About the author: Sam Joseph is a 3rd degree black belt, head instructor and owner of Buckhead Jiu Jitsu in Atlanta.
There are many aspects to the BJJ lifestyle. We get to enjoy camaraderie developed on the mat, the social side of being part of a team, the exposure to diversity that comes from participating in a meritocracy and many other benefits that come with our first gi.
That said, much of our everyday level of satisfaction with BJJ comes from the training sessions and, at any point in time, the largest factor in that equation is the other person participating. Based on this truth, it stands to reason that we should strive to be excellent training partners. Here are some tips to help us along the way.
Practice good hygiene
Rumor has it that when former UFC champion Georges St Pierre trains at Renzo Gracie’s New York Academy, he brings his toothbrush and toothpaste. This seems trivial, but showing up to practice clean and with fresh breath shows he is considering others when training. It is also represents the kind of thinking that makes training situations more pleasant and manageable.
Proper gi care is another vital component of essential gym hygiene. Gis should be washed immediately after every practice. This is for both academy cleanliness and safety reasons. Few training scenarios are worse than being partnered with someone wearing a “smelly” gi, but the good news is that regular and proper washing keeps gis smelling fresh. Good gi hygiene, along with clean mats, also helps prevent skin infections common to grappling like staph, ringworm, etc. When individuals are committed to good academy hygiene, it helps support an environment where training time can be enjoyed and maximised.
Train with enthusiasm and focus
In 1999, I began training at the Yamasaki Academy as a blue belt and on my first day, Mario Yamasaki paired me up with fellow blue belt Noah Booth (now a Big Brothers Team black belt). Little did I know that for the next four plus years, Noah would become one my best training partners. We would get our purple and brown belts together, but what I remember most about Noah is that every time we trained, he came to the mat with real energy and focus. When we shook hands and fist-bumped he always inspired me to be at my best, because I knew he would be fully engaged. The commitment Noah brought to daily training challenged me to hold myself and my BJJ to higher standards. I was motivated to train more consistently and to find ways to get the most from my training time. This helped me enjoy BJJ more, as my technical improvement led to an increased sense of achievement and good competition results. Noah and I never spoke about “making each other better” nor did we ever discuss each other’s BJJ goals. But, by coming to the academy with his laser-focus, Noah participated in my development and can be said to be a part of my success as a BJJ athlete and instructor. The lesson here is that we actively participate in the betterment of our training partners when we habitually approach training with positive energy and full investment.
Train with control
One of my favourite BJJ sayings is, “BJJ is a marathon, not a sprint”. When we take this to heart, we understand that staying healthy so we can consistently train is vital to our progress. This is infinitely easier when your training partners drill and roll with control. “Control” does not imply a lack of intensity; it indicates moving technically and with purpose. Rodolfo Vieira is one of my favourite BJJ athletes, and at over 210lbs of solid muscle, he cuts an imposing figure. Rodolfo is known for not only being technically proficient but also for his incredible pressure. Somewhat surprisingly, when you speak to people who train with Rodolfo they describe a pleasant experience. They say Rodolfo is able to train with anyone, regardless of size and level, substituting fluid movement for the crushing power he uses in competition. Supporting this information is sparring footage online of Rodolfo rolling with smaller male/female teammates moving with real grace and control. At the end of the rolls, all parties are covered in sweat and fatigued but at no point are any of Rodolfo’s partners at risk of injury. When we train with control, we make it easier for teammates to train more regularity and we also allow for the intensity to be increased. Increased mat-time and directed intensity promote technical improvement for our partners and us.
From time to time, we can also greatly benefit from training with partners who do not exhibit control. Power-reliant and overly aggressive partners can be unpredictable and unpopular in the gym. Ironically, they often replicate the same violent and uncontrolled movements we commonly find in self-defense situations. While training with these type of partners daily can be counter-productive to our efforts to stay healthy, we must sometimes embrace the opportunity rolling with them represents to improve our ability to react to and control spontaneous and threatening opponents. The keys are to be a training partner who exercises control and to train with like-partners regularly to insure longevity in the sport while also recognising the opportunity for growth that infrequent training with “uncontrolled” people offers.
Check the ego
BJJ is a combat sport where much of the focus is on the individual. Even though tournaments recognise both individual and team results, many still consider the individual more important than the concept of team. I am not here to debate that but feel it lends important context to this discussion. The same way that high-level, individual success demands a certain level of “ego” in terms of the approach to training and lifestyle, being a great training partner to any number of teammates over time requires some subjugation and control of “ego”. This is not to say that top-level athletes cannot be awesome teammates and training partners. It would be more accurate to say that those athletes must desire to also excel as teammates and training partners. The aforementioned example of Rodolfo Vieira rolling with smaller and less advanced partners illustrates how a world-class competitor can also make the choice to be a world-class teammate and training partner. When we, regardless of level of skill, “check our ego” during sparring and consider how we can make it productive for our teammates, as well as ourselves, we follow Rodolfo’s lead and help support the team collective as well as get individual benefit.
Whatever our goals in the sport, we all spend time on the same mat and the hours learning and sparring with training partners form the foundation upon which our BJJ lifestyles are built. When we consistently apply these tips, we become vehicles via which we help maximize both our and teammates’ academy experience. Being a great training partner on the mat allows us to better enjoy, and help others enjoy, all the benefits of BJJ in and out of the academy.