Combat sports differ from many other sports in that proper training and development is based on working with live, resisting training partners. Thus it is important to learn how to be a good training partner and how to help teach others to be good training partners. A great training partner is a Super Friend and your ultimate success and the success of your team is based on creating a league of Super Friends that help and support each other.
If grappling dummies were the best way to practice and drill, the elite BJJ academies would have 20 or 30 grappling dummies and classes would be taught on dummies and everyone would drill with their own grappling dummy. There is a reason why that doesn’t happen. It’s because BJJ is based on real sparring with a live opponent that is trying to negate what you are doing while simultaneously imposing their own will on you. Thus an inanimate grappling dummy is limited in what it can offer with respect to real time feedback and live, human partners continue be the best choice for training.
Have you ever noticed that a lot of higher belts will only want to train with certain people? There could be many reasons for this but I often find that myself and other higher belts have a short list of Super Friends: training partners that know how to drill and roll and can help them improve. When left to our own devices, we seek out our Super Friends to train with and try to find nice ways to avoid training with partners that do not act like Super Friends. Our long-term success and enjoyment in the sport of jiujitsu is going to depend heavily on our ability to find people to roll with that will challenge us and help us learn, grow, and improve. The job of the instructor is not only to teach how to perform techniques, but also to teach people how to be good partners and, ultimately, to create a culture of Super Friends. Imagine if we could create a culture where everyone was a good and conscientious Super Friend? Then we could have many more good training partners and create more opportunities to roll with different people. A league of Super Friends is a team committed to helping each other improve.
What is the point of drilling and training and sparring? The goal is always improvement. Biologically and physiologically we improve via adaptation to stimulus. A stimulus has to be sufficient to drive adaptation; it has to be hard enough to cause organism to begin the adaptation process. When training with a barbell the load is the stimulus. We adapt in proportion to the load on the bar. If I never add load to the bar, I will never get stronger. If I add too much to the bar and cannot lift it, then I will never get stronger. The way barbell training generally works is that I perform a number of reps and sets at a challenging load. That’s the stimulus. I go home and recover and adapt–get stronger. The next time I go to the gym, I have to increase the stimulus. I add more weight or do more sets and reps. I continue in this manner over time and I get stronger. Our BJJ training should also follow a similar process of gradually increasing the stimulus.
The problem is that people are not like barbells. It is natural to throttle up our intensity when our ego is threatened. It is natural to be too polite and not give enough constructive feedback. It is easy to forget our job as Super Friend and just do what makes us look good or to just roll without focus on helping myself and others really improve. The problem that faces most jiujiteiros is that during class, you spend half the class drilling with minimal resistance and the other half of class rolling with maximal resistance. Essentially you go from no weight on the bar to more weight than you can lift. Neither of those scenarios is a an appropriate stimulus. Thus, unfortunately, it takes a lot longer to improve than it should.
Most seasoned practitioners solve this problem in one way, they seek out partners that are at different levels. A purple belt might warm up with a white belt and then have progressively more difficult rolls with blue belts of various levels and finish with some rolls with other purple (or higher) belts. The problem there is that the seasoned purple belt is getting a lot of out of this process but the white and blue belts are not. This is creates a system that rewards those that stay in the system long enough to rise to a certain level, but slows the process of the white and blue belts that are used as grappling dummies for the higher belts. What we should strive for is a system where everyone learns and progresses quickly from the white belt level all the way through black belt.
The answer is learning how to drill progressively. It is becoming more and more clear to me as an instructor, that I have to take responsibility for creating the culture of Super Friends. I have to teach people how to drill and be better partners for each other. It’s not something that comes naturally. Before I can do that, I need to at least define what the characteristics of a Super Friend are.
In the dojo, your partner’s job is to provide the stimulus. If your partner does not provide enough stimulus, you will not improve. If your partner provides too much stimulus you will not improve. A true Super Friend provides enough stimulus to challenge you but allows you to succeed.
The job of the Super Friend:
- Provide the appropriate stimulus
- Allow you to be successful
- Give important and timely feedback
- Keep you safe
The appropriate stimulus is a moving target but let’s look at our barbell analogy again. If your training session requires squatting 3 sets of 5 reps at 225lbs. You would need to warm up before putting 225lbs on your back. You do a couple of sets with the empty bar. Then you would probably do 3 or 4 warm up sets progressively going up in weight from the empty bar. Your warmup sets might be at 95lbs, 135lbs, and 185lbs before loading up 225 and starting your work sets.
