Training at a high level competition academy

I’ve been fortunate enough to train at many different types of academies throughout my career.

Different in their atmosphere.

Different in their focus.

Different in training philosophies and techniques.

I just want to start off by saying that there is no one best school or academy. It all comes down to whether or not it’s a good fit for you.

You could have access to the best training partners and instructors in the world. But if the training environment is toxic, it’s no good.

In this post we’re going to look at the benefits (or upsides) of training at a well known, competition oriented Jiu Jitsu academy and in the following weeks I hope to examine some of the downsides as well.

High Level Academy

Most regular people aren’t looking for the most competitive academy.

Gold medals and championship wins have no meaning to them.

That’s something that I try to drive home to any martial arts business owners or future academy owners.

Your average student is looking for a fun, safe, and decently located place to workout.

Being a world class facility only has sway over students who are: (1) into competitive Jiu Jitsu, (2) understand your accolades, (3) want to train hard.

There are lots of reasons for training at a competitive Jiu Jitsu academy but they all boil down to pushing your comfort zone.

Of course, not every student is going to compete. But there will be this culture of doing tournaments or atleast training hard that will permeat through all the programs within that academy.

During the late 2000’s early 2010’s, the academy that I trained at was one of the best academies in America and arguably one of the best in the world.

In addition to myself, we had numerous pans champions, world champions at the lower belts, and ADCC vets.

We were the quintessential competition academy. Of course, we still had a strong foundation in self defense and the fundamentals of Jiu Jitsu. But we were mostly known through our success in tournaments.

And because of this we were able to attract many like minded students from all over the U.S.A. in addition to developing our own home grown students.

1 High level training partners

The biggest reason for training at a high level academy is because you’ll have access to high level training partners.

No matter how naturally talented you are. You can only go so far watching competition video, drilling, and visualizing. Eventually, you get to a point where you will need the help of good training partners to help push you past your limits.

It wasn’t uncommon to have athletes decide to completely uproot their lives, quit their jobs, and move down to train at my academy. Some guys wanted to be world champions. While others wanted to dedicate themselves more to their practice by surrounding themselves with those who wanted to become world champions.

Everyone had their reasons.

Having access to a large stable of tough training partners. All with different body types and skill sets. Is the fastest way to improve your Jiu Jitsu.

A popular saying in Jiu Jitsu is that, “iron sharpens iron”.

And this is very true for the best academies in the world like Atos/Art of Jiu Jitsu, Alliance, and all of the other top academies. They attract the best talent which in turn helps them to do bettter in competitions.

Outside of the training aspects. High level training partners allow you to immerse yourself completely into the Jiu Jitsu lifestyle.

Not only are you be able to train hard, but you’re also able to have in depth discussion about techniques, mindset, and training.

You’re surrounded by like minded individuals that have similar goals and can help motivate you.

You also become more accountable in your training. So if you’re slacking off or taking too much time off. You have someone that can and will call you out on it.

I won’t lie and say that this is always the most fun or inviting environment.

It’s not.

But if you have dreams of reaching a new level in your Jiu Jitsu and doing well nationally or internationally. It makes a big difference training at a high level academy versus a lesser skilled academy.

2 Knowledgeable instructors

High level academies tend to have very knowledgeable instructors.

As important as it is to have good training partners. Having the right instructor(s) is the cornerstone of a great competitor and on the larger scale, a competitive academy.

Examples such as Fernando Terere and the offshoots of the old TT academy such as cobrinha, Andre Galvao, Lucas Lepri, and Michael Langhi.

We see this even more recently with Romulo Barral and his students Edwin Najimi and Gabriel Arges.

Great instructors make great students.

It’s no wonder that the top academies tend to stay on top for years. They are able to take students with potential and mold them in to champions.

Your instructor influences everything from developing your foundational knowledge as an athlete to helping you overcome the highs and lows of our sport.

High level academies are able to develop inhouse or attract many of the best instructors because of their great training environment.

I’ve written about this before, but if you’re a lower belt and you are beating the majority of your training partners (and even the instructor) then there is a good chance that academy might not be the best place for you to pursue a competive career.

I know this advice sounds harsh and it is.

3 Competitive environment

Combine high level training partners with really great instructors and you get the perfect competitive environment.

It’s hard to explain if you haven’t had the chance to experience it yet. The feeling of training hard everyday and knowing that your training is often harder than the actual competition.

The feeling of having close teammates doing well in big tournaments and having the confidence that you will do well too.

Or being able to get an invite to an exclusive tournament, or increased exposure on social media and Jiu Jitsu news sites because you train with so and so.

There are so many benefits to training at a high level academy that it’s not possible for me to list them all.

If you have plans of competing in Jiu Jitsu and want to do well at the bigest tournaments. Then training at a high level academy or moving to one could be the deciding factor.

