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From A Fighter's Perspective: On Training

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The piece below was written by local professional fighter Jake Whitfield (3-1)

This morning, I was training with one of my students. Not one of my most talented, but a very hard working and dedicated student that sincerely wants to get better. When class was over, we spent several minutes talking about how he can improve. This led me to think about the major principles that lead to improvement in jiu-jitsu and MMA.

One thing that jiu-jitsu teaches you is that everything happens for a reason. There is a reason why you got arm barred. An exact thing that you did or didn't do that led to your arm being stretched. There is a reason why student "A" gets his blue belt in six months and student "B" takes two years.

Certainly BJ Penn is special. He is a prodigy. But that's not the only reason that he was able to get his black belt in under four years. What do most people do after high school? They go to college. And while at college, they take 20 hours of classes per week for four years. BJ did not go to college, he went to California. He trained jiu-jitsu for 20 hours a week for four years and was awarded his jiu-jitsu diploma: his black belt. If he was training only 10 hours a week (two hours per day, five days per week), it would have taken him a much more reasonable eight years to get his black belt. I use BJ as an example to show that every effect has a cause. Nothing happens for no reason, good or bad.

More after the jump:

One of the first things that must be determined when we talk about training is your own personal goals. Most people who train jiu-jitsu and MMA are interested in getting in shape, learning some self defense, and enjoying a hobbie. For these people, an intense 20 hour a week training schedule would be counter productive and unrealistic. Be honest about your own goals and ambitions then plan your training accordingly.

From my experience, training one day per week is only enough to maintain your current skill level. Training twice per week is the absolute minimum for improvement. This means training twice per week at jiu-jitsu or twice per week at striking. Training once per week in two unrelated areas will not improve either area. This is a case of simple math. Someone training three times per week will improve 50% faster than someone training twice per week. Someone training four times per week will improve twice as fast as someone training twice per week.

Your mentality while training is the next major factor in your improvement.

Every single time that you step on the mat, you need to have a positive objective for that training session. Notice I said a POSITIVE OBJECTIVE. Your training objective needs to be aimed at making some portion of your game better. Not based on anyone else, only yourself.

An example of a positive training goal:
"Today I'm going to work on improving my cross choke defense."

An example of a negative training goal:
"I'm not letting Travis cross choke me today."

See the difference?

A positive training goal is focused on yourself and your own improvement. A negative training goal is focused on someone else and trying to take something away from them.

Always keep in mind that your goal with every training session is to improve. Whether or not you get tapped or tap someone else does not matter. If you only think about stalling to not allow your opponent to work, you will not improve and neither will your partner. Stalling will never help you improve, ever.

One thing I want to clarify is that I'm not advocating doing something foolish. I'm not saying that it is unacceptable to rest or relax. There are many times on the mat when the correct thing to do is to wait and play defense. What I'm warning against is trying to stall rather than to find a real solution to your problem.

I am personally a big advocate of and believer in the 80/20 rule. The 80/20 rule was originally based on business and it states that 80% of your sales will come from 20% of your customers. This rule absolutely applies to jiu-jitsu on many different levels.

The first place that the rule applies is techniques. Jiu-jitsu has a nearly unlimited arsenal of techniques and that arsenal is growing every day, yet out of all of those techniques, 20% of them will work consistently against live resisting opponents. For every four guillotines someone lands in the UFC, you will see one Darce choke. For every four triangles, you will see one (or less) gogo plata. 80% of all the situations you will encounter will be handled by only 20% of your techniques. Therefore, you should spend 80% of your time practicing and perfecting that 20% that is most effective. Do not neglect the fancy and less effective moves, but do not devote the majority of your time to them.

Another area that the rule applies is how your training is divided. In my opinion, at the white belt level, it is best to spend 80% of your time drilling and learning the basic positions and only 20% rolling and sparring live. This will allow you a safer and easier path to learning and understanding the basic positions. This training split will gradually flip completely. When you are a purple, brown, or black belt timing and feel become more important (see my article on Invisible Jiu-Jitsu) and the only way to develop these attributes is through Alive training. An advanced grappler (purple belt or higher) will spend 80% of their time sparring and rolling and only 20% drilling and reviewing technique. At the blue belt level, while the transition is taking place, students will have a roughly 50/50 training split.

Striking training does not follow this last rule. Striking training, regardless of level, should follow the rule of 80% drilling (including shadowboxing, hitting the mitts, working the various bags, and offense/defense drills) and 20% sparring due to the risk of injury.

One question I am often asked is what role physical conditioning plays in training. "Should I get in shape before I start training?" May be the single most common question from prospective students. My answer is always No. More than likely, whatever conditioning they will do will have no impact on their ability to perform the techniques they learn. Conditioning is supplementary training that should be designed around improving your jiu-jitsu.

When two equally skilled grapplers or fighters meet, the more well conditioned fighter has the advantage. This is indisputable. But so is the opposite: when two fantastic athletes meet, the fighter with better technique has the advantage.

Conditioning is important, particularly for those interested in competition, however conditioning will never replace time on the mat. Personally, I find that three intense half hour conditioning workouts each week are enough. These workouts are designed to simulate the intensity and physical demands of whatever competition I am preparing for. Far more of my time is devoted to drilling and sparring on the mat. Intense drilling and sparring will always prepare you for competition better than any amount of strength or cardio training.

These are a few of my personal observations on training. There will always be those that disagree with me and this does not worry or offend me. The truths that they have found might be different than those I have found, but these are the things that have worked for me.