If you’ve been a reader of this blog for a while then you probably know that I’ve been training Brazilian Jiu Jitsu for the last 2+ years. While I love riding my bike, I was craving a new challenge and the fun that came with being a literal “white belt” at something again. Having spent some time doing martial arts in high school I loved the mental and physical challenges that came with them and I always wanted to get back into it when I had the chance.
However, I always questioned the effectiveness of some of the traditional “punch-and-kick” methods. So when I did have the chance to start training again after almost 20 years since my last martial arts class I decided that BJJ was what I wanted to do. The main reason was what is known as Randori, or live sparring.
At the end of every class you get the chance to slap hands with someone across from you and truly test your technique and skills. We all agree to some simple rules – no biting or punching, no eye gauging, no grabbing and twisting fingers among a few others – and we both know that when the other one taps that’s it, we let go and start over. Because of this you can go against a fully resisting opponent who doesn’t want to get choked out and see what really happens.
And I’ll tell you what happens…at first you do a lot of tapping out. Any illusions you have of being a natural bad-ass are thrown out the window quickly as people smaller than you toss you around and pin you down at will. It is a massively humbling experience that, honestly, is great to go through. Your ego is your biggest enemy in life and on the mat it gets beat out of you in a good way.
After a while of showing up and taking your lumps something funny starts to happen. At first you notice you aren’t getting tapped out as much. Then you notice that you find yourself in a good position every once in a while. And then…then you get your first submission. While you are still a long way from being “good”, at least you’re starting to see glimpses of what is possible.
Being a mountain biker at heart I can’t help but see the parallels in this journey with the same one I took 15 years ago as a new rider. I still remember a time when any ride that I didn’t crash 3-4 times on was a good ride and the thrill I’d experience when I was finally able to ride something that had been kicking my butt.
But after spending a few years in the BJJ community and seeing how they bring up new people in the sport I have to say there are several lessons I think that we can learn from them. Getting better is a long and arduous task and I don’t think we always do the best job of mentally preparing new riders for it.
Here are the Top 3 Lessons MTB Can Learn from BJJ:
1 – This is a long process so don’t focus on the goal, learn to enjoy the process.
In BJJ you’re told from day 1 on the mats that this is going to take a long time. On average it takes 10 years to get a black belt in BJJ and while you have outliers that do it much faster, most people need to just settle in and enjoy the journey. Because there is a clear timeline that you can point to it is easier to get people to put their journey into perspective.
Things like the “10,000 reps/ hours” concept are discussed, enforcing that it will just take time so keep showing up. No one is expected to be good within the first year or two of training so people can relax and not stress about “keeping up” with someone who already has years of training. Sure, there are things you can do to speed up the process but at the heart of everyone’s BJJ journey is time spent training, drilling, rolling, reading, watching and thinking about BJJ.
I’ve also found this approach to be key in my progress as a mountain biker as well. Many books I have read over the years confirms that time spent practicing and engaging with your sport on some level is one of the most important factors for success. Embracing the journey and the fact that you are going to suck along the way is important for sticking with it and learning the most from your mistakes.
I think that if we told new riders that it will take 1-2 years before they start to feel “good” and that it can take up to 10 years before you’re going to be able to ride like the people who have been riding for 10 years (see the connection?) it would take a lot of pressure off of them. It seems that too many new riders are worried about external goals like faster Strava times or being competitive in a race series instead of focusing on enjoying the journey with an understanding that those other things will come.
2 – Technique is the key to success, not fitness.
One of the things that they preach in BJJ is that fitness and strength can’t make up for technique. And while this concept does get taken a little too far sometimes – often used as an excuse not to do anything but train BJJ – the take home point is important. If you want to progress then you need to focus on improving your technique more than you focus on improving your fitness.
As many a super-fit college athlete or CrossFit stud has found out in their first few weeks of training at our gym, when you don’t have any technique you will quickly blow through your energy reserves and end up weak, exhausted, and making mistakes that get you tapped out. Sure, having a high level of fitness helps but it isn’t a substitute for being efficient with your movements and knowing what to do in each situation.
This means you have to spend time studying good technique, breaking down your own technique, drilling to improve your technique and focusing on those things when sparring. Understanding how to move more efficiently and having better answers for problems you run into on the mat are what really underpin your performance, not your fitness level.
I tell the same thing to the riders I work with. Technique equals efficiency and that equals being able to ride faster and longer with less effort. No one’s fitness levels improve forever and this means that technique quickly becomes the main driver for performance improvements.
The reason I have to tell this to riders I work with is because they have never heard it before. Instead, they had been told that improving your “fitness” was the key to being a better rider and technique was something you watched videos on or debated on an internet forum but it wasn’t really worth spending actual time and energy on.
However, most riders would do better if they focused less on fitness and more on their technique. Moving better on the bike – which starts with moving better off of the bike through smart mobility and strength training – is the best way to improve your speed and endurance, especially if you don’t have hours a day to devote to training. While fitness is important on the trail, trying to out-fitness your way through bad technique won’t work very well in the long run.
3 – You can’t buy better performance with technology.
This is probably my favorite part of the BJJ community…there is no technology to argue about or to lean on for performance. I mean, all you need is a Gi (the “pajama” looking things you wear when you roll) and sometimes we don’t even wear those, just some short and a shirt for “no-Gi” grappling.
And while you can spend some money on a nicer weave or better material, no one expects for their Gi to do a thing for them on the mats. This means there are no arguments over what type of Gi is better or new people being sold on the benefits of a Gi based on claims of improving your performance by making things easier for you.
If there was one thing off of this list I wish that the MTB community would adopt it would be this one right here. I think that the obsession with technology and how it can improve your riding times limits a lot of new riders. They don’t worry about things that do matter, like technique and actually getting out and riding their bikes, and instead worry about the next thing that will make riding easier for them.
Sure, technology can make riding more fun and safer and we all love shiny new things to hang on our bikes. I just think we do new riders a great disservice when we push technology on them as the answer to their problems. Can’t keep your feet on the pedals? Have trouble rolling through rock gardens? Struggling on steep climbs? The answer is almost always to buy something to fix to problem instead of explaining to them that it is part of the process and technology isn’t what will ultimately make them better.
So there you have it, 3 lessons from how the BJJ community brings up new people that I think the MTB community would do well to consider adopting. For me mountain biking is about so much more than just faster times and racing – it is about self-discovery and self-improvement through the mental and physical challenges you face, much like in a martial art.
I also hope everyone understands that this isn’t about bashing the MTB community as much as helping us grow from lessons other sports have learned that maybe we’ve missed. By encouraging more new riders to embrace this mindset and process I think we could help our sport grow and help even more people enjoy the best sport on earth.
Until next time…
MTB Strength Training Systems