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5 Tips to Relaxing While Grappling

Written by Anthony Butler

Learning to relax while grappling and competing is one of the most difficult skills for beginners to learn. Renzo Gracie summed it up when asked about Rolles Gracie’s recent UFC 106 loss,
“It was embarrassing. I can tell you he wasn’t in that bad of shape. Fact is the nerves drained him of his energy. His stand up and ground work looked bad, nothing at all like he was doing in training leading up to the fight and it was if he couldn’t hear what I was telling him. I think the pressure he put on himself overwhelmed him. He’ll learn and be back.”
Rolles’ bout was a clear example of a skilled opponent losing due to fatigue. He is a great competitor and no doubt will be back with a vengeance, but we can all learn a fundamental lesson from him; even at the highest levels nerves and anxiety can sap your strength and cloud your mind.
One of the most common mistakes I see beginners make is what I think of as the entire body clench. No matter what position they are working from their entire body is clenched and working. 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 for the hold down. It is exhausting. Even the fit grappler will quickly fatigue.
A key trait of high level competitors is the ability to relax; to use the minimal force and energy necessary to complete each move.

The following tips will help you get in the habit of relaxing while rolling:

1. Only clench muscles that are in use. Muscles that are not in use should be relaxed and resting. The easiest way to explain this concept is actually from teaching someone how to strike. You can try it. Imagine an opponent in front of you. Clench each hand into a tight fist and throw 10 consecutive punches into the air in front of you aiming at your opponents face. At the end of your power flurry note the strain you feel in your hands, wrists, and forearms; none of these muscles are helping you punch. Now try the exercise again without clenching fists. Allow your hands to partially curl naturally and only clench in the split second before your fist is meant to land. Not only will you use much less energy, your arms wont get as tired. Now imagine applying this exercise to your entire body.
Try this exercise: Run your mind across every major muscle group in your body starting with your legs and moving up your body to your core, chest, arms, neck, back and finally your face. Order your muscles to relax. Breathe. Relax. Breathe. You will be surprised at how much this single exercise will immediately improve your performance.

2. Slow down. Breathe. Think about your next move instead of just reacting. In the Special Operations community a common philosophy is often voiced, “Slow is smooth and smooth is fast.” Try to execute each move perfectly. Think about the motion you are going to make and execute as smoothly as possible. At first, it will be difficult to slow down. Your every instinct is to fight as fast as you can to escape and maybe if given an opportunity to attack. Slowing down will give you a chance to apply tip 1 and relax every muscle except the muscles involved in your current movement. Increasing the fluidity of your movements will naturally increase your speed without adding fatigue.

3. Drill moves from positions until they are automatic. Once after rolling with Royce, I asked him what he did in a particular position and he couldn’t tell me. Certain positions for him are on auto-pilot. When you repeat a movement your body learns to maximize the efficiency of the movement until you don’t have to think about it any more. It is sort of like when you first start to learn how to drive. The first few times, you are concentrating on keeping the car in the middle of the lane and completely focused on steering, gas and the breaks. But after a few years, you barely think about those things anymore. Your subconscious mind takes over and accomplishes the task without your having to think about them. Jiu-Jitsu can be like this for you.
As a starting point try to repeat every move you know from each position 100 or more times. Find a partner and shoot for a hundred reps as a warm up or cool down. Repetition will increase your fluidity. Your body will learn the motions and it will decrease the amount of energy you consume executing. If you doubt this one, go on YouTube.com and watch some Abu Dhabi matches. Take note of how smoothly the competitors are executing their moves. Not only are these guys incredibly fit, but they are fantastically smooth and efficient in their movements.

4. Practice minimalist Jiu-Jitsu. Narrow the number of moves you are going to use from every position. Avoid adding a new move for 3-4 months. By narrowing your focus you will actually greatly improve your efficiency and fluidity. Continue to apply tip 3 to this core set of moves and you will quickly reap the benefits of an improved game.

5. Visualize in your off mat time. Pick a position you are working to improve and visualize how you will execute your move. How will your opponent react? How will you move? How will you breathe? What muscles are involved? Relax. Breathe. Focus. Repeat. Don’t underestimate the power of this exercise. I took an involuntary hiatus from Jiu-Jitsu for nearly a year while fighting in Iraq and I had nothing but time to think about different positions. I read books, studied positions, and visualized myself fighting nearly every day. I was extremely surprised at how much I retained when I finally got back on the mats. My time was not wasted and I actually improved in some areas without even practicing. Hopefully you won’t have to take any time off and can use visualization to help you to extend your practice time.
Well there you have it, five simple tools to help you get to the next level.
Relax. Breathe. Focus. Repeat.