Saturday, March 29, 2008

A-game Camping vs. making a decision to improve.

Recently, I have wondered a bit about, what I could say was the most important thing for me in the process of improving my skills in BJJ, MMA etc. I feel that my game is constantly improving. I can feel a difference in my skills on the mat from one month to the next and I can see that I catch more new submissions, escape more cleverly, analyze the opponent better, see more openings etc. etc. But what is it, that makes me always improve, when I see other guys have the exact same game year after year, never implementing anything new, never improving or exploring what they already know?

I don't think it is a question of talent. I myself have never been very gifted athletically, I have just worked hard to get where I am. After a lot of thinking and trying to analyze how the other guys in the gym train, think and "work" in the game of Jiu Jitsu, I have come to a conclusion. There is one single factor, that is common for the group of guys I see constantly improving their game the same way as I do, compared to those whose improvements can stall for years:

They all make a concise decision to improve their game.

Those who never stop improving, are the ones that are always "working on something" when they are training. I do this ALL the time and it suddenly makes sense that this is the most important factor in getting better at Jiu Jitsu for me and almost everyone else I have come across.

Beginners are always improving and eager to learn. I have yet to come across a beginner, that was not interested in learning something new and experimenting with it. But when you get to a certain level, where you have a good understandment of the basics and found a few moves that are your favorites, it is not directly necessary for you to improve, in order to survive a class and a sparring session with your team mates. You can hold yourself against most sparring partners, just with the basics and the few moves that works for you.

This is the critical time for you to make a concise decision to improve. It is SO easy to just lean back and play safe with the skills you feel comfortable with, instead of running the risk of trying something new and failing. I have named this phenomenon "A-Game Camping", because I see these guys just camp out in their A-game without making a decision to improve it.

I've set up a few rough identification points and observations I have made for the two groups:

A-game Campers:
- Learns new move in class - goes straight back to A-game in sparring.
- Have a low "technical level" vs. "sparring hours" ratio.
- Have a handful of solid moves.
- Can have the same game for years.
- Not taking many chances in sparring.
- Rarely exposing holes in own game on purpose.

"Constant improvers":
- Learns new move in class - tries it out again and again in sparring.
- Always "working on something" during sparring.
- Can name X number of moves after sparring that he was experimenting with.
- Always thinking of moves to try out when back on the mat.
- Fails and taps many times in sparring, but becomes very skilled in the long run.
- Often exposing holes in own game on purpose.
- Outperforms A-game Campers in a relatively short time.

Of course, this is a very rough way to put things, but the point is, that if you want to improve your game, you MUST make a concise decision to do so. Decide with yourself what you need to improve on and make the decision to do it in every opportunity you get. It can be a specific technique, a position, a transition or maybe a mental aspect.

I have been doing this for a long time, but I think the moment it really took off as a very efficient training tool for me, was when I started to write down a list of what I was currently working on. When I write it down, it is as if I am making a promise to myself, that I will do it and run the risks. That I won't just fall back to my safe A-game that doesn't hurt, doesn't fail and doesn't require a lot of stamina, will and determination in sparring. The list is constantly changing. Some things, I work on only for a few weeks, some things have been on the list for half or whole years. The important thing is, that as soon as the list is written down, I know exactly what I need to try out next time on the mat, and it is obvious to me, that I am really improving in these areas. I know this because I strike out things on the list now and then :)

I like to keep my list simple with as few things to work on as possible. Funny thing is, if I have a period when I don't write down my current "projects" and I then decide to do it, I realize that the list i huuuge and I really need to cut it down and focus on less areas. So writing it down also keeps my focus on the most important areas of potential improvement.

If you look back in my blog, you can find lists like this here and there. My current list of what I am working on looks like this:

- Being more aware of footlocks both offensively and defensively
- Toehold from Omo Plata
- Ryan Hall's 50/50 heelhook
- Short armdrags in guard
- Marceloplata mountattack position
- X-guard as guard defense to sweep or set up footlocks
- Triangle as a way of control from sidecontrol bottom and top
- Inside trip from double overhooks, collargrips and beltcontrol
- Committing to takedown attempts even though I know they might fail
- Marcelo-style armdrag scramble (on the list since January 2007! :))

Obviously, this would be a good time to ask yourself: Are you an A-game Camper? :)

EDIT: I wrote this when I was a little tired and might not have got the definitions out exactly as I meant them. By A-game camping, I don't mean only working on your A-game, which ofcourse there is always a time and place for, and which is very important. I am talking about only surviving sparring by holding on to what you know and not working on improving it. The point is to make a decision to improve, no matter what area the improvement is on. It can be anything from improving your timing in your A-game, escaping mount more often, working on your "poker-face" or learn a fancy new spinning heelhook. Don't be fooled by MY list, that often has fancy techniques on it. I am fully aware that most people will never do those techniques that I am working on, and that is perfectly fine as it should be. The "B-game Explorers" was maybe the wrong term, since I by "B-game" only meant areas in your game that can improve, and that is - as we all know - everything. So I can see where confusion on that term can arise.

Monday, March 24, 2008

Working, working, working

I have a few posts planned for this blog, but I am really busy planning my next big event these days, so you will have to wait a little longer before I have time to post here :)

I am really excited about the event, which is going to be April 12th. Lots and lots of work goes into arranging a show that size, but hopefully it will all pay off on the day. I think it is going to be an amazing experience to watch the fights and listen to the audience.

