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Hey, Take it Easy Buddy, Relaaaax

Yesterday I performed what I believe is one of the main responsibilities of every jiu-jitsu blue belt; I taught a new white belt to slow down. Its not their fault, those white belts. You remember how it is; you get out there on the mats for your first roll and you are so amped up and nervous you feel like a horse at the starting gate of the Kentucky Derby. (If horses actually feel amped up and nervous...I don't know a thing about horse racing.) You don't know any submissions yet, you don't really know anything yet, but you know that you want to get on top and stay there and that under no circumstances are you going to let anyone tap you. 

Ha ha. White belts. So cute.

I can say that because I was one. We all were. Guess what, everyone is going to tap you. For months. And that is actually a good thing, it is part of learning. Also, you are going to get tapped whether you go slow or you throw your body on me like a freight train. If fact, all you are really going to accomplish from a full on aggressive roll is complete and utter exhaustion. 

That's not to say there isn't a time and place for aggressive training. But when you are brand new, I think it is much more beneficial to learn how to slow down and think. Also, its safer. And kinder to your partner who really likes his nose and may not want it broken by your flailing elbow. 

This new white belt I was training with was really, really nice, she just didn't know any better. It was only her second week in class. And here's the funny thing about jiu-jitsu:  you don't really learn how to slow down and be technical until you have been doing it for awhile.  In my experience, the people whose rolls look like beautiful dance sequences, who can submit you so slowly but with so much control you feel like you are being devoured by a giant snake, they are mostly purple belts, not white belts.  But it is those poor out of breath newbies who really need to learn this skill. 

For what its worth, some schools really coddle their new students. They have beginner programs and white belt only classes. Sometimes newbies aren't even allowed to spar for the first few months of training, and when they finally do it is only positional stuff. Likewise, some teachers are very clear about their expectations for training, they make constant speeches about going light, about letting your opponent have success. They incorporate things like "S training" and "flow rolling" to make sure that no one is ever going too hard. This is great and it definitely keeps people safe. The only problem is there are benefits to the occasional full out, balls to the wall round, that you won't get by always playing it cool.

In contrast, when I was coming up in karate, our Friday night fight classes were legendary. Legendarily scary. My instructor, Shihan William Oliver, was known for his incredible sparring ability and our dojo was known for having all the warriors. (Not me, those other guys.) If you were a lower belt in that class you got beat up. Eventually, after years of training, you got better, and you got beat up less. That was just how it was. Some people couldn't handle it and they quit. Others were stubborn and bull headed like me, and almost grew to like the knot in their belly that appeared around 5pm every Friday. 

When you train that hard you walk around with a swagger. You feel invincible, like you can handle anything life throws your way. The truth is, I had less fear in my life when I was fighting that hard because honestly what out in the world could be as bad as being backed into a corner with a giant black belt's fist swinging at my ribcage?  

But the problem with always training hard is that it is not sustainable long term, especially in jiu-jitsu. You get too banged up, incur too many injuries. Which is fine if you want to train hard for a few years, compete every weekend, and then retire at the ripe old age of twenty five. But if you are like me, and you want to make your martial arts a lifelong journey, you have to have balance. Some rounds have to be light, thinking rounds, others cardio-building aggressive ones. Or even better, you find a middle ground where you can do both, and then you do that, forever. 

I'm still trying to find mine.

But really, what is the point of feeling like a badass if you are too beat up to make it to class the next day?

So whose responsibility is this? Who creates this balance? Is it the the instructors job to pull the reins so tightly that no one can bolt free, ever. If so, do the same rules apply to everyone? Or do you allow seniors the freedom to go harder, trusting that they have learned how to do it safely? 

Or do you offer no guidance at all, instead leaving it up to your students to moderate their own training, and to teach newbies how it all goes?

I don't know if there is one right answer. But I do know that I like my face the way it is. So relaaaax buddy. Watch those elbows and knees please. Slow down. 

You are going to get tapped either way.

(Not by me necessarily. But that purple belt over there is a different story.) 

What do you all think? What is the tone of your school? How hard is too hard? And who is responsible for teaching new students the right way to go?


  1. Good point about knowing when to go all out and when to go slower and more relaxed, Sensei.
    Slower and more relaxed doesn't necessarily mean "easier" or with less focus or strength. When I demonstrate a combination or technique, at a slower speed, I still focus and use power; I stay relaxed —I just don't go as fast.
    For me, slower and more relaxed is a good way to examine the movements and really learn them, so when you go at a higher speed, the movements feel natural and your body "understands" them. And it helps you maintain at least a modicum of "relaxed" at the faster speed.

  2. Our school is relaxed. Overall, I rarely teach new folks because most often they're Korean with very little English. However, I always give the new folks ONE bit of advice whenever we roll or practice together.

    We have lots of new MMA guys, but overall I don't get OMG SMASHED. The only time recently that happened, the guy was training for a tournament - though I didn't know it.

    I remember feeling like OMG YAY I HELD ON AND YOU COULD DO NOTHING was a good thing. Now I tell people - was that fun for you? Did it help you learn something? The goal of sparring is to try to use what you've learned. If you only hold on for dear life, you will not use jiu jitsu.


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