What do you love more, Winning or BJJ?
By Michael Heinz: (Lineage: Carlos Sr. to Carlos Jr to Roberto Maia to John Frankl)
Some years back as a purple belt I was rolling with John Frankl, my coach and 5th degree Black Belt, and I felt that he was corralling me into a wrist lock with his positioning. I pulled my arm out of the position which caused me to give up a measure of control. Right after I did so I wondered about the wrist lock he was attempting because I had never considered the possibility of a wrist lock from that position. So with an adventurous mindset, I put my arm back in and unsurprisingly had to tap to a wrist lock only moments later. John, being my coach and mentor, looked at me and said, “Good! You love Jiu Jitsu more than you love winning.”
This concept of loving Jiu Jitsu more than winning struck me rather hard. I realized that when I roll with belts significantly higher than me that they were usually in a state of play. I began to look at all the belts around me in a different light. There are those who are trying to understand the underlying principles at play in grappling while on the open mat and there are those trying to win by any means necessary.
These days I am the head coach at SBG Texas in New Braunfels, Texas and I get to observe the progress of lots of students. Anecdotally speaking, I have drawn some conclusions about rates of advancement and a mindset centered around the extent to which someone loves Jiu Jitsu in comparison to how badly they want to win. Mostly what I’ve seen is that people who have a lot of pride and desperately want to win, have a tendency to look good at Jiu Jitsu early on when free sparring but after about half a year they tend to become very stagnant in terms of their growth. To grow they need to take chances and try new things but fear of failure tends to hold them back. They may have a very strong “A-game” but they often do not have a back up plan or the back-up plan is to scramble and use speed and strength to avoid getting submitted in bad positions.
The best perspective for long-term growth in BJJ seems to be one of playful experimentation on the open mat and a willingness to be in non-dominant positions. The more students love the central concepts of Jiu Jitsu like its near effortless technical expression or a non-reliance on physical attributes like speed or strength, the more I see them progress dramatically by the one year mark or the two year mark.
So what does it mean to “love Jiu Jitsu more than you love winning?” First of all, you have to change your goal on the open mat. If your goal is to beat everyone you roll with you, you will not probably see the kind of progress that you want to see long-term. However, if you take on micro-goals like I want to try to execute moves that my coach has taught me recently, particularly ones that I haven’t been able to do yet, that would be a good start. Forgetting about winning on the open mat means being open to working in every position with something of Jocko Willink’s “Good philosophy.”
If you don’t have time for the link above the short version is to take all bad situations with a mentality of opportunity. In the context of BJJ it would look like this, you try to sweep someone with a new sweep, it fails and you get your guard passed: good, now you have a chance to work on cross sides bottom or mount bottom. No matter what happens all the way up to having to tap, you take a perspective of working on your technical solutions to the situation you are facing. Every success or failure just leads to another situation and you try not to be hung up on what happened previously, you’re just focused on dealing with the current situation in a technical manner and you’re trying to implement and take chances doing what you think your coach would want you to do.
Now, of course this isn’t a competition strategy and of course you will lose more initially, but remember our goal isn’t winning by any cost. Our goal is to get better and we can’t get better without taking risks. In the spirit of this training mentality, I recommend position sparring more than free sparring. Position sparring, or playing within a single position until there is a tap or position change both leading to a reset of the position, is more effective for developing a solid roadmap based on technical expressions of BJJ. My coach John Frankl got his blue belt from Rickson Gracie and John once asked Rickson what is the proportion of free sparring vs. positional sparring that is necessary for growth. Rickson looked at him and said,”To get better at Jiu Jitsu, it is all positional sparring; free sparring is just for fun.”