Keep Calm and Train BJJ

Published on by Samantha Faulhaber


The next time you sit out a train, take a look around the room. Look at the faces of the people rolling (eye contact still unnecessary here, don’t make it weird) and analyze what you see. Most likely you will notice that the higher the rank of the person, the more relaxed their faces. Look again. I’m right, aren’t I? The huffing, puffing, and straining of the beginner students almost uniformly gives way to zen-like demeanors even as the instructor or other advanced belt is smashing the crap out of people. Kind of sinister, isn’t it? Don’t you want to be that creepy? Haha

One of the top sprint coaches in the world, Charlie Francis, says this about training:

the number one secret to greater speed is relaxation! It allows a faster and more complete shutdown of antagonists, quickening alternation cycles and permitting more force to be delivered in the desired direction with less energy consumption. Relaxation must become second nature in every drill you do and every run you take. You may feel that you aren't generating enough force while relaxed (a perception that gets a lot of sprinters into trouble in big races), but remember, only the net force counts! The net force is the amount of force delivered in the desired direction minus the force generated by the antagonist muscle at the same moment.

Great performance is done as much from the ability to relax muscles as it is to contract them. It’s all dependent on how voluntary and differentiated the movements are. You can look at it as two sides of the same coin – the ability to relax a muscle is the other end of being able to contract it. If you’re only able to squeeze, you’re probably operating from a place where you miss a wide range of possible motions and reactions. And you’re definitely wasting a lot of energy.

Being told to “just relax”, especially in regards to a specific tight muscle, sounds a bit like being told to “just pass the guard”. Not quite that simple. Thanks, coach. An easy way to help is to actually try to increase the tension in the muscle to its maximum ability and then let go. It helps you find it, helps complete the contraction it seems unable to let go of, and allows you to feel the difference between contracted and relaxed a little better. I use this trick all the time in my bodywork practice for people that seem unable to relax something. Practice in such a way that you continually zero in on one place at a time so that other muscles “help” less and less. The less other muscles contribute to a movement, the less energy is wasted. Try holding your finger on the area you want to practice your squeeze/relax drilling with. It may seem impossible at first to isolate that one spot, but visualization and effort will prevail if you just keep practicing. Slow and steady tensing and releasing goes a long way.

Of course, part of the reason why advanced belts are more relaxed is simple experience. They know better than perhaps you do that they are not actually going to die, and neither is anyone else, no matter how the training goes that day. Heightened emotions lend themselves to nervous, intense, and wasteful effort.

I’m not saying to fall asleep while training, or that you don’t need to fully commit to your grips. Your reaction time will simply be better if you are able to keep unnecessary pieces calm, like your jaw. Your breathing will also improve, and with it your entire game and stamina. There will be moments in which you put your every fiber into a move, like finishing an armbar on that guy who just knows how to exactly worm his way out every time. But the little micro-increments of timing that you gain throughout the train by being relaxed and therefore more reactive will give you more opportunities to put that sucker in a position to tap in the first place.