The hardest thing to learn to do in a fight is to relax! This is one of the first things I tell beginners and its one of the most difficult skills for beginners to learn. The most common mistake I see beginners make is flexing all of their muscles and getting tight, jaw clenched, and breathing erratically. No matter what position they are working from their entire body is clenched and they are breathing heavy. If they are on the bottom, they are using every muscle possible to push you off. If they are on top, again every muscle is working to hold you down. Rolling like this is exhausting, no matter how great a shape you are in. Even a professionally conditioned athlete will fatigue in a minute or two.
The highest level fighters have the ability to relax during a fight and only use energy when it is necessary to strike or finish a technique. The good news is, this skill applies to grappling and you can learn this skill too. The following tips will help you learn to relax while grappling:
- Only flex muscles that are in use. Muscles that are not in use should be relaxed and resting. The easiest way to demonstrate this is through punching. Stand in front of a heavy bag or punching bag. Now make tight fists in each hand, clench your jaw, tense up your shoulders and then throw as many punches as you can for 20 seconds. After the 20 seconds is up and while you are resting note the stress and strain you feel in your jaw, shoulders, hands, wrists, and forearms. Also note that none of these muscles are helping you punch faster or harder. Once you are rested try the exercise again with loose relaxed hands, jaw and shoulders. Allow your hands to naturally curl and only clench them in the split second before your fist hits the bag. Not only will you use much less energy, your arms won’t get as tired and your punches will be faster and harder! Now apply this to any BJJ techniques that you like and rep it!!
- Slow down and check your breathing. In fighting there is an axiom that states, “Slow is smooth and smooth is fast.” When repping techniques think about the movements you are going to make and execute them as smoothly as possible. Also check your breathe, are you holding your breathe throughout the technique? Have an upper belt or instructor help you eliminate wasted movements and tighten up the technique. At first, it will be difficult to slow down because your instinct is to fight as fast as you can. However, by slowing down you will increase the fluidity of your movements and naturally increase your speed without adding fatigue.
- Drill techniques until they are automatic. Muscle memory is commonly defined as the “ability of your mind to capture a particular activity or movement”. Muscle memory is developed by practicing the same activity time and again. No matter what the technique is, you develop muscle memory by regular and consistent training. After some time your body and mind automatically take over and accomplish the task without you having to think about it. Jiu-Jitsu can be like this for you if you rep techniques relaxed and smoothly.
- Practice what the Gracie’s call “Minimalist Jiu-Jitsu”. Your mind can be overloaded with options which will slow your reaction time. The Gracie’s suggest that you narrow the number of moves you are going to use from any position. Also, avoid adding a new technique for 3-4 months. By narrowing your focus you will actually greatly improve your efficiency and fluidity. Continue to rep techniques to a core set of moves and you will quickly reap the benefits of an improved game.
So to recap, Relax, Slow down and Breathe, Drill, and Practice a limited number of techniques. And as always, have fun with it!
I’ll see you on the mat!
Wayne Spinola is an instructor at Open Guard BJJ, Kickboxing, and Self Defense Classes in Apex, NC.