How To Improve Your Jiu-Jitsu Game in 2016 – UPDATED!

A couple years ago I came across a cool article by “Budo Jake” from Budo Videos, “10 Things You Can Do To Improve Your BJJ 2014”. Here’s an update of the post I wrote expanding on that topic, with some new pointers for 2016.

You can read it here >> ARTICLE

I was already thinking of something along the same lines for my email lesson subscribers and 40 Plus BJJ Academy members, but since Jake already hit on a number of the same topics I was was going to cover I figured that I would just a few more pointers of my own…

Improve the Quality of Your Training Time

40 plus bjjJake’s first recommendation is to do whatever you can to train more. Even a very small increase in training, another half hour a week for 50 weeks a year for example, will give you an extra 25 hours of training over the course of the year. And if you currently train 5 hours per week, that would be like getting in 5 extra weeks of training (read on to see my caveat about training volume and intensity)!

To go one step further, I would then add that beyond adding training time the BEST thing you can do is improve the quality of your training time. This hits on Jake’s #9 (“Drill, Drill, Drill”), and on both fronts I see a lot of misconceptions about what constitutes quality training and the best ways to drill (a topic I cover in depth in my Ultimate Guide to BJJ Drilling).

One of the big myths in Jiu-Jitsu is that “it’s all about mat time.”

Occasionally when I have posted a video or other resource on social media I’ll see a dismissive comment pop up to the tune of: “Whatever, just keep training” or “Or you could just go to class.” As I’ve said before, it’s true that to a large extent there may be no substitute for mat time, to infer that this is ALL that matters is simply incorrect because the statement implies that all mat time is equally productive. And it’s also true that there are some highly athletic, coordinated people out there who seem to progress at an abnormally rapid rate just by virtue of rolling. But for the vast majority, if you are just doing static, rote repetitions of whichever techniques you’re working on that day and then jumping straight to free rolling in your classes, you are not going to maximize your learning curve.


Develop YOUR Routes, Not Someone Else’s

Jake is very smart to qualify his recommendation to “Pick someone to emulate” when he writes: “You should be training as your instructor teaches you but in my years of training I have found that, for the most part, instructors generally teach techniques that THEY like. These techniques may or may not work as well for your particular body type. Pick up a copy of the latest Worlds DVD and watch YOUR weight division. You will probably see someone that has a similar body type as you and who might be doing techniques that you have a personal preference for.”

The temptation to want to adopt a style that isn’t right for your body type, physical attributes – or your temperament – is one of the most common pitfalls in learning BJJ. I wrote about this in my article, “One of the Biggest Mistakes You Can Make In Your Training.” Just to be clear, when you do find someone who has an aspect of their game that fits how your body already tends to move, then by all means go for it… 40 plus bjj

This can open up new possibilities, answer questions and patch holes in your current technique. But always keep in mind that Jiu-Jitsu is based on a fixed set of physical principles. Focus on the fundamentals of base, posture, movement, frames and positioning for each aspect of the game and let the routes your body wants to play evolve out of those fundamentals. Then, once you have certain tendencies established, adopting details or techniques from other athletes that suit you can become a huge benefit to your training… rather than a huge impediment.


Observe Your Breathing and Mental States While Rolling

photo-1Sound too wishy-washy or esoteric. It’s not. Actually, the longer I’ve been in the game and the more students and competitors I’ve worked with, the more I realize that this is one of the most practical things you can work on.

When world class grappling prodigy and UFC fighter Gunnar Nelson was asked how he was able to develop such a high level Jiu-Jitsu game in such a short span of years, he answered with his typical Zen-like candor what he sees as his greatest attribute: he sees a lot of people getting really stressed during training, but never gets stressed himself; instead, he retains a relaxed mind at all times even during competitive training.

This is an incredibly powerful lesson to emulate, and the best way to do it is simply to set simple goals for a given training session. For example, regardless of the outcome of any of my rolls today, I will observe my breathing and mental state, and anytime I feel myself becoming physically or mentally tense I will remind myself to relax.

Notice I wrote “observe.” This is key because if you focus too hard on relaxing, you’ll find yourself paradoxically unable to relax, or beating yourself up mentally each time you fail to maintain a relaxed state. There should be no judgement on yourself, just gentle reminders. With practice, this will become a new habit and your “default” state of mind will be one of focused relaxation, and in turn your mind will slow down, your timing will increase, and your game will see great progress.

This is much in the spirit of the advice given to Tom Cruise’s character in The Last Samurai… that he had “too many mind” and needed to let go and adopt a state of “no mind” in order to become proficient:

Don’t make rolling about you. Just focus on the moment and the movement and create great Jiu-Jitsu. Believe it or not, when you do this you will actually perform your best.