Over the years I have met many talented grapplers. They had all the attributes of a great competitor but without the proper training environment to help you develop and grow. That potential can easily be wasted or not fully tapped into.

Guard Development

I was watching my friend Jon Thomas teach a class while training at his academy in Gothenburg, Sweden.

For those of you who don’t know Jon. He has one of the best spider guards in all of Jiu Jitsu. So much so that he got the nickname “macarrao” which means spaghetti in Portuguese.

Partly because of his red hair but mostly because of his awesome ability to recompose his guard by utilizing his feet in even the smallest of spaces.

So I’m just observing the class.

It was a small class but those are sometimes the best because you have your instructors’ full attention.

Any way, the students were reviewing spider guard and the different situations that arise when you play that type of guard.

It was at that moment when I came to the realization that playing guard isn’t easy.

You have to know all the possible outcomes that can occur.

All of the defenses.

All of the attacks.

Developing a good guard is no easy task.

In the beginning, you get passed a lot. There’s just no other way. You don’t have the coordination or the experience yet.

And I think a lot of people become afraid.

They become afraid of having their guard passed and being crushed on bottom or being put into an even worse position.

From Giving feedback:

Getting feedback from training partners and instructors is an important aspect in the life of a martial artist. Feedback is how we correct holes in our games. Feedback is how we help our training partners get better. Feedback keeps us honest and humble.

Guard development usually begins in earnest at the blue belt level but I’m starting to witness more and more people putting off developing their guards until higher belt levels. Much to their own disservice. And it’s this observation that I want to focus on in this post.

I’ve been there before as well.

When I was a blue belt I didn’t have a guard. I was okay on top. Tough and athletic.

But if I was on bottom. It was only a matter of time before a decent passer would slide through my guard like a hot knife through butter.

My solution at the time?

I couldn’t get my guard passed if I turtled.

And this strategy worked for a while. At least until I went up against someone with really good back control or someone bigger that could stop me from rolling to turtle.

So I didn’t really solve my problem of not having a guard. I just kept putting it off.

Listen.

No matter how good you are on top. If you don’t have a comparatively good bottom guard. You will never be able to tap into your true potential.

It’s not a coincidence that the best guard passers in the world also have good guards.

Leandro Lo

Rafa Mendes

Lucas Lepri

Etc

Having confidence in your guard makes your passing that much better. You can commit 100% of your focus on passing and if your opponent manages to sweep you. It’s okay.

But if you don’t have that duality. Being good on top and bottom. Then the fear of being swept or just the fear of playing on bottom will always be in that back of your head and it will cause you to hesitate. Especially when you go up against a tough guard player.

There is no right or wrong here, but I believe that if you want to be good at Jiu Jitsu. Whether or not that includes competing. You will need to develop a workable guard and the earlier you start to build that foundation up, the better off you will be in the long run.

It’s better to put in the ground work now (at lower belts) than to have to address your guard game at a higher belt. Because at that point you will be far behind your peers.

Body type

Your body type will play a major role in your guard development.

Your body type won’t limit the guard(s) you will play but it will determine which guards you will be able to do easily.

Much like an IQ test.

Your body type represents your potential to play certain guards and not your actual success in playing those guards.

EX. Short guys that play spider guards or tall guys that play butterfly.

A useful guide is to find a competitor, higher belt, or an instructor with the same or similar body type as you and study their game. Then try to add elements of their style to your own game.

Flexibility

Flexibility is an often overlooked factor in the development of a guard. A common misconception is that you have to be flexible to play guard.

While this is not the case. Being flexible does make playing guard easier.

With flexibility, you will be able to get into the right positions faster and have more strength in those positions.

Even if you’re not naturally flexible you can work on it and after a few sessions it will payoff.

Constant Study

This is more for advanced guard players.

Jiu Jitsu is constantly evolving so you will need to keep updating your toolset/guard game.

If you get to the point where the majority of your training partners cannot pass your guard. Then that is a sign that you need to start developing the other aspects of your guard.

If you have a great half guard. Maybe try working on closed guard or an open guard.

But if you find that everyone you roll with gives you a hard time when you play on bottom or everyone passes your guard. Then you will need to invest more time and effort in studying the bottom game.

Studying can mean watching competition footage of really good guard players.

Studying could be taking a private lesson.

Studying could be meeting a few times a week with a partner to positional spar with you solely focusing on your bottom game.

Whatever the case, Jiu Jitsu is very democratic. You get back what you put into it.

Mindful Practice

If you want to develop an effective guard you’re going to have to put in the work.

Even if you have the best instructors and training partners in the world, and access to private lessons and online tools.

That can only take you so far.

Eventually, there will come a time when your instructor will no longer have to hold your hands through techniques and instead become more of a motivator and mentor.

When that time comes, it will be up to you to take charge of your training.

You will have to take the initiative in learning new positions.

You will have to decide what techniques you will need to improve upon.

