It’s Not About Winning in BJJ Training, it’s About Getting Better

I started training Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu at Serra BJJ in NY under Matt and Nick Serra. When I walked in to Serra’s academy, I found it was a highly competitive atmosphere with highly skill people. Like most beginners, I knew nothing about BJJ, and was thrown into the meat grinder to learn. Back then, it was more of a sink or swim type of gym. I would get crushed and submitted on every roll, and no one taught me much of anything. My old mentor and I use to joke that Serra’s was like Vietnam, you didn’t need to learn someone’s name for a least 90 days. If they survived 90 days, then they likely were going to stick around.

As people realized I was going to stick around, they would start to tell me what I was doing wrong and I began to learn. Since that time, Matt changed the philosophy of his gym and it is a much more user-friendly gym to train. White belts are separated from the upper belts, and Matt learns everyone’s name. There is no question that Matt has built a world-class training facility that is good for everyone – at any level. But it wasn’t until I got my purple belt that I learned how to train. I don’t mean how to learn technique, but how to train every day at the gym.

When you put a lot of effort into something it’s only natural that you want to see tangible results. We want to see progress and notice improvements in our game. So why is it that so many people work out every day and never improve, or do so painfully slow? My mentor at Serra’s use to say, “80% of the people that come to the class are trying to win the roll not, improve their game.” That struck me right between the eyes because I knew I was one of the 80% trying to win (or survive). One night after rolling we were sitting on the side of the mat and he said, I know more about your game than you do. I know what your good at and where you need improvement. As he told me that, 6 or 7 people in the gym rolling that night and I sat in dumbfound amazement at the accuracy of his analysis. He then turned to me and said “so what is your game? What are you working on?” And then in typical fashion for him, he walked away. WOW! Talk about a mind blowing conversation! My mentor at Serra’s believed in tough love. If he told you to do something and you didn’t listen, he never told you anything again. He figured he was wasting his time if you didn’t listen to his advice so why give you more. I knew right then and there I needed to develop a strategy for training.

In further conversations, he told me that when I start to roll I should have a specific goal in mind. I needed to have a position or technique that I will work on before I even step foot on the mat. When I start to roll I should start in the position I want to work on or immediately put myself in that position so I can work on it. Think about it, if one of your training partners said to you “hey can you start in side control?” What would you say? Yes, of course – right? So there is no reason to be shy about getting to where you want to work.

I sat down and came up with a basic plan for training that you can follow to develop your game.

  1. Develop a Game – Sounds obvious right? But, different body types gravitate to specific techniques. Ask your instructor what techniques work well for your body type and incorporate them into your game plan. Work a specific technique and focus each training session on working that technique. For example, come into training thinking “I need to develop a solid guard pass to side control for my game plan to work”. And while you are training, put yourself in your partners guard and practice your pass. When you get to side control, let him reclaim guard so you can pass again. Training in this manner gives you practice passing the guard 30 or 40 times a night against a fully resisting opponent.
  1. Train Your Game Consistently – Don’t work on passing the guard today and tomorrow work on something else. Stay with the guard pass for months or years at a time. Focus on getting really good at something, not kind of good at a lot of things. It may take you months or years to get good at something but at least you are working on something instead of just rolling. Eventually you will succeed at your goal. Some people get good really fast and some take a bit longer – that’s OK. Just keep in mind that the best competitors have put in thousands of hours of mat time to get better, and you need to as well.
  1. Ask your Instructor Questions – At the end of every class, I ask “Any questions?” and maybe once a week someone will ask something. This is your opportunity for a free lesson!! Always have a question in mind that relates to your game!
  1. Rep Setups and Techniques – Take about 15 minutes before or after class and work on the techniques that are part of your game. If you can, take one day a week and make it your repping day. Spend an hour repping techniques and setups over, and over again.
  1. Specialize at Something – Find a submission that fits your game and work on it in sparring until you can rely on it against any belt level. When I was training at Serra’s, they had a purple belt that would enter the black belt division in tournaments. Not only would he win the tournament but he would submit everyone along the way with the same submission. When you practice one submission over and over again, you’ll start to learn how to set up for that technique, and you will begin chaining various techniques off of it. This will lead you to developing a game.

Not everyone responds to tough love like I did. Some people get frustrated and quite BJJ long before they learn anything valuable. And some stick around for years and never get better. By developing a game and working on it every night, you will see improvement faster and enjoy BJJ more. Train consistently, ask questions, rep like crazy, specialize in something, and as always have fun!

I’ll see you on the mat!


Wayne Spinola is an instructor at Open Guard Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu and Kickboxing.


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