Train for Longevity

In his article Jake writes about getting stronger and improving your cardio. For both athletic purposes, especially for competitors, and personal health and well-being, this is always great advice. The only caveat I have is that the more physical attributes you have, the greater the tendency to rely on them to patch technical holes in your game. I see this a lot. The toughest thing is getting people to recognize it because they are often successful doing it in training or competition. When it comes to long-term technical progress, however, my advice is straightforward:

Train your body like an athlete, but train your technique as though you are of below average strength, below average athleticism, and below average endurance.

Hand-in-hand with this, especially if you’re no longer a “spring chicken,” approach your game with a longevity mindset that will enable you to stay healthy and minimize wear and tear on your body. If you are constantly upside down, stacked and pancaked to hit that submission or sweep, you may be winning the battle but losing the war. Instead, try to adopt a technical strategy that not only suits how you think and move, but also keeps you as healthy as possible. Remember that whatever you goals right now, hopefully we all share the ultimate goal – to keep doing Jiu-Jitsu!

Another key to keep in mind: whether we are talking about weight training, metabolic conditioning, or BJJ, your sensitivity to training volume increases as you age – meaning that you may be able to roll just as long and maintain the same or similar levels of maximum physical output in a given training session as you did years ago, but after 40 in particular you will find that your real limiting factor is often cumulative output.

Here’s what you need to understand: more volume at high intensity is not always better, and you are not “losing ground” because you have to adjust training volume vis-a-vis what you could handle a decade ago. They key is to find the right balance of volume and intensity for your body; this will allow you to get the best results from your practice.


Ego Check – Be Authentic

Your-ego-not-amigo-meEven in a functional and performance-based art like Jiu-Jitsu, the ego can manifest in very subtle and detrimental ways. The best path to avoid these negative effects, which are not only harmful to y0ur growth as a human being and martial artist, but also to the culture of your school, is authenticity… starting with yourself.

Let’s look at some common examples…

-Sideline coaching: conducting your own class to show your partner what you know or how you do it even though you’re not the instructor for the class. This is just about you showing off how much you know, not giving a helpful tip to your partner.

-You lose a fight for position or are about to get submitted and you start coaching your partner, the implication being that you let them do it. Even as the instructor in my school I rarely coach while in the middle of a roll, and if I do it’s never like that.

-Avoiding training with students who give you a challenge or might tap you (particularly if they are a lower belt), usually with a B.S. excuse. (Note: there is a legit time and place to avoid rolling with certain people – particularly if you think they might injure you – but again, be honest about it.)

-Faking an injury (or embellishing a minor actual injury) to avoid: losing a round, a competitive match, getting submitted, or even to give yourself a break so you don’t “cardio tap”.

-Complaining every time you get beaten that the other guys are only using strength, not technique, and is trying to hurt you (even when it’s not the case – or when you might actually be projecting what you are doing onto other people).

-Or, the flip side of the same coin: saying you only go light but in fact you use a lot of strength, power, etc.

-Keeping score: Jiu-Jitsu is a competitive art. The belts correlate to technical ability in terms of performance. So by its very nature there is a certain type of comparison that takes place. The question is, are you looking at how you perform on the mat objectively and honestly in terms of self-evaluation, or are you keeping score and telling everyone about who you beat or who couldn’t beat you to fuel your ego?

-Knowing you are doing these things, and then trying to rationalize them instead of changing them by saying your training partners or instructors are the ones with the problem. Oldest trick in the book, but at the end of the day it’s simply self-deceptive. Instead, why not recognize the tendency and decide to change it?

No one, even the greatest competitors in the world, would get anywhere without their training partners, coaches, students, etc. And the better you become, the greater your reliance on the people around you to elevate you to the next level. Why not let reality itself be enough? Just focus on developing great Jiu-Jitsu and your experience will be much more rewarding.


Stop Boasting About “Old Man Strength”

berdainledeThere are one of two in every crowd: the implausibly strong guy in his 40’s, 50’s or even 60’s with Groundskeeper Willie strength. Some people just have that attribute, and it is what it is.

One of my pet peeve’s, however, is when I hear these same students boasting about old man strength as their great equalizer, and how they can still tie the young’uns in knots. I’m here for you, 40 Plus’ers, but please stop this!

Do you really want the measure of your Jiu-Jitsu to be the fact that you’re able to beat up the younger BJJ studs in your school because you’re stronger? And what happens when you get old enough that your strength finally stops being your asset… do you then succumb to frustration, hang your head and retire from training?

I hope not. Instead, going back to tabling the ego, start building a game that is built to last, starting now. Focus less on winning and more on creating the best expression of your personal BJJ that you can. If you compete or need to defend yourself, then you’ll have your technique plus your strength, but otherwise keep the muscle out of it.

Enjoy a fantastic new year!

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