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To Talk or Not to Talk

This week I made my grand return to jiu-jitsu class. Two weeks off does not seem like a long time but my body did not quite understand that. 'What are you doing?' it protested. 'You teach summer camp now. And watch the Olympics. Why is this person trying to choke you?'

Despite some very pissed off muscles, it felt great to be back on the mats. And my return to class also gave me some interesting food for thought, with regard to jiu-jitsu training. Over the course of the week I rolled with two different women with two very different approaches to sparring. Both of them are good athletes who are very skilled at BJJ. When I went with the first one, she attacked very aggressively forcing me to become aggressive as well. We had a great round, during which I spent most of the time playing defense. At one point I made a joke about her secret leg moves. (Her legs are quick and spider-like.) At another point I commented on the way her submission (a variation of the guillotine choke) felt on my neck, slightly different than I was used to. When it was over, I thanked her for the round and she said, "Good job. Next time don't talk so much."

Oops. I guess I do have kind of a big mouth.

A couple of days later I rolled with a different woman. She was also my partner for the drills portion of class and a few times she stopped mid drill (an open guard pass) to talk out a detail that she was working on. She then repeated the move and by the end of the half hour both of us were noticeably better at doing the pass. We then did a seven minute round together. Just like my previous partner, she was aggressive and I did a lot of defending. Once or twice she stopped me to point out something that I wasn't doing quite right. When the round was over she said, "Good job. I am sorry I talked so much." I blinked at her. "Are you kidding? You were so helpful. The way you think about the mechanics of each move makes me think more too."

Both of these women are blue belts and very skilled jiu-jitsu practitioners whom I enjoy training with. But their different approaches to sparring made me think. Is there such a thing as too much talk?

In our karate sparring classes, the students often sit down after class and discuss their rounds in explicit detail. ("When you threw that low kick you did something with your hips that made it very deceptive. I fell for it every time! Can you show it to me?") Observing our dojo floor post sparring you would think there was some kind of clinic going on. But there is very little talk during class. Well actually that isn't true. Sensei Matthew stops the class two or three times to offer some general pointers. And often black belts will stop a lower belt to give advice mid round. And the women are constantly talking. (Occasionally it is even about karate!) The silent rounds are the ones between two high level fighters, who converse in kicks and punches and the occasional unspoken glace or knowing smile. They do not talk mid fight because they have to be constantly on their toes, there is no time for conversation. Hence, the post class meeting.

There is something to be said for just rolling, non-stop. If something is coming at you you deal with it, or if you can't you tap, reset, go again. It is high adrenaline, competitive and sometimes a little scary. You learn by doing, trying moves out, making a mental list of what works and what doesn't. It is a fine way to train. And so long as both people are in control (read: not spazzy, with elbows and knees that fly out at random intervals) it is usually pretty safe.

The thing is that jiu-jitsu (and karate too for that matter) moves fast. If suddenly you find that there is a leg wrapped somewhere, you can't breathe and you have no idea what happened, it can be helpful to ask. ("Hey buddy, what'd you choke me with? Awesome! Can you do it again? Thanks! Now how do I defend it?") It is easy to be a mindless ape randomly swinging your fists in the air. But it may be better to try to understand the nuances of a jab, where to place it, when to throw it, what to follow it up with. It may be useful to know where to push on someone's leg to get them off balance, how to distribute your weight properly, what part of the elbow does not bend easily. You can learn these things through numerous rounds of awkwardly sprawling on the mat like splattered paint, or you and your partner can talk about it.

Many months ago I was in a drills class where the teacher was showing us a new submission. While describing the move he said, "Now you grab your opponent and..." He immediately corrected himself. "I mean your partner. You grab your partner's arm and...." There was no need for him to do this, most people probably did not even notice the word and the ones who did were not going to suddenly switch to attack mode. It was drills class after all. But he felt the need to emphasize the word "partner", someone who was there to work with you, as opposed to someone you were supposed to beat. Opponents were for competitions and superhero battles. That guy who is trying to separate your shoulder, albeit very slowly, he is your partner.

In training and in competition, there are opponents who push you to be your best. In contrast, there are terrible partners, those who are out of control or arrogant or patronizing. In the end it probably does not matter as much how much conversation there is in a round but what frame of mind you are in when you enter it. The point of competition is to win, but the point of training is just to get better. In a good sparring match, both participants improve their game. Maybe you are the type to talk it out, maybe not. But when the round is over, if both of you learned something than you did it right.

To my martial arts readers what do you think? Talk it out or STFU?


  1. I hate to sound wishy-washy, but... Well, it depends. There are occasions when talking can be useful, and others when you should just shut the hell up.

    I think talking is more useful when it's one-on-one, and then it's up to the higher belt. I know that when I'm paired up with a lower belt, it's hard to shut me up. But when I'm paired with a higher belt, I only speak when spoken to.

    It also depends on who's teaching the class and their particular style. My style of teaching is different from Shihan Paul's, which is different from yours and Sensei Matthew's, which is different from the other black belts in our dojo, and so on. That sets the tone for how things go in the class, methinks.

    That didn't help at all, did it? *laughs*

    ---Senpai Keith

  2. I don't mind a little bit of banter. It lets me know what your thought proccess is like, if you're comprehending the drill or lesson or technique.
    On ther other hand if you are doing more talking than you are moving then that I do not like. We can learn from each other and I am all for that but if i cannot even break a sweat while doing so then it's not worth partnering with you.
    I've had many old school teachers that din't want you to talk and having grown up in Kyokushin, that was reinforced. You learned by observing and never ask the questions to the teacher. So as a result many mistakes would happen. You learned but at a slower pace. Times have changed so much now that it's refreshing to see very skilled Shihan's and Sensei's teaching children.

    I know I probably ran on, so I would just say talk it out man..


  3. People talk during sparring/rolling for a reason. The reason is either good or bad. If you are talking because you find it more interesting to find out how much your partner drank this weekend, then work on your skills, then it is no good. If you are talking to help your partner, to set an appropriate tone, or sometimes even to deceive them for strategic purposes, then it fits.

    Is trash talking OK? In every sport some would say it has no place, some would say it is an integral strategic component. That is a fine debate. Many instructors push the idea that we remain silent during training to give it the seriousness it deserves. I disagree with this premise for a few reasons, but I understand its motivations.

    I think this discussion probably deserves more conversation :-)

  4. The general consensus seems to be that talking after the fact is almost always a good thing. It allows partners to rehash what happened and try to fix any difficulties they may be having. But I could definitely see why talking during rounds would be discouraged, especially if it is taking away from the actual work. Like Matthew said, there is more to discuss.


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