As we train, we are perfecting both our jiu-jitsu as well as our partners jiu-jitsu. Regardless of your motivations, selfish or altruistic, the fastest path to perfecting your jiu-jitsu is to elevate everyone around you.
There are two phases of maximized training: Drilling and sparring. There are short term goals, like avoiding being a jerk and bad training partner, as well as long term goals, like building patterns of behavior that will build each individual’s jiu-jitsu. First, let’s talk about being a drilling partner who isn’t a jerk.
“That felt [tight/loose/effective/sketchy].” If something doesn’t feel right, let your partner know as early as possible. Don’t overdo it and cross the line into criticizing everything they do, but you should be helping them correct one perceived flaw at a time. If some element is particularly effective, make sure your partner knows that is a strong point for them so they can focus on making other areas just as strong.
Feedback can be both positive and negative. Both are valuable, but how you present it can make a big difference in how the receiver feels about their progress. With regular drilling partners, playful negative feedback such as “That sucked” is OK if they understand it’s playful, but if you are dealing with a new student or someone who is clearly having a lot of difficulty, then concentrate on positive feedback while negative feedback should be softened with recognizing what went right as well as what went wrong. “That sweep definitely got the job done, but I didn’t feel like my weight was transferring like when the purple belts do it to me. Try this and it might be easier. . .”
Ask for Feedback
When you are the one getting reps in, ask for feedback from your partner. Your drilling partner can provide very effective feedback no matter what their skill level is. When I go to seminars and classes at other schools, I often pair with white belts. It works fine and I learn the moves nearly as well as when I work with brown or black belts. Both of us win when that happens.
Very skilled partners are great, but not necessary. The instructor will provide the input needed to compensate for any flaws you or your partner may have in drilling. Sometimes I’ll ask the instructor to perform the move on my partner so they know how it is supposed to feel, then they can provide me with better feedback. If you or your partner are having trouble, always ask the coach for input. I have never met an instructor that did not want to provide feedback to students executing the requested technique. Take advantage of their desire to see you succeed.
As Perfect As Possible
Don’t drill beyond your capability to do it as perfectly as possible. Don’t go faster, stronger, heavier, or looser than what will accurately reproduce the move you are working on. If you mess up early in the technique, stop and restart. If you build up speed or aggressiveness and your technique gets worse, take it down a notch.
This can be difficult because we often don’t realize we are doing a technique incorrectly. Be mindful of the initial instruction, and don’t improvise if you don’t know exactly what to do. Ask your partner first, then observe adjacent partners and/or call your instructor over to provide further instruction.
All of this can be summed up as: Make yourself and your partner as perfect as possible.
My goal when I’m working with a white belt is to make them the best drilling white belt on the mat. They are a direct reflection on how much effort I’m putting into the drilling partnership. It doesn’t matter what the skill level of your partner is. You should be helping them towards perfecting their jiu-jitsu. If they look bad when performing the drill, it’s just as much your fault as it is theirs. Take responsibility for both you and your partner. If both partners adopt this attitude, there are twice as many people looking out for each person than if each person is concerned with their own practice.
Accept feedback in the spirit of improvement. Even if your partner is being a jerk about it, that doesn’t mean it has to drag down your training. The best response is to give your partner nothing to complain about. Constantly improve with every repetition. Accept that jiu-jitsu is a long term project, and even if you aren’t able to execute what you want now, someday you’ll be able to do it. Nobody can take that away from you unless you let them.
In the unlikely event you are dealing with a partner who is just a bad training partner (no feedback, rough execution, doesn’t care about perfecting their jiu-jitsu), deal with it for that class, inform the instructor, and avoid partnering with the person for a while if possible. If it can’t be avoided, then do your best to be a good training partner and set a good example. Be explicit with your expectations and tell them what you need them to do for you to have effective repetitions. Even if they are a black belt, they have no right to obstruct your progress. Take charge of your training, and get help from your instructor as needed.
How to be a good sparring partner
Yes, we are trying to win. Playing a game against someone who doesn’t want to win makes the game meaningless, therefore both sparring partners should be trying to win. However, winning doesn’t mean getting the submission. It means achieving your objectives. If we are training to improve, rather than training to prove (TM Kroyler Gracie), then we can adjust our goals on the fly and still achieve what we want.
For example, if I am rolling with another black belt and I’m constantly achieving my objectives and they aren’t, then I’m going to back off my effort so that I can learn more from them and they can get more out of training with me. When my sparring partner achieves at least some of their goals, I’m going to learn areas of jiu-jitsu that I may not be an expert in. I’ll learn where I can draw the line on resistance for specific scenarios. The same thing is going to happen with sparring with white belts. I’m going to do things that I would never do in a competition setting because I want to make myself better in situations that I should not be getting into in the first place.