Yesterday I finished the poster, think it ended up being pretty cool:

Monday, March 10, 2008

Great rolls, MMA training, new kettlebells and BJ Penn's book

Today in the gym I had one of those days, where every single round of sparring was just pure pleasure. I feel my jiu jitsu is better and sharper than ever and my body is pulling off techniques, setups and combinations I have never seen before :) Maybe it is because I can finally go full intensity after my long period of injuries, I don't know, but it is a really cool feeling that I thought I would share on the blog.

Also, I am starting to go some more rounds of MMA sparring in my class twice a week. It will take some time to get back up in gear with it, but I think my technique is pretty good. I see a lot of stuff especially on the ground, where I try to focus on setting up grappling with strikes and strikes with grappling. Something I was inspired to think more about, when I read my latest book purchase, BJ Penn's MMA book. I own a pretty big library of MMA, BJJ, wrestling and Judo books, but I think this is the best one I have read. There is a lot of cool basic technique in it and BJ seems like a very intelligent fighter (I would have expected that anyway). His approach to MMA fits perfectly with my own game and fighting style. The book is highly recommendable and I got it for silly $15 or something on Amazon.

We just bought two new 32 kg kettlebells for the gym this weekend. It was a very exciting moment for me to meet those two balls of metal and it kind of re-sparked my interest in kettlebell training. I did a little workout with them saturday and was extremely sore sunday, so it was a great feeling. I should do some more of that, it takes a lot of strength and control compared to the 24 kg I have been using for the last few years.

Saturday, March 8, 2008

Being a student, instructor and coach

Lately, I have been thinking a lot about the three different roles I have in BJJ and MMA and how they really are related, but at the same time completely separate skillsets for me to constantly improve.

As a student, I am constantly learning and improving my own game. This will never end no matter how good I get and this is by far the easiest part to work on. Basically to improve as a student, all I need to do is train and spar with a wide range of different people. By doing this, I am trying to improve my understanding of all the fundamentals. I don't need to learn new techniques, in fact I probably by now know all the techniques necessary to reach black belt level, but what I need to do, is to understand them better and better. One good example is, that I watched Matt Serra's BJJ 101 videos and learned tons of new details about basic stuff such as kimura from sidecontrol and guard. So getting better as a student is not about learning new stuff, but about learning more about what I already know.

When it comes to teaching and coaching, it quickly gets a little more complicated. One thing is to understand the techniques and concepts behind the sports, but being able to communicate and organize all this information to a large group of people is really a skill that takes a lot of work to aquire. I have basically been teaching since I was a whitebelt, so I have naturally grown with the job. Everytime I have learned something new, I have been forced to understand it fully, so that I could explain it to someone else in a way that they would be able to do it as well. Just imitating what you have seen yourself is not teaching. That is more like trying to explain someone how something works by reading the manual aloud.

So, I am really working on improving as a teacher. Performing as a teacher and performing as a practitioner is two completely different skillsets. You can be an incredible fighter but suck as an instructor and the same the other way around. I have trained with some of the best fighters in the world, and - without mentioning any names - some of them have definitely also been the worst instructors I have met. They did however, easily drew a full house at their seminars, just on their name alone.

Teaching is a lot of work other than being a skilled grappler. Just the part of organizing all the information, I am planning the class to go through, and making sure that everyone gets enough time to work on all the things is a really big task, that I am putting more and more energy into getting better at. I am trying to make long-term plans of what to teach and when, so I am sure that we fill out the technical holes on the team and everyone goes through what they need to improve. This is very much about going through basic fundamentals and constantly improving peoples attention to details in these. I see almost little or no improvement of the team as a whole, if I am going too much into advanced stuff or don't reserve lots of time for drilling and isolating basics. The advanced stuff, people always figure out or seek out themselves along the way. My job is to create the training environment and focus on fundamentals that they need to prosper and evolve on their own.

The last part is coaching and this is probably the part I have had least focus on during my "career". Coaching for me is often about being very specific with one person or maybe a small group of people. Analyzing their game in details and picking out exactly what they need to learn or work on to improve. This is VERY different from teaching a class over a longer period of time. Although I have not done this much, I feel that I have really improved on it over the last six months or so, trying to work a bit on it during sparring, where I will pick someone out for a few minutes and just help them as much as I can through the roll. It takes a lot of mental energy though to focus that much, and i sometimes find it difficult to do during class because I am focusing on the group as a whole, but I am trying to push myself to do it more.

One specific example where I really have seen the benefits of coaching as a seperate skill was at a grappling turnament last weekend that we attended. For the first time at an event like this, I only had ONE thing to do; coach. Normally I have been fighting, organizing, being referee or helping out in some other way, so it has been difficult for me to really focus on our fighters. This time me (and my fellow teacher Carsten) put all our time into helping and coaching the guys on the mats, and it made a BIG difference. Ofcourse the fighters themselves should get all the credit for their wins, but I would say that maybe 30% of the fights could have gone either way and ended in our favor because of the help from the coaches on the side. It may sound elementary, but I was actually surprised to see how much I could improve someone on the mats game just by seeing details they don't notice themselves.

One of the fighters in the gym asked me the other day, wether I don't feel like fighting and winning myself when I completely dominate guys in the gym, who do really well in competition. I would actually like to fight some more myself, but honestly I see MUCH more value in putting all my energy into helping a whole team of guys improving and winning, than just focusing on myself. It is as big a feeling, if not bigger, to see someone reach their potential through my work than to improve or win myself.

I am more motivated than ever to become the best possible student, teacher and coach and I can't wait for the next tournament where we are gonna coach an even bigger team through the fights an hopefully to many more victories and happy faces afterwards. Making people smile and have a good time is what training and teaching is all about for me.

Here is a highlight from that specific tournament, it was a good day and a fun trip for everyone: