At the end of class, I typically get asked a question of how can I improve in my grappling more quickly. In this article and video, I explore 3 ways to improve your grappling, especially as a beginner. This lens and three concepts which, when applied to practice, will help your skill acquisition and performance in sparring as well as maximize training time.
The lens through which I view jiu-jitsu and some of the other areas in my life is called systemic thinking. Basically, systemic thinking is the intense focus on what processes yield the highest return with minimal necessary (time) involvement. It focuses on systems or vehicles I employ to be successful in my pursuits.
For example, a manager of 30 people in one location manages differently than a VP of say 300 people across multiple states. VP probably relies on technology more to communicate while the manager relies more on in-person meetings and one-on-ones. Their day-to-day looks a lot different as well. So newly promoted VPs from manager ranks, have to “modify” their existing systems of work to their new role. If they don’t, they will be not only fiscally irresponsible and exhausted but also unsuccessful. Similarly, as we progress in our martial art, we have to continually evaluate our systems of training to maximize our outputs.
Measure of Success
Outputs tell us whether the systems we employ are heading in the right direction. In the corporate environment, results, our measure of success, usually focuses on exceeding revenue targets or being profitable in a P&L setting. In grappling, the measure of success is the adoption rate at which the person(s) is adopting/performing the acquired skill in sparring/competition.
As a large part of your growth stems from attending the gym/dojo, class size and quality are also a factor. Excellent martial arts coaches employ different systems when teaching a class of thirty than a private lesson. To ensure maximum adoption of all involved, they also consider the experience and comprehension ability of those attending. You can read about the most common ways to successfully teach martial arts here. It’s not a comprehensive guide, but it should serve as a start on how your (instructor’s) teaching style impacts your success rate or that of your audience.
Considering everything, however, our results are dependant on the quality and quantity of moves performed under stress (competition, sparring) over time.
Quality and Quantity of Time
In a gross oversimplification, grappling, or martial arts in general, are just a function of quality and quantity of repetition over time. Unless you have some magic formula, time is equal for all of us. We all have 24 hours in a day. Of those, about a third is spent sleeping, if you’re lucky. However, we directly control both the quality and quantity of our time when awake.
Let’s suppose I am trying to acquire a new technique. If I execute a move perfectly in the air, but I only do so twice, I will not internalize it. Let alone execute it well against inteligent resistance – our measure of success. Conversely, however, if I practice a move poorly ten thousand times, I’m also not going to be efficient at utilizing it.
So the sweet spot here is to practice quality (perfect form, for example) and quantity (sets and repetitions) to achieve the best time conversion. Of course, it is also vital what we practice. We don’t want to waste time focusing on both the quality and quantity of our repetitions but on techniques that don’t maximize our progress.
What (Techniques) to Practice
Not all techniques and ways of practicing maximize our potential equally. Some yield faster and more applicable results. While enjoying a journey is certainly part of the process, so if progress, particularly if competing/sparring.
As a good rule of thumb, we should dedicate ourselves to areas that transcend systems. In other words, focus on commonalities all variables share. In grappling, that would be techniques that occur and work regardless of ruleset, weight class, belt level, and even body type. If we apply this to submissions, for example, we see that certain ones emerge time and time again. Rear-naked choke, triangle, inside heel hook, outside heel hook, armbar, arm-triangle, and perhaps kimura, with a few others, come to mind. We have statistical rates of occurrences for most of these in addition to our own experience.
A passionate beginner seeking to speed up their progress would be wise to focus on (a few of) those techniques. Specifically, they should optimize executing the move(s) in a mechanically sound way along with connecting it with most common setups, counters, and defenses. Time spent on those would yield higher returns than studying the latest craze prevalent on social media. Add to this quality and quantity of repetitions over the progressive level of resistance and feedback (better opponents) over time, and you can see how one can expedite the progress pretty quickly.
By utilizing the above approaches, you are maximizing your chances of Using the above approaches, you are maximizing your chances of success. It is essential to understand like any skill, practical execution takes a certain amount of time. This is especially true as timing, level of (intelligent) resistance, and quality of opponents improve. Just because you practiced a frequent move well, doesn’t necessarily mean that you will perform it live in sparring immediately. Don’t be dismayed, however, and trust the process. There is a significant difference between failing doing the right things versus failing doing the wrong things.
As a BJJ practitioner, you probably can’t finish a double-leg takedown on a D2 or a D1 wrestler. Yet, that shouldn’t mean you should stop working on doubles. Especially as they are one of the most common and consistent takedowns in all of the grappling arts. Similarly, hitting a Bonzai on a physical target with a firearm is undoubtedly tricky. Practicing with a real gun at a shooting range won’t guarantee you will hit it. It will, however, increase your chances than had you practiced shooting by playing video games. In one, you are failing (when you don’t hit the mark) doing the right thing, while at the other, you’d are failing doing the wrong thing. Not all failures are created equal.. You can read more in detail about the difference between the two and how they apply to success here.
