How to Train BJJ With a More Experienced Practitioner (Or at Least This One)
I have been training Brazilian jiu jitsu for seventeen years. That’s 119 in dog years. So, not surprisingly, sometimes I feel like Spike, and sometimes newer grapplers remind me of his eager compatriot Chester. In this clip, Spike galumphs down the street, flanked by a hepped-up Chester, who tries to engage Spike in an activity.
I like to think that Spike genuinely likes Chester. Otherwise, why would he hang out with him? But Spike may have seen a few things in his day that promote his world-weariness and impatience. Of course this doesn’t justify him smacking Chester. (Does it? No, of course not. Just checking. I mean, nothing.)
If we imagine Spike and Chester as analogs for black and white belts and that the clip is about jiu jitsu, neither black-belt Spike nor white-belt Chester has cornered the market on the “correct” attitude. Each is authentic, and each is consistent with different phases of the grappling journey. Chester is newer and more excited, while Spike is more experienced and more aware of the cost-benefit ratio.
"BJJ has given me tremendous gifts, but it has also taken a heavy toll. I train differently now than I did when I was not as far along in my journey."
As a long-standing student of BJJ, I still enjoy moments of Chester-like adoration, but my outlook has shifted toward a calmer, Spikier affection. BJJ has given me tremendous gifts, but it has also taken a heavy toll. I train differently now than I did when I was not as far along in my journey. And I know more than I did then, which puts me in a better position to answer the question - how should lower belts train with higher belts?
I do not speak for every higher belt, so I cannot say how they want lower belts to train with them. But I wager the following items have some universality. With that in mind, read on for a few observations about this question, targeted to lower belts.
Your Demeanor Communicates as Clearly as Your Words
Many times I have stepped on the mat to find myself facing a less-experienced grappler who sees the color of my belt and communicates with body language and energy, “I’m gonna get a piece of you.” The unspoken message is as tangible as Spike smacking Chester. This person intends to “win the training,” as my friend and business partner Hannette Staack would say. This is a person who appears to have nothing to lose and everything to prove, and who appears to view rolling with a higher belt as an opportunity not to learn, but to feed an ego.
I’m not talking about a competition match or class. I’m not even talking about hard training, which is awesome with good partners and attitudes. I’m talking about friendly open mats or regular class sessions where a lower belt locks onto a higher belt, onto beating that higher belt, like a heat-seeking missile locks onto a target.
"We who have been around many years have learned that not every match has to be contested as if lives hung in the balance. In some situations, simply working on the puzzle is perfectly fine."
Sadly, at times I have probably been the missile myself. And of course, not every lower belt does this, and the ones who do may not recognize the energy they are giving off. But those on the receiving end do. We who have been around many years have learned that not every match has to be contested as if lives hung in the balance. In some situations, simply working on the puzzle is perfectly fine.
Many of us old-timers are also nursing longstanding injuries brought on by years of jiu jitsu. We work around these injuries so we can keep getting on the mat, which means we probably do not want to fight multiple steel-cage death matches. And finally, another reason that kind of energy can be tiring is because it is self-centered.