About the author: Sam Joseph is a 3rd degree black belt, head instructor and owner of Buckhead Jiu Jitsu in Atlanta.
As a Brazilian jiu jitsu instructor, one of the questions I get asked the most is, ‘How can I learn this stuff (BJJ) faster?’ It is a common reaction to the rush of excitement that we get when we first start to fall in love with BJJ. We see the value of it as a martial art, an overall body workout and a lifestyle – so people want to take it all in as quickly as possible. The problem is that learning jiu jitsu is a lot like building a house, in that rushing the process often leads to compromising it, and this can then lead to long-term problems. Learning the fundamentals and allowing our bodies to adjust to the sport takes time and effort, but there are some ways to efficiently go about this. Here are some tips to help speed up the learning process.
Learn techniques in combinations
Individual techniques, and the little details that make them work, should be always be focused on. The added step of learning those moves with at least one other move, that will work with an expected response, will make the individual moves more effective AND set a foundation for learning that will accelerate the growth of our BJJ. Putting techniques in combinations does not add options; it multiplies options, as it allows us to take what our opponents give us, rather than force something that is not there. An example of this would be learning a sweep and immediately following that up with a technique based on an expected response to that sweep. This would lead to a greater understanding of the position, give us an option to continue attacking if the position failed and foster an appreciation for how BJJ has both physical and mental aspects. Learning this way also opens us up to the next level of connecting combinations of techniques. Our ability to bridge combinations together will have a direct impact on skill in “setting traps” and the more “traps” we can effectively set, the more advanced our BJJ game will become. Adopting this method of learning puts us in position to move forward with a quicker and more effective rate of learning by stacking techniques and technical situations.
Train both gi and nogi
We often talk about our preference for gi or nogi training like they are mutually exclusive. It is as if we need to “pick sides” or can only enjoy one or the other. I believe that, while we may have a preference, it is very beneficial to our overall grappling to practice both regularly. There are concepts that are both easier to understand and master by spending time in the gi. “Position before submission” is a core concept of BJJ. It is also an example of something that is much easier to learn the value of in the gi, as the gi provides a huge variety of options when we establish positions. Conversely, nogi training enthusiasts often learn leg-attack/defense fundamentals earlier and more completely. This is both due to the predominant leg-attack limiting rule-set in the gi and the lack of upper-body submissions available in nogi when compared to the gi.
When we embrace training both gi and nogi, we take away artificial limitations to our grappling growth. The lessons we learn from one are allowed to benefit us in the other and therefore drive a faster rate of maturation in our BJJ games. An added benefit is that we often find that we enjoy both and that helps fuel our passion for the sport and lifestyle.
When people tell me they really only enjoy one or the other, I tell them about how I used to play the piano as a child. I did not want to play even after I started seeing real improvement, but my parents insisted that I continue. As soon as I could stop, I did and have since lost all my ability to play. When they ask me what that has to do with training gi or nogi, I tell them that one of my biggest regrets is not continuing with the piano. I would love to be able to sit down at a party today and play at least some basic pieces. When I think about most of my favourite BJJ athletes, they have beautiful gi AND nogi games. Athletes like Cobrinha, Rafa Mendes, Roger Gracie, Damien Maia and Murilo Santana are fantastic examples of this. Just because we do not initially enjoy one or the other, does not mean we will not enjoy it later. Training regularly in both aspects of BJJ gives us a chance to develop both games AND develop more completely as grapplers.
Take care of our bodies
There is a saying that is especially popular in American football, ‘The best ability is availability’. What it means in the context of this discussion is that we cannot hope to maximise our learning opportunities if we are not showing up to train healthy, or not able to train due to fatigue or injury. Consistent body maintenance, proper supplementation and a healthy diet are our allies in the fight to stay on the mat.
Things like massages, regular chiropractic adjustments and daily stretching are often associated with professional athletes, but they are just as important for the BJJ athlete who aspires to learn as quickly as possible. The degree to which we can implement these things into our regular schedule will have direct impact on the amount of profitable learning-time we will ultimately have.
Proper supplementation and a healthy diet also work hand-in-hand to support us. Just as a high-performance vehicle needs quality fuel, we need to feed our bodies with what it needs to allow us to train and to offset the strain that BJJ can put on our bodies. Supplements like glucosamine – joint support – and glutamine – to alleviate muscle soreness – should be strongly considered and time should be invested in putting together a well-balanced diet. When we do these things, we are laying the kind of foundation that a steady rate of learning can be built on.
Embrace the Ways other Grappling Arts Can Impact our BJJ
The story goes that the triangle choke was “rediscovered” in BJJ because one of Rolls Gracie’s students used it to choke out a roomful of training partners. He found it in an old judo book and, after using it successfully, inspired Rolls to incorporate it into BJJ. Now, the triangle is as much a part of BJJ as any individual technique. If that methodology is good enough for Rolls Gracie, who was the best BJJ fighter of his generation, it is good enough for us!
BJJ was founded on the idea of doing “what works”. Helio and Carlos Gracie were constantly testing themselves and making improvements to techniques based on what they discovered. So, while we hold steadfastly to the fundamentals, we should also embrace new ideas from new generations of practitioners and from other grappling arts.
Techniques like the berimbolo, leg-lock attacks, wrestling takedowns and judo throws can all add new dimensions to our BJJ experience. All that it takes is for us to emulate the great Rolls Gracie and LEARN from our experiences and take in what works.
Testing and pushing ourselves often triggers significant advancement. Tests can come in many forms: competition, more advanced training partners, sparring with more athletic teammates, friendly training with new partners, etc. The key here is that those “tests” can be opportunities to promote growth and should be enthusiastically approached. When the goal is expedited advancement, even setbacks are constructive, when we stay focused on the desired result, as they provide answers to questions we have about our games. That mindset is liberating for us as athletes and often unlocks the kind of progression that excites all of us!
Brazilian jiu jitsu, like many things worthwhile, can be very challenging – especially at the start. We feel like there is a world of information to learn and our enthusiasm can easily turn to frustration when the road gets tough. Following these tips will help speed up learning and help us keep the frustration, which is counter-productive to learning, at bay. See you on the mat!