Being good at Jiu-Jitsu vs being good at grappling.

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.  

3 Responses
  1. J.G.

    I realize that this post is 4 years old, but I’m new to the Jiu jitsu game and starting at age 43. Anyhow, I would like a bit of context to what your referring to in this article, as I’m not sure where I fall in.

    Here is a little background on myself, I am a very athletic 43 year old, who spent his entire life (23 years) in the United States Army, as a special operator (Ranger and SF). I know I’m not the best grappler in the world, but I am very mentally strong and don’t give up easily. I also had some “Modern Army Combatives” training while in, but it was very sporadic, and I never felt like I performed it enough to get to any kind of noteworthy level.

    Anyhow, I began my Jiu jitsu training only 4 months ago, and needless to say I am a white belt. I am only 5’8”, but I am around 185 to 190 lbs (lean). I am in excellent shape, as fitness is a lifestyle for me.

    I am not here to brag; I am just lasting out the facts of my situation, so please bear with me. I tend to run through every single white belt in my gym with a fair amount of ease. I even competed at one weight class above mine and won gold. This was 2 months ago. I did a second competition and won silver. That was 2 weeks ago.

    Depending on the size, weight, and skill level of the blue belt, I can pretty much have my way with most of them (not all), and even submit them fairly easily. It is the purple belt level where I begin to feel either equivalent or inferior to my competitor. I’ve even held my own agianst some brown belts, although I’ve never been victorious against one.

    Now I know what you’re probably thinking; that many of these higher belts are simply allowing me to win. But I beg to differ, simply based on the actions and conversations of those individuals after the roll. I don’t mean to put any one of my team mates down, that is not my purpose here. I’m simply trying to figure out as much about myself, regarding my potential as a BJJ practitioner.

    Anyhow, down to the real question. When I roll, I definitely use my attributes, as described in your article, but I also use the techniques taught to me. Not only in class, but also from videos I watch and books I read. I am absorbing BJJ as much as I possibly can, and given the fact that I’m not sure what’s “normal” in BJJ (regarding the beginning level learning curve), I don’t know what else to compare myself to.

    Many guys at my gym assume that I am a wrestler, and that I’ve had decades of wrestling training. But couldn’t be farther from the truth. In reality, I have zero wrestling training. I did however wrestle quite a few older brothers while growing up. Ironically, I remember myself using many of these basic BJJ moves while doing so with them. I honestly don’t know where it comes from.

    What are your thoughts on all of this? I would be intrigued to find out! Have you ever encountered a new white belt like this?

    Anyway, thank you for your time, and hopefully my 4 year absence can be disregarded.

    J.G.

    1. Hey! No worries on the age of the post, I don’t think the message will change all that much.

      Obviously, there are exceptions to every rule, and that could come in the form of being very studious or even intuitive. Some people just “get it” faster than other people do. Folks who clear SF training aren’t your average Joe.

      The thing to be wary of, is whether the use of attributes gets in the way of learning more efficient methods.

      We’re supposed to be able to utilize jiu-jitsu with no rules, no weight classes, and no time limits. That calls for a high degree of efficiency.

      In jiu-jitsu (and many other things), efficiency comes from being familiar with intimate familiarity of the intricacies of the techniques. With most techniques, when you’re dealing with experienced partners/opponents, a few degrees off in either direction leads to a miss.

      Relate it to learning how to reload a magazine-fed rifle. The student who takes their time and refines the abc’s of the reload will become more efficient sooner than the one who tries to Magilla Gorilla the magazine into the well at 100mph.

      “Slow is smooth, and smooth is fast” is wrong. Slow is slow, and fast is fast. Fast comes from economy of motion, or…efficiency. That efficiency comes from boringly reliable application of the fundamentals of a given movement or technique. That level of reliability is tough to build at wide open speeds.

      I have junk cardio, but can roll for pretty long periods of time, even with energetic partners. They usually end up being far more tired than I am because I don’t waste energy and focus on being as close to mechanically perfect as I can be.

      Now, take those near-perfect fundamentals and apply attributes? You’re talking about a literal monster. An absolute tank of an individual, no matter who’s in front of them. That comes with time, and most folks in our Microwave Society don’t want to give up the wins of today for technical excellence:applied later.

      There are certainly exceptions, and you may very well be one of them, but the crawl/walk/run method seems to be the most direct path to competency for most folks.

      Hope that answers your questions! – Scott

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