In the video below is an amazing chess game where black is on a seemingly reckless path of strategic destruction. The technical brilliance of this game reminded me that, for me, the sweetest victories do not come as a consequence of strategic defensiveness but from absolute non-stop offense. The popular-to-the-level-of-cliche speech from Braveheart speech is appropriate here:
Fight and you may die. Run and you will live at least awhile. And dying in your bed many years from now, would you be willing to trade all the days from this day to that for one chance, just one chance, to come back here as young men and tell our enemies that they may take our lives but they will never take our freedom!
Coaches have often told me that at the end of the day competition is about winning. That never sounded right to me. I have never been happy with winning just because I won. For me, what I did on the way to winning has always been important. If there is ever a moment in the match where I stall on a lead because I’m tired or nervous or scared of taking a risk, winning sucks almost as much as losing.
Just to be clear, all losing, no matter what, SUCKS. It’s just that not all winning is great. I walk off the mat proud and happy only when I win and I didn’t quit at any moment in the match.
Anyway next time you see me win a match 2-0 or by an advantage, please walk up to me and smack me in the face saying something like: “You disappoint me”.
To me one the main benefits of judo for a jiu jitsu competitor is as simple as providing confidence in basic movement on the feet, basic gripping, basic posture, etc. That’s how it helped me, but it’s especially cool to see the occasional judoka pull off a textbook throw at the higher level of competition. I’ve seen a few drop morote seoi nage’s and a lot of excellent foot sweeps, but I haven’t yet seen a tai otoshi pulled off quite as nice as it was done in the following clip of a brown belt match from the 2013 Pans:
Here’s Jimmy Pedro breaking down this exact technique. He describes a useful grip variation for a BJJ competitor, but the guy in the above clip didn’t need the variation. He did it the old school judo way.
It’s been said many times in many ways that “practice doesn’t make perfect; perfect practice makes perfect”, but I was reminded of it with a particularly good phrasing of this concept in a new book Winning on the Ground by AnnMarie De Mars (her blog):
“The difference between being #1 in the world and #100 isn’t so much the hours on the mat. It’s what you are doing in those hours.”
I think this applies to people who train professionally as well as to people who train as a hobby for different reasons. In the former case, your body and mind can only take so much in a day. Anyone who’s ever tried to drill (really drill) a move for an hour will know the wear it can have on you, not physically, but mentally. The focus required to perform a technique to the best of your ability is as draining as trying to solve a difficult math problem (or puzzle for the non-math-inclined).
For the hobbyist, the reality is that you really do have a very limited amount of time per day that you can train. Ironically, with the higher constraint on time, I find that people do less of the good stuff (drilling very specific techniques, transitions) and more of the fun stuff (rolling in jiu jitsu, randori in judo).
I was always of the opinion that you have to earn the fun stuff. To me “fun” is rolling without any constraints on my game, without a focus on a particular position/technique, etc. That’s very good to do a lot of, especially if you have 4-6 hours a day to train. But if I only have an hour (or less as usual), I have to become my own drill sergeant. I’ll get in 30-60 minutes of hard fast paced drilling on a dummy or a partner no matter what, and enjoy a few sets of training. It’s a balance between short term “happiness” and long term “happiness”. Ultimately, I really enjoy getting a better understanding of the art of jiu jitsu, and that requires the not-so-fun process of drilling and rolling with a purpose.
By the way, I’m also realizing that “drilling” is like “dieting”. It’s a concept that is used by a lot of people to describe a wide variety of activities. So I have to be more specific. I do a lot of kinds of drilling, but the one I refer to as “really drilling” is where I do 100-200+ reps in 30 minutes of one technique. This isn’t some new technique, it’s one that I’ve already done thousands of reps of and most importantly have tried in positional training, live training, and competition. Every other kind of drilling is more relaxed. This is hard work. Productive hard work.
Drilling is about doing something 50, 100, 500 times. When you do something 100 times, the little unpleasant aspects get magnified.
There are techniques where my drilling partner does nothing more than put their body in the correct position, provide the correct resistance, and maybe move their arms and legs in a certain way. There’s not much strain on them, and their body never has to hit the mat. A good example of such a technique is the x-pass or almost any guard pass.
