How to be a great mediocre BJJ student

My personal aim is to be a great mediocre BJJ student. While some will tell you that we all should strive to be world champions I think that’s misguided thinking for many of us. I’ve had the pleasure the last few weeks to watch one of our purple belts prepare for the Mundials. He’s a VERY good purple belt. Probably brown belt at most schools. He’s in the gym every evening. If he’s not rolling he’s doing conditioning work. He’s been living and breathing BJJ. He has a day job but has been taking up the rest of his free time with BJJ.

He had the satisfaction of winning 3rd place in his division. A huge accomplishment. He had no points scored on him in any of his matches. None. He lost his last match by advantages. He proved that he is a world class athlete and can compete with the very best out there.

An interesting thing that he told me was that all the top guys in his bracket were full time athletes. Every single one. They were either full time gym owners, MMA fighters, or young guys who live at the gym. I was shocked that even at purple belt level guys have to train full time to be competitive. It was also a testament to our guy’s BJJ training that he could compete effectively with those full time athletes while still training part time.

Having said that though, his part time training was still way more than most of us could or would endure. If someone told me that I had to now train at that intensity level all the time I’d probably leave the art. That kind of training would take all the enjoyment out of it for me and would make it another chore to add to the list of chores I already dread doing. It’s this way for many of us. We have found an intensity level and frequency of training that fits comfortably in our lives. We manage to find a balance that keeps us healthy and happy and still ensures steady progress. Our training is a positive influence on our lives and personal relationships. It does not harm them.

For many of us taking time to train at that elite athlete level would mean giving up things that are far too important like time with children. Maybe our personal relationships would suffer. Or even our health. It just would not be in our best interest to put aside large chunks of our lives and replace them with BJJ training. This is why the vast majority of us will never progress beyond the level of hobbyist.

This doesn’t mean that we can’t be very good at the art though. It doesn’t even mean that I can’t have better BJJ than the world class competitive athletes. It only means I won’t have world class COMPETITION BJJ. I’m OK with that. As are many who train with me. For those of us who think this way a slightly different path is required. We need a way to get good that doesn’t require full time high intensity training. For that here are some ideas that I propose:

Tips on being a great mediocre grappler-

  1. Be consistent. Training 2 times a week every week is going to pay off more than training very intensely for short periods followed by stretches of time off. Of course I have no scientific data to back this up but I’ve seen it play out over and over again at the gym. Enough to confidently make this claim.
  2. Focus on fundamentals. At it’s core fundamentals can be broken down into Posture, Pressure, and Possibilities. Building a library of techniques is not a great or efficient way to get good. You only have so much room on your bookshelf. At a certain point the shelf will be filled and you’ll have to throw some out to make room for new ones. In my personal experience I’ve rarely seen anyone who is good at more than about 5 submissions at one time. They may know way more than that but their A game is mostly limited to the top 5. Adding 50 more moves won’t help your game much.
  3. Focus on Posture most of all.I tell students that the posture should do about 80% of the work for you. You should always be asking yourself “Am I in posture?” If the answer is no then you know what you have to do. If posture does 80% of the work then you should be spending most of your time either working to get posture, improving the posture you have, or fighting to keep it. If you are doing this then BJJ will be way easier.Focusing on posture means getting the best possible posture you can get WHILE putting the other person in the worst possible posture you can. If you create this posture imbalance then you don’t have to be good at BJJ in order to beat the other guy. Remember, the posture does 80% of the work.
  4. Don’t roll above 70%.(Link to post on 70%) I you go all out all the time then you will be building a game that requires that you go all out all the time. That’s hard to do if you aren’t young and in super shape. Instead try building a posture based game that REQUIRES that you move slower and concentrate on simply building good posture along the way. A good goal is to build efficient postures that use leverage and structure instead of muscle strength. To use efficient motion that requires less intensity of movement. And to use fewer movements in your overall game. My goal is to win by moving less and less until eventually you won’t even notice that I’m moving at all. 🙂
  5. Focus on breathing. If you can’t devote lots of extra time to conditioning exercises you need to be very mindful of your breathing. Stop and check during a roll. Are you breathing heavier than the other guy? If the answer is yes then you need to slow down and focus on posture. Catch your breath before you exert too much energy. Breathing heavy is a sure sign that you are not attending to posture effectively.
  6. Simplify the game. Can I use the same posture in mount bottom that I use in cross sides bottom? How many ways can I use this triangle submission? Finding multiple uses for things that you already do well is a great way to improve your game without having to put a tremendous amount of extra time in. As you learn new things try to relate them to things you already know and look for commonalities wherever you can.
  7. Don’t keep score. The worst thing you can do for your game is to keep track of who you tapped and who tapped you. It’s counter productive and probably the worst way to measure progress. If you focus on the tap you miss most of the joy of BJJ. You won’t notice the beautiful guard pass, the gorgeous butterfly sweep, the perfectly timed escape… All the things that happen in a roll that show mastery of the game. A gym where nobody keeps score is a healthy gym. If you are in a gym where there are a lot of side conversations about who tapped who you’ll find the atmosphere unhealthy. A tap should only be treated as an event that happens in grappling that tells you when to stop. Nothing more. There are many better ways to measure progress.
  8. Enjoy the journey. In only every case those who enjoy it more are better at it. Train in a way that is healthy, smart, and most of all fun. Will power will get you a year of training at best. If you aren’t having a blast on the mat you won’t stick around or train in a way that will allow you to make much progress. This is perhaps the most important rule. It’s certainly not about “dedication” or “work ethic” as some will describe. Look around you. What looks like dedication is actually someone following their bliss. They are doing it because it’s the most enjoyable and rewarding thing they can think of to do. This is only always the case.