If I was to draw a parallel to drilling in BJJ, let’s take the example of move like the step-around armbar from side control where I underhook the far-side arm and walk around my partner and sit down into juji-gatami on the other side from where I started. It’s a fairly basic move, but let’s say that’s the move of the day in class. If I really wanted to train it and improve it to jgj, I would need enough repetitions to get a stimulus and I would also need enough resistance to force me to adapt and get better. In an ideal world, me and my Super Friend would take turns drilling the move. Let’s use the same rep scheme as our barbell example. Maybe my Super Friend and I do two sets of five reps of the walk around armbar with minimal resistance. We basically just go through the movement without any resistance just to get our bodies familiar with it and to warm up. Then we perform three more sets of five reps each with increasing resistance. Now being a Super Friend I gradually increase how hard I resist. I also take these reps to point out where my partner is maybe missing some details or feels loose or off balance. This gives each of a chance to make some adjustments while gradually increasing the resistance. Finally, we might finish with three more sets of five reps but these sets and reps are performed at closer to full speed and resistance, but not so much that my partner can’t be successful. Think back to the barbell example, if I loaded 315lbs on the barbell instead of 225, I might only get 1 rep or maybe no reps, or get injured. That’s not a good training session. When drilling I have to learn how to give enough resistance to make it hard for my partner but not impossible. I have to learn to fight hard, but not too hard. To move faster, but not too fast.
The terrible partner archetype. There are a couple of classic examples of terrible training partners. Do your best to not fall into either of these categories and then see if you can gradually become a Super Friend. The Ragdoll. This is the partner that just lays there limp and doesn’t resist at all and doesn’t even try to hold their body in position. These partners are extremely frustrating because they offer no resistance and you cannot even perform the most basic move on them.
The Ragdoll is most often seen in very young kids and young women as they may have no prior experience wrestling with people and, thus, have no idea how to behave or hold themselves in positions. It is more frustrating when adult males can’t seem to sit up straight in your guard, regardless, the Ragdoll results from an extreme lack of physical confidence, strength, and experience. Thus very rudimentary prerequisite strength and confidence must be build so that they can just hold themselves in basic positions. No amount of yelling is going to get people there. Extreme patience is required to develop that strength, confidence, and experience and get these Ragdolls to be effective training partners. These people will often undergo extreme changes off the mat as they acquire physical strength and capacity that they have never known before.
The Immovable Object. The Yang to the Ragdoll’s Yin is the Immovable Object. This is the guy that no matter what you tell him, will not let you drill on him. Every thing you try is countered with brute force. This person has no concept of how drilling is supposed to work. They come in and are all ego and refuse to let anything happen to them. The immovable object must be educated on the job of a training partner and you must explain to them that in order to fully learn the techniques they need to experience them from both sides. Some of these Immovable Objects respond well to a good ass-kicking, especially by someone smaller and weaker than them. It quickly opens their eyes to the effectiveness of jiujitsu. However, often that usually just drives them and their big egos out the door. Creating a team culture where people understand that although this is an individual sport, we train as a team and we need the team in order to be our best. Once they realize where they fit into the team, they can start to let go of the ego and start being an asset to the team.
Actions are better than words. Most people in BJJ understand the team dynamic and understand the need for Super Friends. What they do not understand is the most effective way to be a Super Friend is through your actions not through your words. Here’s the classic example, a lot of guys in BJJ will gladly show you a move, or show you a defense to a move, or stop and tell you what you’re doing wrong after you roll. That is almost always done with the best of intentions. It’s a sign of gratitude and friendship when, after we roll, I leave you with some good tips on how to train better next time. If we took that same intention and applied it to our drilling and rolling and being a Super Friend we could make even faster progress as a team. The best Super Friends are the ones that meet you where you are and push you just past your comfort zone.
How to be a Super Friend:
- Be conscious and aware when you are applying the moves and, especially, when they are being applied to you. Pay attention to the details.
- Work cooperatively to learn how to do the moves correctly. Try to figure out where you are struggling and ask questions. If you feel where your partner is struggling help them.
- Meet your partner where they are. If they are new, do not resist too much. Let them learn. If they make a mistake, point it out and let them repeat the move until they stop making the mistake.
- Try not to spaz out. Be mindful of what you are doing and what your goal is when rolling. Do not try to kill your partner. Try to implement moves that you know without trying to muscle everything.
- Perform the correct reactions. For example, post when your partner tries to sweep you or react by lifting your head after they try to snap your head down.
- Coach your partner as you are performing the drill and let her know what she is doing right and wrong. When they are making mistakes help them fix it. Slow down and do more reps. When they seem to have it, that’s when you gradually increase your resistance.
- Learn to modulate resistance and speed gradually. Most people only have two gears: no resistance and all the resistance. Super Friends play at different speeds to meet their partner’s needs. It’s so hard to go from easy drilling to full-out rolling. Learn to roll at a moderate intensity to allow both of you to improve.
- Learn how to stop in the middle of a roll and rewind and do it over. Super Friends will tap you and then show you the mistake you made and rewind the roll back to before the tap and let you practice the escape. That way common mistakes do not become permanent habits.
Start to view training as a cooperative process, as a learning process more than just a competition. One of the keys to effective training and improving lies in finding the appropriate stimulus. Find ways to improve those around you and they will improve you as well. Create a league of Super Friends to train with and become the best you can be.