Dan Faggella is an MMA academy owner, a national BJJ competitor, and at age 23 recently received his Masters degree in positive psychology from the University of Pennsylvania. Continuing to write for BJJ publications and present for college and mixed martial arts teams, Dan's mission is to revolutionize the effectiveness of combat sport training. You can find his writing at www.ScienceofSkill.com
With that being said, students who are advanced enough to understand their own strengths and weaknesses sometimes need a little bit of autonomy and freedom to work on the areas of their games that are most important for them. You might, for example, recognize guard passing as the biggest bottleneck in your game, and so you know you need to drill your passes. Or, for example, your instructors and partners may tell you that your side mount and mount escapes are your biggest improvement area, and so you want to do some live matches from those positions to get better with your escapes. Obviously, you can't count on your instructor working on your exact areas of interest every class.
When you have your own mats at home and you can invite your grappling friends over to drill and spar, this kind of freedom is easy to find – but its much harder to find when your functioning within the structure of a class.
On the one hand, you need to get in those key exercises and reps that matter for your game, but of course you want learn from and show respect for your instructor. In this article we'll delve into some basic strategies for making more of your mat time without disrupting anyone else's experience.
One of the first ways to make more of your mat time is to get a little more of it, and this can sometimes be achieved by showing up early. If you have someone to meet you at the gym 15 minutes early before class, that's a great time to get in some extra reps or extra live – or even to just go over a position or technique you're developing.
If your academy does have some unused mat before class, its highly recommended that you take advantage of it. Best overall is when you can schedule your days in advance and set up a routine to always meet before class with a few fellow grapplers. Its much easier when two or three people agree to meet up before class twice a week than it is to frantically call people the day before to see who wants to get in extra drilling time.
Asking Questions with Respect
A tell-tale behavior of the engaged student is asking questions – its a simple shortcut to explore the areas a student is most interested in. However, it goes without saying that there's a right way and a wrong way to go about it.
Any method of asking questions that interrupts the structure of class or the experience of other students is generally wrong – and potentially disrespectful. From my experience the best time to ask questions is before class begins.
It should sound something like this: “Hey Master (or 'Professor', etc...) ______, do you think you could show me a few extra details on the Achilles lock after class? I just have a few short questions I wanted to ask you.” This is better than running up to the instructor after class and surprising them with something that's going to keep them from going home. A little step of consideration goes a long way – especially when instructors see a genuine gleam of curiosity and excitement with their students (as an instructor I live to see my students so pumped about this sport!).
The same goes for asking other experienced students questions, or even just asking other students to stick around to drill and roll – throwing out the idea before class starts is a more considerate and easier way to get in some extra technical exploration or drilling. This would sound something like: “Hey ______, do you want to stick around a drill for 10 minutes after class? I know you've been working on those same butterfly sweeps and I think we could help each other out.” Even if you're asking someone you don't know very well, this is a polite and helpful kind of invite that will encourage others to make the most of their mat time, too.
Autonomy in Rolling and Drilling
Another good opportunity to cultivate your own game is through rolling and drilling. There are times when your instructor will have you work very specific rolling. Maybe you've just worked on breaking closed guard in class – often your instructors will have you start in closed guard with the objective to break and pass. By honing on a particular element of the game your instructor is doing you a favor.
However, if sparring is more free-form, you can do that same favor for yourself and develop the games you're working on. Here's a few ideas for customizing live training:
1)Ask your training partners to start from a particular position that you're working on
2)Pick a particular move you're working on and use it as much as possible
3)Repeatedly let your opponent get to the positions that you're working on escaping
Again, the emphasis is on working on the specific areas of your game that are most important for you, and the above strategies give you a more honed and deliberate practice session.
Lastly, the live sparring component of most BJJ classes allows people to choose who they're rolling against. Are you making every effort to roll with the best people in the room? Generally speaking this is how you make the most of your mat time – unless you have a particular reason to practice some new techniques with lesser opponents.
Most in-class drilling is directed – usually based off of what was taught during the day, or grounded in a curriculum. However, some gyms warm up with exercises where partners practice sweeps or passes back and forth, which allows for some customization in terms of what you work on.
We briefly touched on this in the above sections – but the idea is that if there is some unused mat space after class is over (which is often the case after class in the late evenings), get out there and get some work done. Do some extra mock competition matches, some extra rounds of takedown drills – whatever you need to improve most.
The ideal here – as with pre-practice practice – is to routinize the process. Its much easier to just agree with another student to stay an extra half hour on the mats on Mondays and Wednesdays than it is to approach a different group of students each class, hoping someone will share your enthusiasm. Find someone else who is passionate and agree to start a little after class drill session – and hopefully other students will recognize the opportunity and join in as well.
So there you have it, a series of mat time maximizing tips from a fellow Jiu Jitsu-a-holic. Very, very few people employ all of these ideas – and not surprisingly those who do are the quickest to come up in this game.
The question you have to ask yourself is: am I making the most of my mat time? Think about it like your morning grapefruit – are you doing all you can to squeeze every last bit of Jiu Jitsu progress and enjoyment out of every minute? I think you'll find that the feeling you get when you answer “yes” to that question – even if you can only make it to the gym twice a week – is more rewarding than any trophy.