This is my list. It’s what has kept me in the game for the last 14 years or so. It has also allowed me to find a balance where my BJJ training is a positive influence on my life. It doesn’t get in the way of my other responsibilities and relationships. It also has a positive effect on my physical and mental health. I’m happier and healthier and still competitive in the gym. The young guys know that they are in for all kinds of hell when they roll with me. My game is improving at a pace that I’m very comfortable with. That’s important. This way of training has set me on the path to achieving my goal of being the best mediocre grappler in the gym. Happy training!

13 Comments

  1. Thank you so much for this article. I’ve been searching for the right words to explain this to other people for so long, and now here they are.

  2. Pingback: Article Share: How To Be A Great Mediocre BJJ Student « The 6 Minute Grappler

  3. Pingback: Time Off (Again) | Grappling In Wisconsin

  4. This is a great post for those of us who enjoy BJJ but also have other things on the go – in my case two busy youngsters

  5. I just came across this article last night when I got back from training. Found it on Smash Pass or somewhere – but anyway, it was a good read. Thanks!

  6. We at Bjj Eastern Europe enjoyed your article alot!

    Having now for a few years been allowed to compete at masters and having a four year old and a newborn I am totally trying to be the a great mediocre BJJ student. With other parts of life taking up time there just not time for more than 3 times a week in rare occasions four.

    Its a great way of saying that hobby bjj have a place in the world too. And lets face it. There are only a few world champions. It’s the hobby bjj guys that makes out the bulk of bjj that pays the bills int he clubs.

  7. I’m really glad I read this. I am very slow to learn and cannot dedicate a lot of time to drilling due to other responsibilities. I make class 2x a week consistently. I’m a 2 stripe blue belt. Sometimes I feel like I just suck at it because I get passed up by others, and get my a** handed to me a lot. I have to remind myself why I do it: to stay in shape, be challenged, and learn a skill that is practical that I can do until I get hit by a bus or can’t move of my own will.

    This makes me feel like I’m not fighting an uphill battle alone, and reminds me to take it easy and be happy with my own personal progress. Thanks 🙂

  8. Thank you for writing this article. I’m 34 years old. There once was a time when I was in the gym 6 days a week, but these days life commitments keep getting in the way of my training. I’ve been in a rut the last month or so. The idea of focusing on being a great mediocre student makes a world of difference.

  9. Bjj can be a sprocket in the machinery we call life, enjoyment is the maintenance for it to endure a lifetime, if you pass on all the experience and knowledge to the next it will keep the soul of bjj last too end of time.

    Enchanted since 1999.

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