As I’ve gained experience in this art, through both my own hands-on work as well as being a coach, I’ve always tried to make sense in my mind how a person with seemingly less time in the art of jiu-jitsu could best a more experienced person in a sparring or tournament situation. It happens all the time. Why? Does that really mean anything?
What I’ve come to observe, and remember that this is just one fella’s opinion, is that particularly early in your career – you can be either good at grappling, or good at jiu-jitsu. Being good at both is a very rare exception. Generally speaking, new people tend to get fixated on becoming good at grappling, and understandably so, because being good at jiu-jitsu is quite the humbling path, while being a good grappler looks like “winning”. This is where talk of ego comes in, but that’s an entirely different blog post.
Aren’t they the same? Grappling and jiu-jitsu? Not really, in my opinion. Jiu-jitsu is a branch on the grappling tree. Just like Judo, Sambo, Wrestling, Sumo, etc. “Grappling” being the trunk means that there is a base of competencies that translate into each of those branches, but having that base isn’t enough to make you good at any one of the branches. The way that I’m using the term “grappling” in this write-up looks more like wrestling than jiu-jitsu, but not wrestling in the classical sense. Wrestling, in the classical sense, has its own branch, as mentioned earlier.
The difference that I’ve noticed is that being good at grappling relies very heavily on physical attributes, where jiu-jitsu relies on developing a mastery of the fundamentals of jiu-jitsu. Generally, chasing one means you have to at least temporarily abandon the other, as there’s only so much time and effort we can devote to our pursuits. Attribute-based grapplers spend their time working on things like strength, speed, explosiveness, and conditioning. None of these are bad things. The issue becomes ignoring (to borrow from Mr Matt Thornton) base, posture, connection, and pressure as well as things like angles, off-balancing, efficiency, and patience. These are what make you good at jiu-jitsu, and there is a very big difference in the approach to competency in either.
I’ll go ahead and put this out there, also. In the early years, the person who spends his efforts becoming a better grappler will very likely mop the floor with the person who focuses on getting better at jiu-jitsu…in the early years. Also, I don’t know anyone who would argue that when skill is equal, attributes determine the victor…when skill is equal. My point for the emphasis is, it seems to be that as the years go on, the person who has developed their skills will typically get the best of the person who just focused on their attributes (which tend to fade with age and injury), so you end up with not only lacking skill, but your strength/speed/explosiveness/etc is gone, too. So where does that leave you?
After that first couple of years, our grappler becomes frustrated when the jiu-jitsu practitioner starts to shut him down. The fundamentals of jiu-jitsu, once you have a grasp of them, will absolutely make those attributes virtually useless. I am building a case that the lack of focus on being good at jiu-jitsu, both by coaches and students is why there’s a very real stereotype that everyone quits at blue belt. They get frustrated that they “aren’t getting better”. The frequency of them rag-dolling their training partners/opponents into submission drops significantly. The thing that gave them early success is starting to reach an expiration date, they’re not sure where to go from here, and sometimes their coach either doesn’t know how to help them or they’re not receptive to their coach’s guidance.
Can you have both the physical attributes and be good at jiu-jitsu? Definitely. BUT, that takes either quite a bit of time or just flat-out being gifted, which the majority of us aren’t or, in the case of time, are short on. Something I’m starting to make note of, is that the people who last in this game shifted pretty early on to being good at jiu-jitsu first and added attributes that would compliment their technical capabilities as they progressed. Again, can you do both right out of the gate? Yes, but it’s rare that anyone pulls it off long-term. Would it be “best”? Yes. But again, it’s rare that anyone pulls it off long-term.
Does putting a temporary hold on attributes make jiu-jitsu “less”, relative to other grappling arts? That depends on what your goals are. If your goal is to be really good at beating people up in the short term and winning a few medals at local tournaments, then by all means, go Hulk. If your goals are more long-term, something higher, a higher standard of excellence, it’s hard to go wrong with spending your efforts on studying the depths of jiu-jitsu. Admittedly, I have my biases. The rules that a grappler operates under usually drive the training method. Personally, I feel that jiu-jitsu has made the most effort in exploiting the rule sets of the other grappling arts while also borrowing the best of those arts. Does a single leg work well in a jiu-jitsu tournament? Absolutely. Should you work your guard game in a wrestling match? You lost the match before you finished reading that sentence. Should a wrestler shoot for that same single leg with his head on the outside of the leg? He’ll likely be introduced to the guillotine choke. Are there throws from Judo that we can apply in a jiu-jitsu setting? It’d be smart, but there are lots of Judo throws that could lead directly to you losing a jiu-jitsu match, no matter how technically beautiful. No grappling art is less, but they are contextually different.
My current struggle is how can we as coaches and teammates get these grappling-focused newcomers to jiu-jitsu to come to terms with what’s being discussed here? To put down what they think they want, so that we can get them to what we’re really offering sooner. We don’t know what we don’t know is a simplification of “we are unaware of the options and information that has not been brought into our vision”. How can we get them to understand, accept, and apply what we’re trying to explain? Maybe one day, I’ll come across the words or method.
The newbies who just don’t get what’s going on at all is an entirely different discussion.