On the other hand, there are techniques that do require the partner’s body to get some air time and hit the mat. In judo, it’s throws, in bjj, it’s sweeps. The basic butterfly sweep, for example, seems innocent at first, but when done a lot of times with good technique can put a lot of impact strain on the partner’s shoulder.
As you can probably already tell, I have a seemingly excessive concern for my drilling partner’s well being. Part of it has to do with my nature. But mainly, it’s just a fact that the less pain involved in drilling the longer you can drill, the more willing you will be to drill, and the more likely you are to be in a good mood while drilling. I all for working hard and working through the pain, but if you don’t have to, it’s much better. Work smarter not harder.
This is why I’ve drilled guard passing much more than sweeps. But that slowly has to change. While I play the butterfly game a lot in training, there is no substitute for drilling.
There is no deep insight in this post, just some thoughts. I often struggle with techniques that may be painful to my training partner. From day one, I loved the idea that jiu jitsu has a large number of techniques (e.g. chokes) that could painlessly defeat somebody going 100%. The problem is that there are techniques that do cause pain on their way to submission, everything ranging from armlocks to neck cranks to certain versions of arm-in chokes to wrist locks to calf crushers. That’s effective beautiful jiu jitsu as well. I continue to struggle with finding a place for these techniques in my game and my personality.
As I progress up the ranks and my jiu jitsu slowly improves, I find myself in the more peaceful but less productive position of not being criticized, corrected, or given advice to nearly as often as when I was a white belt. I was reminded of this today when after rolling with a high-level black belt who I’m friends with (let’s call him Bob) he politely suggested that the way I was turtling up was leaving me open for back takes and crucifixes. This little suggestion means that there was a clear hole in my game, that I either have to close or be aware of and be ready to defend when needed. These are things that can take 2-3 years to figure out WITHOUT such advice. The power of a quick comment on a brain that’s ready to learn the lesson is incredible.
I was left wondering how I can get others to give such advice to me. This advice is not saying “I am wiser and superior to you in jiu jitsu”. The advice is just one diagnosis of a potential jiu jitsu malady that should be addressed. It’s a gift really. When I give the same types of advice to fellow purple belts, blue belts, or white belts, I often feel like an asshole. They may awkwardly nod back in appreciation, but it always feels as if they’re just being polite.
For many people taking privates is the clearest way to get this kind of advice. But does it have to be this way? Especially for people like me who train regularly and compete regularly?
Whenever a person gives me advice I try very hard to implement that advice in training right away and show it to them. I want them to know that every little word of criticism has a profound positive affect on my game, especially when it address a problem I was clearly having. I know that when I teach, it always feels good seeing others successfully implementing the things I taught. As a student, I feel it’s almost a duty of mine to learn well and make the lesson bloom into a well-defined success.
More and more, I’m realizing that what I’m searching for in jiu jitsu is not some secret detail but the rediscovery for the 100th time of the same old details I’ve been shown over and over since white belt.
So, all that said, if when you train with me an idea pops into your head based on a mistake or opening I left behind, please tell me. I will try my best to return the favor.
I’ve been doing jiu jitsu for three years now. It’s humbling to think that tens if not hundreds of thousands of people are out there that have been doing it much longer than me. I am following along together and behind the crowd of a very interesting community of people. Introspection, aggression, and weird humor is all around me every time I step on the mat.
I remember Joe Rogan called jiu jitsu a “positive cult”. And I think he’s onto something. It’s good to be part of a cult or two. I’m currently a member of a couple: a local book club and a jiu jitsu / judo club. Those are two damn good choices for a cult. It helps me stay healthy, humble (relative to my usual asshole-self), and thoughtful.
Competition Goals for This Year
There’s winning and then there’s winning: I’ve been told by coaches and fellow competitors that “winning is winning”. For some reason my personality is such that the only time I remember feeling truly shitty after competing is when I won matches against tough opponents and didn’t go for submissions because I was concerned of losing. Win or lose, I want to leave every tournament this year knowing that I never “held on” to the lead, and always worked aggressively towards a submission. That’s what makes me proudest: not “winning” a jiu jitsu match, but giving everything for a submission. Too often I fail to drop my fear of failure, and pursue that sometimes-exhausting fight.
