Do you remember the first time you went to a seminar, a competition, or even had a visitor to your Academy, and truly witnessed first-hand the feel of what that next level in BJJ is?
I remember vividly when travelling to enter in to as many competitions as I possibly could as a blue belt, being absolutely awestruck when it came time for the black belt matches to begin. Never failing to draw a crowd, it seemed like the entire stadium would hush when the black belts took to the mats, and all eyes would be on those practitioners for the next ten minutes. It certainly didn’t matter the name, weight or size of the practitioner, just the fact that they held the rank of black belt was enough for us all to tune in to the keenest of frequencies, hoping to see something amazing.
Now, upon reflection, regardless of flashy technique or outcome, I always felt that the biggest difference between the way they went about their matches in comparison to those who came before in the other coloured ranks was their understanding and adherence to logical strategy, technique, and tactics. It appears there was a consistent mutual understanding between the combatants of exactly what was needed at any time in order to gain the slightest advantage and the smallest of battles would dictate who would be victorious at any moment. A critical grip exchange, the breaking of a cycle, the timing of a sweep, and even the discovery of a reaction or read that would result in ascendancy beginning to surface would play out in a precise display of elite application. This next level of BJJ skill has always fascinated me and has been something I have attempted to both capture and understand as the years have gone by.
I believe that operation within a rule set from a young age gains great comfortability on the mats. Instead of being overcome by conflicting priorities, thinking about the clock, the points tally, the scenario and call for action; those who have a great understanding of the rules and the various pathways to victory have such a noticeable difference in intention and outcome that they seem to exude superhuman levels of composure when in the heat of the moment. Along with this though, there is such a thing as talent. In the same way that a young football superstar naturally develops a skilful instinct to find the net and manufacture a score from seemingly nothing, so too does the talented grappler find savant level pathways to exciting submissions and innovative transitions that seem completely unbelievable to the observer yet are simply being brought to life by an experienced and savvy practitioner. To quote one of the greats, to them… “is normal.”
Aside from watching on from the side-lines, if you have had the opportunity to compete with or train with BJJ practitioners on that next level, you really will begin to understand an underlying truth; their skill is no accident. One of the defining attributes of that next level of BJJ practitioner is the perceived simplicity and precision of their technique selection that leaves their rolling partners in absolute disbelief “How do they make it look so easy?”. In situations where others have struggled to solve the ever-changing labyrinthic enigma that is my open guard game; this person has just melted through my defences like I was butter left in the sun and made me question my entire existence. How could this be so? And upon explanation of their thought processes, they reveal details to you that seem so obvious in hindsight that you begin to believe that it is quite possible for the two of you to be entirely separate species.
It comes back to that reasoning and logic factor that was mentioned previously. The search for the most logical and efficient technique has resulted in a practitioner that only “plays” the game when it benefits them i.e. when they are searching for data. At all other times, they have put in so much time, effort, thought, study, and physical repetition in the area that they are not seeking the answer to your question, they are enacting it naturally and instinctually in real time. This type of precision and mastery does not come cheap, however. When I hear other advanced athletes speak of talent such as Jozef Chen or Mikey Musumeci for example, they always recount first-hand experiences of the obsession-like mania that takes place away from the mats as this consistent and frenzied search for the purest technique consumes their daily thought process.
Notable champions such as Georges St-Pierre along with his coaches Firas Zahabi and John Danaher are also incredibly well known for their tireless and continuous dedication to technique study, resulting in elite level outcomes from both the perspective of the practitioner and the coach alike.
Of course, along with the intellectual and physical elements; There always seems to be the intangible that accompanies it. Whether it be an eccentric personality, a hard edge or light-hearted approach, a humble or brash flare or even a popular/nice guy/bad guy persona, there just always seems to be that little extra something the next level BJJ practitioners have that aids in creating a certain element of intrigue or mystique. This may be a little overblown of course, as maybe they are just happy to be there, but it speaks to the admiration and reverence that the average practitioner has for those who have achieved what so many have set out to accomplish. We all respect the technique, and we all respect the dedication that was required to reach that level as well, so we tend to read into their personality traits as contributing factors to their success.
The greatest outcome, without any doubt, is that when we come in to contact with those who are on that next level, we always gain a deeper understanding about what BJJ really is and it once again opens our eyes to the fact that no matter how much we know, there is always more to learn.
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