Fundamentals Which Always Transcend Systems
Utilizing the above approaches and perspectives improves your grappling quickly by focusing on the quality and quantity of repetitions of elements that consistently occur across multiple systems. Certain principles never go away, regardless if you are a complete beginner or an experienced professional. Many people talk about them, but few truly understand them by being able to formally teach and explain them. Perhaps posture and balance are most widely known in grappling. We all improve both traits as we train longer, but few do so in a focused, consistent, and systemic manner.
Much like parenting, the pursuit of some of the traits never stops. Few parents proclaim: “That’s it, I know everything about parenting.” Similarly, you will never hear a Brazilian jiu-jitsu practitioner or a grappler go: “That’s it. My base and balance are perfect.” Even practitioners who specialize and commonly pull guard, I guarantee you, have a really, really, really good base. When skills are equal, the person with the best fundamentals usually wins.
Methods of Practice: Principle-based Learning
An excellent way to implement those principles in your practice is to continually focus on them. For example, particularly as a beginner rather than concentrating on a counter to every sweep, or possibly accepting a sweep, simply choose to not fall over. In practice, this will mean, to avoid being swept, you will replace your base by posting your hand, your leg, or even your head. By actively engaging in not falling over, you are not only improving your balance, but you are deepening your training and understanding of that particular position. When you do get swept and you will, you are still failing doing the right thing while simultaneously developing attributes that will stay with you throughout your career.
Being on the receiving end of focused practice, you will also develop a keen understanding of how to do things in reverse. Specifically, if you’ve had it done to you, you will intelligently and even intuitively know how to disrupt your opponent’s base and unbalance them. Furthermore, when you’re out of position, you will understand how to effectively put yourself back in proper alignment, thus maximizing your chances of not being pinned, controlled, or submitted. Now you are engaging in principle-based learning versus memorizing techniques and trying to apply them to a particular scenario. This, of course, is its own detailed subject, but I recommend checking out Kit Dale’s approach to learning jiu-jitsu. It’s a great start to get you thinking in that direction.
Intent Behind Practice
From time to time, we are all guilty of drifting through the day, hoping it passes. This often extends into our grappling too. For example, sparring, where most of our growth occurs, typically consists of 6 5-minute rounds. If we spend two minutes each round wrestling from our knees, we’re losing about a third of your growth time. What’s even worse, we’re engaging in something that has no benefit to us as we rarely go against a kneeling opponent.
To overcome this tendency have a specific goal in mind. Don’t immediately go to your A-game. Instead, start from an unfavorable position. You’ve just maximized your productive learning time by a third. Additionally, you also unlocked the most significant opportunity for your growth. That is because the most significant deficit in our overall game represents the largest percentage for our improvement.
To illustrate, if my leg locks are at 90%, and I dedicate my entire training time to them, I might push them to 95%. But if my takedowns are at 0%, and all my time is spent on them, and I get them to say 20%, not only will my takedowns improve, but so will my overall percentage of all elements combined. This same approach applies to all other areas of grappling: from trying to execute a takedown or one specific guard pull to gripping series, covering someone’s head, and so on.
We all have things we are not very good at. In life, we often cheat by overcompensating and merely doing more of what we excel in. What we actually need is to do more of what we don’t do well.
Bringing it All Together
Some of these approaches may not always be applicable in all circumstances. Competition or opponent-specific preparation would be a good example, as its purpose is a win and not long-term growth per se. But that is its own chapter. If you practice outside of regularly scheduled workouts or by yourself, a lot of these principles are easy to implement. There’s no substitute for showing up and being consistent. Still, I am confident with a systemic thinking lens and the three tactics, will provide you a different view and outlook on grappling and help past your plateaus, you save time and help improve your grappling and jiu-jitsu journey.
While you are certainly in charge of your own progress to an extent, the majority of your career and growth will occur under a qualified coach or martial arts instructor. These are just some quick and easy ways on how to find a good martial arts coach as well as what pitfalls to avoid. You can read about both in my blog post here.
Not sure whether you or your instructor is a good coach? Perhaps you want to improve your teaching style. In the blog post on How to Best Teach Martial Arts, you can explore two different styles of teaching and how they vary depending on the venue, class size, and skill set of those in attendance. You can also view video on this topic here additional videos discussing topics into even greater detail on my Youtube channel. Enjoy.