Judo: I want to put in a good full year of competition in judo. I’ve taken a few months off from regular judo training and competing, focusing exclusively on jiu jitsu and its wrestling-style stand-up game. But I love judo, both for it as a martial art and the friends I have in the judo community, so mixing it in with jiu jitsu is something that I want to do this year, and for the rest of my life,
Place of Martial Arts in My Life
As my work life grows in the breadth and number of exciting projects, I’m realizing that while jiu jitsu and judo can be a big part of my life, it will never be the main thing in my life. I enjoying my work too much to be one of the people that can’t wait to get in the gym as an escape from work. I’m lucky in that way, but also that means that I have to wrestle with the balance between work and training. I would like to find a better balance with it than last year, that I found to be too stressful too often.
There is a romantic belief in sports in America (and everywhere really) that the “fighting spirit” or the will to win can overcome any obstacle. Heart and grit are the stuff that great sports movies are made of. And indeed, to me, that’s why I love sports, and that’s why I participate in sports. It’s a chance to test your ability to overcome the mental blocks of fear and exhaustion. Athletes like Frank Molinaro are the perfect representatives of grit like that, willing to take their body and mind to places most people, even top athletes, are not willing to go:
Technique is King
Still, I believe that technique is king, and will overcome that kind of grit in the long term. I think the more productive “heart” and “spirit” come out in the relentless dedication you show to the development of technique over a period of years. It’s the willingness to put in thousands of reps in drilling each small part of a technique, the transition from one part to another, under various resistance levels, alone or with a partner. You have to engage your mind by learning from your coaches, from instructionals, from books, from YouTube. The result is a constant evolution of your drilling and your training.
The Goal is Effortless Domination
The goal is not to work harder than everyone else. The goal is discover the timing and mechanics at the core of the sport by relaxing and keeping your mind open to change and learning. I personally don’t like the term “flow rolling” that’s often used to describe the kind of training where you move from position to position without using much force in resisting the positional progression of your training partner. I think it’s extremely valuable to roll at 100% while moving exactly as you do when you “flow roll”. That might sound contradictory, but to me it’s not. My goal is to effortlessly trick my training partner into being defenseless for a split second. I fail often of course, but the point is that I’m constantly moving and learning the precise timing of when I can fake a movement that will create an opening for an easy guard pass, back take, sweep, submission, etc.
I want to learn to be always a split second ahead of my opponent without having too use strength, quickness, or flexibility.
The Sage of Drilling
In wrestling, I think many people idolize Dan Gable for the relentless nature of his spirit. His mental breaking point is far above almost any other athlete in history. Like everyone else, I look up to him, but I can’t see his obsession as prescriptive for others to follow, perhaps because nobody else has that kind of superhuman mental fortitude. For me, the person I study and try to imitate in training and in life much more than Gable is another wrestling legend: John Smith. He is a 4-time World champion and a 2-time Olympic champion. He is a big proponent of drilling for two reasons: (1) fastest way to improve and (2) longevity. Here is a long quote from him that I like to re-read often:
“Drilling is the key to wrestling success and to longevity in the sport. Drilling has to become habit forming. Drilling wasn’t natural for more, I’d rather just go in a room and spar hard. I just wanted to shake hands and go! But drilling has to take place for you to get better. I couldn’t do a better leg lace or gut wrench without breaking down the move, seeing how it works, studying it and drilling it, over and over and over.
That’s when you improve your techniques. Someone who doesn’t spend time doing that and drilling isn’t going to improve. For longevity, drilling is very important, if you want to stay in the sport for many years, then you have to stay healthy. Constant sparring and live goes can beat your body up pretty bad. After the world championships, I would drill for three months, with very little sparring. That’s when I got better, and I also stayed injury free.”
The IJF released the updated ranking of judoka in the world in 2012. In this post, I’ll just look at the male side of the ranking, but of course I have to mention that our own Kayla Harrison not only won the Olympic gold, but also dominated for 2 years straight to get more points than any other female except Lucie Decosse of France who is another badass chick. Of course if Ronda Rousey was still competing in judo the Decosse vs Rousey match up would be great to see. Maybe they’ll meet in the octagon instead…
No One Country Dominates
At the bottom of this post I list the top 3 ranked male judoka in each weight class. In this list of 21 athletes, a total of 13 countries is represented, which is a great sign of vibrancy for an Olympic sport:
Are The New Rules Helping or Hurting?
