About the author: Sam Joseph is a 3rd degree black belt, head instructor and owner of Buckhead Jiu Jitsu in Atlanta.
Over the years I have heard instructors say, “There are no bad questions”. The thought behind this is that asking questions leads us to greater knowledge of BJJ – whether they help to illuminate what does or does not work, the positive or the negative or what is or is not appropriate. While I agree that almost any question can be interpreted or answered in a way that can benefit us, there are some that are more conducive to supporting BJJ growth than others. Here are some questions that when asked on a regular basis can help us make headway on the mat!
Question 1: What are our goals?
Goals provide us with purpose and direction while promoting commitment. This is especially important in BJJ, as gaining real proficiency is more a marathon than a sprint. It takes time to progress on the mat and having goals makes it easier to “stay the course” when the going gets tough and we are tempted to quit. When we define our goals, both short and long term, we are proactively setting ourselves up for future success by committing to actions that will lead to specific outcomes.
In my early training life, I established two goals: I wanted to fight and win in MMA and also medal at the BJJ Pan American tournament – the largest BJJ competition in the United States at that time. Specifying these as targets empowered me as they informed my daily choices. I simply had to ask myself if what I was doing and how I was doing it would help me reach those goals. In effect, by simply asking myself what I wanted to accomplish, I set in motion the events that led to my achieving both of those goals within my first three years of training. When challenges arose, my goals were often the things that kept me on track and on the mat. An added benefit was how these successes motivated and propelled me to bigger and better things in my BJJ journey.
My goals had to do with competition, but the beauty of BJJ goals is that they are totally customisable. They can be made around general fitness, gaining proficiency in certain techniques or positions and even BJJ-centric trips if those are more to an individual’s liking. The common ground is that defining our BJJ goals is a great first step to success on the mat.
Question 2: What do we enjoy most about BJJ?
In an era of serious BJJ athletes, sponsorships, tournament circuits and athlete branding on social media, this is an under-utilised question in BJJ. The fact is that when something is fun we often make time for it, and any instructor worth his/her salt will agree that mat time is the one thing we cannot do without as we seek improvement in BJJ. In light of this, clarifying what we find fun about BJJ so that we can focus on it during tough times is obviously a wise thing to do if we desire longevity in the BJJ lifestyle.
I am reminded of something David Jacobs (owner/head instructor of the David Jacobs Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu Academy) said to me as blue belts on a tournament trip. David and I came up together at the Yamasaki Academy in Washington DC and often discussed competing, the competition mindset and BJJ in general. David found BJJ after his Division 1 wrestling career had ended, so his perspective was built from a life-time of competitive grappling. We had a nice core group of people who competed regularly at our academy but David was clearly the most enthusiastic about it. His energy not only carried over to his day-to-day training in preparation for tournaments but it also positively impacted many of his teammates- including me.
When I asked him about it, he simply told me that he had never had more fun in sports than competing in BJJ. That was his big secret…he was having fun! I laughed at the time, but as I put more thought into what was fun for me about BJJ and focused on that, I found the challenges a little less daunting. I have continued to actively ask myself this question over the years and it has made the mat a much happier place for me. That has helped me to put in more mat time and that has fueled improvement in my BJJ. Fun can be a real tool for us as we seek growth as BJJ practitioners.
Question 3: How can I contribute?
John F Kennedy said, “Ask not what your country can do for you but what you can do for your country” and inspired a nation. The key here being that by actively contributing to a group or organisation we see value in, we make the group better AND we improve ourselves. That same concept is applicable when we look at BJJ.
The people I know who are happiest in BJJ are plugged in and participating in academies and/or teams. The demographics of the groups are all across the board but there are similarities in that they are healthy organisations that encourage the growth and participation of their members. That participation also varies: training, helping out with teaching, advisory work, community projects, volunteering, competing, etc. The common thread of these organisations is that they allow and encourage growth by providing opportunities for individuals to get involved.
When we take those opportunities, we help unlock our own potential on and off the mat. That kind of positive dynamic makes BJJ more than just exercise or a sport. BJJ becomes a force for good in our lives and when that happens, getting better on the mat is just an added benefit.
Question 4: Where can my BJJ improve?
Many of us have a natural tendency to focus on our strengths. We like to do the things we are good at and often minimize the importance of gaps in our BJJ games. This plays itself out on mats all over the world during sparring at the end of classes as we try to win by taking our training partners to our “A games”. While improving and adding layers to what we do best is a good thing, what often prompts massive growth in BJJ is our focus on and development of our weak areas.
As a white belt, I felt much more comfortable on top during training. As I got closer to blue belt, I had to face the fact that I had a real gap in my game in terms of a lack of attacks from the guard. I chose to use this as an opportunity and began doing guard retention drills and working on sweeps before and after every class. I also started sparring from the bottom, which, while frustrating at first as people passed easily, slowly started bearing fruit. My bottom game got steadily better and developed into a real strength over time.
By identifying and focusing on a weakness in the right way, I prompted significant advancement in my BJJ. As my BJJ game matured, I continued to see the value of this type of self-evaluation and awareness under the tutelage of Fernando and Mario Yamasaki and Francisco Neto. They constantly pushed me to look beyond my strengths, both in preparation for tournaments and to round out my jiu jitsu. This helped me internalise the truth that growth can be stimulated whenever we are willing to face and address our weaknesses.
The questions covered have in common an inherent quest for self-knowledge and how it can support progress in the BJJ journey. From novice to experienced black belt, they can be used as tools to stimulate growth and enrich the overall BJJ experience. While they are not the only helpful questions, they are certainly a great starting point as they have the potential to help any BJJ practitioner who is genuinely willing to ask and answer them on a regular basis.
See you on the mat!