I received an illustrative email from a white belt who was been training for six months. He has a background in competitive sports (e.g., he played football in college) and he's also been having some success early on in training and competition. Yet, he nevertheless has some questions and concerns. He contacted me because he has read my posts on the philosophy and pedagogy of jiu jitsu and he likes my approach to thinking about these issues. I thought that rather than simply responding behind closed doors, so to speak, I would post his questions along with my answers here on The Grumpy Grappler.
But first, let me just say that if gym owners and instructors did a better job at being explicit and transparent when it comes to etiquette, expectations, and related matters, fewer students who are new to the gentle art would feel like they’re fumbling in the dark. It’s hard enough to learn basic techniques in the beginning without having to deal with mystery-mongering about other important aspects of training jiu jitsu. That said, you can find his questions and my replies below the fold!
Here is his first question:
How hard should I roll with a partner in a sparring session? (I ask this because I have read various BJJ philosophies that say one should never try to win a roll. However, this is confusing to me since the objective is to tap your opponent. I often become unfocused or submissive as to not be perceived as being too intense, especially against a higher belt whom I feel I could potentially tap.)
This is a good question. As someone who adheres to the view that one should not be trying to “win” against one’s training partners—whether they are upper belts or lower belts—I think it’s important to carefully articulate how to make sense of the surface tension between being told not to try to win in practice while at the same time being told to work to advance position, submit, etc.
For starters, it’s important to note the context-sensitivity of the view. If one is competing, for example, then one should be trying to win against one’s opponent—since, this is at least one of the goals of competition. Your opponents tend not to be your training partners. In this context, you are matching your skills against an adversary who is trying to get the best of you. As such, adopting a “winning mindset” can be appropriate (although one need not adopt this mindset even in competitive situations). However, in practice, the people we are training with are supposed to be our partners (and often our friends).
So, while it is perfectly appropriate to work for submissions, etc., one should do so with a more tempered approach. There is no winning in the academy. No medals are being awarded and no titles are on the line. So, while people can and should focus on making progress, the mindset ought to be one of mutual benefit—that is, one should not only be trying to make oneself better, one should also be committed to making one’s training partners better as well (especially those who hold a lower rank). Adopting an adversarial approach to one’s training partners is problematic. If your partner holds a lower rank, one should take care not to smash them (since that won’t make either of you better). If your partner holds a higher rank, trying to smash him is misguided. On the one hand, it suggests you don’t respect his rank. On the other hand, it suggests you aren’t as humble as you ought to be when rolling with more experienced grapplers. In either case, the only “victories” in the academy are centered around making progress. That’s why one should never be reluctant to tap (especially when one’s been caught) and it’s also why one should never brag about tapping one’s partners.
This isn’t to suggest that one should never train hard in the academy. The issue isn’t about whether one must train hard or lightly. The issue is what mindset is appropriate when training in the academy. In my experience, adopting a “winning mindset” (or worse, a “winning at all costs” mindset) in the gym is more likely to engender anger and animosity and more likely to cause people to feel either unfairly trampled (if a lower belt) or disrespected (if a higher belt).
What are the social norms for approaching and talking to a higher rank such as a purple, brown, or black belt? (I ask this because I was not briefed on rules and cordiality at my gym by anyone.)
Unsurprisingly, the norms on this front seem to vary from gym to gym. The only way to ascertain what is appropriate is to ask your instructor for his or her preference. In some gyms, lower belts are discouraged from asking upper belts to roll. Other gyms are much more open, permissive, and less hierarchical. While I prefer the latter approach to the former, it really does depend.
What are your thoughts on the teaching of general principles in BJJ as opposed to specific technical moves? (I ask this because my game is based on speed and I find myself using unlimited "little subtle" --as I call them--techniques that are unique to my style just as other "little subtle" techniques are unique to another's style--they cannot be learned but rather are intrinsic. To add to my thoughts on the teaching of general principle, I find myself having skipped steps in understanding fundamentals yet I learn a new, complex submission or positional transition every class. All the while I don't have general ideas on how to escape or attack from various positions simply as a way to initiate flow and movement.)
Unsurprisingly, as an academic philosopher, I am a fan of general principles and concepts. But I think it is a false dichotomy to assume that there is any *opposition* between general principles and particular techniques. Indeed, in some important sense, there can’t be any conflict between the two. Rather, general principles and particular techniques go hand in hand. So, while we both can and should focus much of our attention on learning the details of specific techniques, I think we should also spend some time thinking about the underlying principles and concepts of control that make these techniques work. While you may progress during the early stages of your jiu jitsu journey by relying on speed or athleticism (which will decline with age)—even if you don’t pay sufficient details to understanding the fundamentals—this will positively impede your progress at later stages.
Keep in mind that one’s jiu jitsu journey is not a sprint. It is a marathon. And treating the latter as the former is bound to lead to failure and frustration (just as it would on a track—to overuse the metaphor). That said, while any instructor worth his or her salt should be able to teach your plenty of specific techniques, I have encountered a number of instructors (both here and abroad) who are not very good at articulating and explaining more abstract principles or concepts. In many cases, it’s because they managed to learn these principles tacitly during the course of their own journey. But I nevertheless think instructors should spend more time thinking about principles and more time imparting this knowledge explicitly to their students.
Ultimately I am struggling to understand my place at the gym. I know I am good for how little I have trained and I know I am perceived that way by others but it seems like I am not being accepted warmly despite what I believe to be obvious potential. [Backed up by tournament success early in his career--the details of which have been deleted to preserve anonymity]. Obviously the neurotic (and philosophical) predisposition that I project onto the situation is contributing to the strange dynamic I am sensing but I cannot help but think that if I were being instructed differently, things would feel better. I do not know if you can relate but any input would be greatly appreciated. Thank you for your time grumpy grappler!
Not knowing you, your training partners, or your instructors, obviously I can’t know for sure why you are feeling like you’re not receiving a warm welcome (despite your success early on in your journey). Perhaps you are overthinking things. My hunch, however, is that you are rolling with an inappropriate mindset with lower and upper belts alike—which creates different issues in each case. I have two pieces of advice to give on this front.
First, remember what I said earlier about the different mindsets and attitudes one should adopt under different circumstances (e.g., practice vs. competing). If you go “all out” during every roll, not only does it make it more likely you hurt people less experienced than you are but it also makes it more likely you will get hurt by people with more experience. That said, remember, it’s not so much how hard you’re trying, it’s about your attitude. If you roll during practice like someone who is “collecting scalps,” then don’t be surprised when lots of your training partners don’t welcome you with open arms.
Second, and this is the most important advice I have to give, you should feel free to talk to your instructor about the sorts of questions you sent me. If your instructor seems put off by your asking these sorts of understandable questions, then perhaps you should try to find a new gym. You aren’t a member of cult sworn to silence. You are a paying customer and a member of an academy. Your instructor should want you to succeed and fit in well with the rest of the gym. Shedding light on the sorts of issues you raised is simply part of the job description. But unless and until you ask for input and advice, you may not receive it. That’s partly on you (for being afraid to ask) and partly on your instructor (for making you feel as if asking is inappropriate).
These are just my two cents. I hope they help. Either way, keep training, keep learning, and keep asking questions along the way!