learn to counter that pass, they learn another. As we both chase each other we get sharper and sharper, then when you meet that guy who doesn’t know that first pass they never get a chance to hit your second or third line of attack. They know my game, they know where I am strong and where I am weak and they are constantly anticipating my every move. These matches become both incredibly fun and extremely technical. This is the embodiment of the chess match that is jiu jitsu in my mind. All my pieces are on the table, I don’t get success by surprise or power, I get it only by perfect execution, set ups, and counters. This strengthens the core of my game to a point where when someone is caught by surprise I have an overwhelming advantage.
Extra credit points. Seriously. Any day I train when I have legit reason not to I get double points. Long day at work, overtime, just got back from a trip that morning? Get them bonus points! Christmas morning? I’m training. Anytime no normal human being could possibly expect me to train? I’m getting that work in! Those little extra rounds, the one more round once everyone is gone and I’ve been there rolling and teaching from 5-9? That last round with the brown belt who comes in only for the late class and everyone is gone? Triple points! I’ll take em!
Love it. I remember why I started, but also why I continue, and I remind myself when I get caught up in my head that even if there were no belts, no outside recognition, that I would train just as hard. It isn’t always fun, it’s still often intimidating, I get crushed, I fail, I’m tired, I’m sore, sometimes I feel like I take two steps back, but I don’t stop. I used to say I won’t let anyone out work me. That’s bullshit. You may work harder than me, you may be capable of working more than me. Doesn’t matter. I’m not stopping.
www.stouttrainpitt.com , Warren Stout, my academy, Team Renzo Gracie
www.shivworks.com , Craig Douglas
www.iacombatives.com , Cecil Burch
https://pointdriventraining.com , Larry Lindenman
https://sharpdefense.blog , Paul Sharp
www.armeddynamics.com , Jeff Bloovman