The fact that Japan is not dominating the list above is a sign that the sport of judo has weathered the short-term effects of the rule changes made four years ago (about no leg grabs, etc). I am happy to see this, though I still am very much against the rule changes. But we should be careful to remember that the champions of today are the product of the rules and culture in place 10-20 years ago. The long term effects of the new rules may be felt many years from now in the number of people who choose not to train in judo but opt instead for another combat sport.
The International Judo Federation (IJF) released a new set of rules for 2013 through 2016 and beyond. Last time (4 years ago) they made a drastic change banning leg attacks, which stirred the ire of the judo community, but eventually people calmed down, though I personally think that the long term effect of that rule change will be bad for the growth of judo in relation to other martial arts. This time the rule changes are less controversial but still very interesting. Here’s a basic overview, ordered from most important to least important in my humble but very biased opinion:
No time limit on Golden score (aka overtime period). A match does not end until one of the contestants scores or gets a shido (penalty). This means that we could see some matches that take both guys into some deep waters.
Old school ippon: Give the ippon score only to throws that result in “real impact”. Meaning, bring back the old school ippon. This is not so much a rule but a guidance to the refs. So it’s unclear whether it will change anything, but one can hope.
No running from the pin or submission: Once the pin or “effective” submission starts inbounds and both contestant go out of bounds, the pin and submission attempt is allowed to continue! My judo instructor Ray will appreciate this one
Shidos don’t lead to points: It’s still 4 shidos for disqualification, but now getting 1, 2, or 3 shidos does not give your opponent points. Shidos are used only as tie breakers. They are now more like advantages in BJJ. So if you have 3 penalties against you but you threw your opponent for a yuko, you still win.
Shorter pin: Pin duration reduced from 25 seconds down to 20 seconds. (10 seconds for yuko, 15 seconds for waza-ari).
The Rhadi Ferguson rule: It sometimes feels like the IJF has a special committee on how to best annoy one of America’s most outspoken judoka, Dr. Rhadi Ferguson. Four years ago, the IJF banned his bread-and-butter throw morote gari. This time the IJF is penalizing the breaking of your opponent’s grip with two hands. This further reduces the grip fighting game, and in my opinion will make fighters more cautious in engaging and not less.
There are other rule changes, but these are the main ones as I see it. I’m a big fan of judo as a sport and in the bigger context of martial arts and combat in general. I don’t just want to see the sport of judo grow, but also want to see more effective judo on display in MMA. I think the sports of MMA, submission grappling, and wrestling have to be considered in developing the rules for the sport of judo. The rules should try not to discourage cross-training by banning techniques that are used effectively in other disciplines.
It continues to amaze me in how many different activities (from jiu jitsu to computer science to laundry to cooking) it takes me years before I pause to question the very simplest of skills involved in that activity. For a jiu jitsu and judo example: tying my belt.
I don’t remember ever being taught how to tie my belt except maybe when I did karate at 12-13. And ever since I started judo I’ve been putting off learning how to do it. I know this sounds ridiculous, but I always felt like I was missing “the right way”, since I saw many high level people tying the belt differently. And when I would start watching a belt-tying video on YouTube I would always get bored within the first 2-3 seconds and tune out.
I know this sounds stupid, but I think this same kind of thought process is the plague that sometimes halts progress in jiu jitsu. If you catch yourself thinking that there is a “right way” to do something, you should immediately study it, try it out, and see if this “right way” is “your way”. Tying belts is a silly topic, but this applies to the way you split a closed guard, the foods you eat before training, the way you interact with your jiu jitsu coach, your girlfriend, your parents, and your opponent in the finals of the absolute division.
As far as belt tying goes, here’s a video of Rener showing some options. I do the simple one he shows first. I’ve learned to love it, so there’s no turning back now.
This video shows the method I always saw as “the right way” but never invested the 30-60 seconds it takes to learn it.
I tried it out today, and figured out that I didn’t like it. I’ve gotten too used to the simple way. So now, 2 years later, I can finally put this issue to rest. On to the next epic drama of my sporing life…