The most pointless roll is the forced one sided roll. Invariably, I learn the least about jiu-jitsu when I am just crushing my opponent. When I am dealing with a vastly better sparring partner, I can learn about defense while I’m being crushed, but I learn more when they open up and take risks that they wouldn’t do against a higher quality opponent.
All this points to an interesting facet of jiu-jitsu. Your opponent’s belt or skill level doesn’t matter. As long as you aren’t injuring them, then you should take every opportunity you are given. Maybe they would normally destroy you but they want to have more effective training. Maybe they are working on defense against triangles today. They need you to treat them like they are an inexperienced practitioner and triangle them when the situation calls for it. Even if they are baiting you, spring the trap to learn the trap. If they are doing something they should not be doing, take advantage of it. If the roll becomes one sided in your favor, then you still need to adjust your aggression no matter what your partners skill level is. Maybe they are recovering from an injury. Maybe it’s an off day. Maybe they are specifically trying to help you train. All that matters is that you respond to their actions in a reasonably symmetric way. Strive to achieve your goals, but not in a way that makes it one sided.
Your failures are not a reflection of your worth.
If you like to learn from mistakes, jiu-jitsu is the sport for you. Failure is a constant companion. I do not like failure, and I’d prefer to learn from other peoples mistakes, but I still make plenty of mistakes every time I’m on the mats.
The critical realization is that failure is an opportunity for you to overcome that failure. It doesn’t matter if you are a white belt or black belt. Failure is nothing more than a data point for an element you want to remove from your jiu-jitsu. Your jiu-jitsu is a statue you are carving over time. Somewhere inside that block of marble is a perfect figure representing your jiu-jitsu. Your job is to remove all the chunks that don’t belong and to polish your jiu-jitsu to something that is aesthetically pleasing and as perfect as possible.
It is your jiu-jitsu, not someone else’s. Build something that you can enjoy for the rest of your life. If you hit a brick wall on a particular aspect of jiu-jitsu, congratulations, you are just like everyone else who has their own set of brick walls. Even if I could never get another submission in jiu-jitsu, I could still find things to enjoy and challenges to overcome as I make my jiu-jitsu as perfect as possible. Failures are only negative if you don’t learn from them. Chase perfection for yourself, no matter how unattainable it is. Help your team chase perfection, even if you aren’t anywhere close to perfect.
We have covered how individuals as partners should optimize their training, but there’s also a team aspect of training. On your team your goal should be to raise the average level of the room as much as possible. That starts with making sure you have a good population of people training. If you lose people because they do not feel welcome, you are depriving yourselves of valuable training partners. Make people feel welcome and valued by helping them develop their jiu-jitsu, not by proving how much better you are than they are. If you wreck people and injure them, you are losing someone for a period of time and delaying their progress in jiu-jitsu. If we truly believe in the ability of jiu-jitsu to help us have better balanced lives, then depriving someone else of that desired benefit in unconscionable.
Jiu-jitsu is not an isolated solo activity. If you average 100 people training who are only out for themselves, then the result will be a cut-throat survival of the fittest environment where only the naturally talented or very hardest workers do well. Most of the rest will be a churn of people who start, try, and quit. If you average 100 people who are trying to elevate the jiu-jitsu of everyone around them, you’ll have an environment where the average skill set is higher because of retention and individual progression, and the best people will excel even more because of the better quality average skill set around them. It is a healthier ecosystem that has a strong average.
In a cut-throat environment, the dynamics of the training can be radically altered by the removal of one star. In a healthy environment with a better average, any one missing training individual won’t dramatically alter the ability of the group to advance if they are not present.
The quality of your team will have a direct impact on your training. That also means that the quality of your training will have a direct impact on your team. Take this seriously.
Selfish or Altruistic?
It doesn’t matter in a healthy jiu-jitsu ecosystem. If you are selfish and care mostly about your jiu-jitsu, then the best way to push yourself is to have high quality training partners. If you are altruistic and want to help other people become better at jiu-jistu, then the best way to push them is to help create high quality training partners around them, including yourself.
If our goal is to perfect our jiu-jitsu, then the optimal path is the same regardless of how altruistic you are. It is possible to have high level jiu-jitsu and be a jerk, but by elevating everyone around us, we are helping others as well as ourselves.
Look at it another way. If you go into every training session with the intent to crush all who come before you, you are depriving yourself of exploring areas of jiu-jitsu you are not good at. You play your A-game and the recipients can be ignored other than as grappling dummies. On the other hand, if you go into training to improve yourself and everyone around you, your A-game will be more dynamic and varied as you work with differing styles and explore other peoples game as you explore your own.
Perfection is impossible. We can approach it but never achieve it. If we take our training seriously, with an aim towards perfection, we absolutely can attain a state of being as perfect as possible. It is still an enormous amount of time and effort, just like carving a statue from a block of marble is an enormous amount of work and application of skill. It is a choice we make, and perfect jiu-jitsu is an incredibly satisfying target despite our routine inability to achieve that perfection. We can ease that route by applying what I describe in this article.