BJJ / Grappling Training: Attribute training vs Skill Training

Marcelo Garcia Vs Ricco Rodriguez (pic is borrowed)

There are many different aspects to getting more competent at a sport (BJJ, grappling and MMA included), but they can generally be grouped under three categories:

1. Sport-specific skills: In grappling that includes techniques such as the upa escape, the scissor sweep and the triangle choke.
2. Sport-specific attributes: In grappling that includes attributes such as sensitivity, timing, agility, coordination, recuperation and balance.
3. Sport-specific mental preparation: In grappling that includes survival in bad spots, working with the clock, patience, mental recovery between a succession of matches and dealing with pre-match nerves.

I believe that the general framework for these is the same whether you treat BJJ / Grappling as a sport (with a defined sportive career) or a martial art (a lifelong pursuit which may or may not have a strong competitive element). It is however true that the specifics of each will vary depending on your focus (event rules, match duration and opponent size & skill level may or may not be important to you).

What has become really interesting to me recently is what people choose to focus on*. I find it quite telling.

Think about it. To train in the skills of your art, you more or less always need a partner. Yes you can work your jab in the mirror and yes you can perform armbars and chokes on a grappling dummy but that learning curve plateaus very quickly. To learn skills, you need to drill against progressive resistance with a partner (ideally a few partners.)

Mental preparation can be trained solo, but it takes a lot of self-discipline (and a knowledgable teacher to at least set you on the right track). The challenge here is that results are progressive (i.e. take time) and very hard to measure.

What does that leave? The gym. I see an large number of practitioners spending a disproportinate amount of time working on their attributes. Of course, as professor Roy Harris once said, "attributes are those qualities that fuel your
techniques" and they are an important part of the puzzle. It's when grapplers mistake them for the magic pill that will solve all problems that issues arise. Gaps in your game? Gym’ll fix it!

Reserving judgement, I started thinking about why people choose to dedicate more time to attribute** training when that time could be spent on skill training. I started observing and listening and here is what I noticed:

1. The need for instant gratification is a strong motivator: Learning to grapple is a slow process. Carlos Gracie Jr makes it clear on "Becoming a champion on and off the mat takes time, hard work and dedication built over the years", while (if done correctly) strength training can result in small but measurable results from one session to the next.

2. Grappling is very confrontational. I don't mean that every roll is a confrontation with your training partners. What I mean is that every time you step on the mat you are put face to face with who you really are. If I have convinced myself that I am of a certain (inflated) skill level, that image (illusion) will crack the moment my foot touches the tatami. When I need to tap, I need to tap. I can make up some bullshit about why I needed to tap, but we all know bullshit when we hear (or say) it.

3. Progress within attribute training has a clearer system of measurement. It's very easy to determine if you are stronger, faster, scooter than yesterday. It is not as easy to determine if your armbars are getting "better" or "tighter" than yesterday. Don’t believe me? Try writing a grappling training diary.

What does all this mean? Nothing concrete really. These are just observations. Take them as you may.

*It's one thing if your coach analyses where you are in your preparation and decides that you are doing well in your skill training and mental preparation and that you should focus more on training your attributes in the gym. It's another when you make that decision for yourself.

**Let’s be honest, when most beginner - intermediate grapplers hear "attributes" they are not thinking sensitivity, timing, agility, coordination, recuperation nor balance. They are thinking strength and / or endurance. They are thinking Grrrrrr!


Liam "The Part Time Grappler" Wandi

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