By Ryan Ford
Jiu-Jitsu is an art of constant ups and downs in progress. We have all experienced the highs we get after a good training session and the lows we feel after a “bad” one. As they say, some days you’re the hammer and some days you’re the nail. But many experienced black belts will tell you that there is a ton of value in the “bad” sessions even though sometimes it doesn’t feel like it. I use quotation marks with the word bad when it comes to training because there isn’t truly such thing as a bad session. The fact that you showed up to training at all for example, is a very good thing. It is also good for you to have sessions where you get tapped a lot or beaten up because it is the Jiu-Jitsu universe’s way of telling you what you need to work on. Sometimes in our journey, we have a tendency to want to focus heavily on what we feel we are good at and avoid the areas where we may be lacking skill. It is human nature to do this, but it is also important to monitor and check this behavior within ourselves. While it is necessary to keep our best tools sharp, it is also important to make sure that we are proficient with rest of our toolbox as well.
In the first academy I trained at, there was a rule that only blue belts and above were allowed to use ankle locks on each other. I remember when I was a 3 to 4 stripe white belt, I would always find myself in positions where I could attack for an ankle lock, but I wasn’t allowed to yet. When I eventually got my blue belt, I was very excited to be able to attack the legs in rolling. So much so, that I got relatively good at the straight ankle lock in a short period of time. If I could prevent my partner from passing my guard, there was a good chance that I’d be able to attack a leg. What I didn’t realize at the time, was that because of my enthusiasm for chasing my partner’s Achilles tendon, I was spending too much time on this one facet of my game. And eventually, my training partners were becoming wise to how I was attacking them and learned to shut it down and pass my guard in the process. Which is where my ultimate weakness in Jiu-Jitsu was exposed: the bottom side mount. I was one of those guys that couldn’t escape a good side control position if my life depended on it.
People started to realize this about me and exploited it in training (as they should have). It led me to a long, frustrating period in my Jiu-Jitsu journey. The mistake I made at the time was that I convinced myself if I could get BETTER at attacking the legs and stop them from escaping or shutting down my entries, it would solve the problem. This was a classic mistake of ignoring my weak areas. What I should have done is looked myself in the mirror and said “Ryan, you SUCK at escaping the bottom side position. You need to work a lot on your shrimp escapes and your guard retention”. But 23 year old Ryan had a problem. He wanted to work on what he enjoyed and not on things he didn’t find fun. And being stuck under side control, being smothered by a sweaty dude and gasping for air through chest hair was not his idea of fun. He instead ignored the real issue that he couldn’t escape, continued to try to focus on what he found exciting and even occasionally bitched about the position itself, as if somehow the side control position was designed by the BJJ gods to pick on him personally. Eventually, he grew up and also learned to recognize when he’s talked about himself in 3rd person for too long. And today, I have become very comfortable in the bottom side position. How did I do this? By nearly quitting Jiu-Jitsu. In the fall of 2009, I reached a point where I was so frustrated by my lack of progress and my inability to escape bad positions that going to class no longer gave me joy. It got to the point where I dreaded going in. At this point, I knew I needed a break. I took about 6 months away from training and decided to enroll back into tech school again. During this time, I was able to clear my mind a bit and really reflect on things. It began to dawn on me that I had acquired a tendency over the years to be enamored with submissions. Especially highlight reel attacks that looked awesome or mimicked attacks of champions I admired. I realized that I hadn’t become as fascinated by defensive techniques or fundamentals and didn’t give these areas as much attention as they deserved. I learned during this period to stop watching the highlight reel videos of the grapplers I admired and instead study the videos of their full matches. By doing this, it really began to sink in that these guys I admired who were landing awesome submissions in BJJ highlight reels had a very high level of proficiency with the fundamentals.
They were using their fundamentals, for the majority of the match, to eventually setup a cool submission at the very end. I also realized that more often than not, their ability to technically escape bad positions was often the tipping point which allowed them to pull off the win. It was after this mental breakthrough that I came back to training with a new focus. I was going to allow myself to get put in bottom side control on purpose, in every roll, and work on technically escaping. Rather than considering a submission as a personal win, I’d consider escaping the bottom side mount as my win. After about 6 months of this, my hip movement and positioning improved tremendously. I also became very good at defending attacks from bottom side as well and I learned to identify openings and time my escapes. Today, I am incredibly comfortable in the bottom side position and have a wide selection of options to escape or reverse it. This period also gave me a much deeper appreciation of the art of Jiu-Jitsu itself. It made me realize that Jiu-Jitsu is far more than just an art of choking or joint locking an opponent. It’s about managing adversity, thinking and calculating while under pressure and being honest about your flaws. It was after this lesson that I grew to completely fall in love with the art and pursue the journey with a much deeper understanding. Something I have continued to realize during conversations on the podcast is that the pursuit to improve our weaknesses never ends.
In conversations with countless legends of the sport, it has become common to hear them talk about things they want to improve in their own game. If the best in the world can still maintain that mindset, the rest of us have no excuse! I encourage you to find the areas where you’re lacking proficiency and write them down. Make a plan to address each area where you’re struggling and start buckling down on it. Put yourself in bad spots, drill specific positions with a friend, ask your instructor or higher belts at your school for advice. Take notes on the advice you receive, the lessons you learn and the progress of your improvement. Embrace the idea that you’re weak in some areas, take action and you’ll be amazed by your progress over time. Be thankful that there’s always room to improve, its what keeps us on the mats!