You will have to push yourself in creating a game unique to yourself.

Very much like a role playing game (rpg), the more time and energy that you invest in your Jiu Jitsu the quicker you will be able to level up and learn other skills.

Developing your own guard game

The ultimate expression of Jiu Jitsu is the creation of your own style.

Only you will be able to master your unique body type.

From my own personal experience. I was only able start developing my own guard game when I acknowledge that my guard was a weakness of mine. Then I had to make the conscious decision to actively work on it.

Even if it meant starting on bottom or pulling guard.

Of course, I got my guard passed a lot.

But I was able to work my side mount escapes and my guard recomposing. Eventually being able to hold better guard positions and advance from there.

Graduating Students

It’s that time of year when many academies begin their graduation ceremonies. Awarding hard working students and celebrating their triumph.

As a student, reaching the next belt level is an important step in your journey. Not only does it mark your progression in skill but also several milestones in your life.

Getting that promotion at work.

Graduating from school.

Getting married.

Even those student that care less about ranks and belts still care.

When you put so much of yourself in to studying Jiu Jitsu and achieving a rank you’re going to care.

But knowing when the proper time to graduate a student is a big deal.

As a student all you have to do is train hard, be consistent, compete a little and you will be on the right path.

But I would argue that instructors have it harder when it comes to deciding on the right time to promote their students.

In Death of The Gauntlet, I wrote a little bit about the Jiu Jitsu graduation process.

“But I’ve always considered it a rite of passage.

An activity not dependent on age, sex, or race. Instead, something that each and every student was capable of achieving given that they trained hard and progressed to the point that their skills were recognized by their instructor.

Something earned through blood, sweat, and often tears.

We talk about Jiu Jitsu not being about belts and more about skills. And while this is true.

It does feel good to be recognized and rewarded for all of your hard work by being awarded a new belt. That’s one of the reasons why the belt ranking system was adopted by most modern martial arts. In order to distinguish between the different levels of skill mastery and as a way to motivate students to continue training.

Once you receive a new rank, it’s all yours. No one can take it away from you.”

Rite of Passage

If a belt test is the rite of passage then your instructor is the purveyor of the rite.

Promote a student too soon and you may run the risk of your student failing due to their own ambition and inexperience.

Ex. You have a tough white belt that is able to give blue belts a hard roll but lacks the technical skill of a blue belt.

If you were to promote this student too fast you would only reinforce the weaknesses in his or her game that would eventually have to be addressed at later belts.

Or maybe the student has the skill and abilities to move up but are not yet mature enough.

This happens often with younger, talented students that might have things together on the mats but off the mats are a complete mess.

At the end of the day, every student that you personally promote is a reflection of the standards that you hold as an instructor.

But hold a student too long at a rank and that student might lose interest in training, decide to go to another academy or even worse, miss out on their prime competition years.

A friend of mine going through the ranks was gifted with the talent, skill, and abilities to win multiple world titles at the purple belt and brown belt levels. But he spent many of his best years repeating wins at the lower belts when those years could have been better used making waves in the black belt division.

Everyone progresses at their own rate, has their own goals that they want to achieve, and motivation levels.

Instructor knows best

As an instructor you have to find the right balance between those two extremes. Promoting too fast and waiting too long to promote. You have the find that sweet spot. Somewhere in the middle.

Whenever I was considering a student for promotion I had a small checklist of questions that I would use to evaluate the prospective graduate.

    • Time spent training – Consistently and regularly attending classes.
    • Motivation – Are they enthusiastic to train and learn, or do they have to be incentivized to come and train?
    • Maturity/Leadership – Do they set a good example for other students? Do they help lower ranked students? Do they get along with the other students?
    • Skill – Do they possess the necessary skill for the next belt level?
    • Age – Age matters greatly. Younger students will need to compete more and prove their skills in tournaments versus older students.
    • Goals – Is the student looking to become a great competitor or are they training for recreation?

I will be honest here. Despite your best efforts.

Some students will fall out of training even after being promoted

Some students will never live up to their potential and it will suck.

Some students will leave your academy despite you awarding them a new belt.

Regardless, it has to be your decision to graduate a student. You have to trust in your judgement and be willing to upset (or even disappoint a few) students along the way.

Trust

“We make sacred pact. I promise teach karate to you, you promise learn. I say, you do, no questions.”

– Mr. Miyagi, The Karate Kid

You have to trust in your instructor’s decision to promote you.

Deciding to graduate a student is highly subjective and it really depends on what qualities or behaviors that your instructor wants you to epitomize. Behaviors that they want you to be a perfect example of.

I know it’s not always a black and white process.

For instance my instructor is big on students maturing in their lives outside of Jiu Jitsu. Not partying too much, training diligently, and being a good person off of the mats.

When and how long it will take for a student to be ready.

Only he knows.

I simply trust in his years of experience and his judgement.