5 things I changed in the way I train in MMA and grappling by the time I hit my thirties

The way I used to train when I was a testosterone-pumped teenager and as a Physical Education Major in my twenties doing my time on the mat as a grappler and competitive MMA fighter has changed quite a bit now that I’ve pushed past 30 years old. Now that I have to keep a full-time job and have a lovely spouse and an little adorable hyperactive one-year-old future UFC women’s champion waiting for me at home at the end of every day,a lot has changed. Back then, I thought I’d never get here, yet now here I am in my 30’s and yes I’m still regularly doing the sports I love: grappling and MMA. Here are some gems which I’ve picked up along the way:

1. Technique matters.

Strength is temporary, technique is permanent. Let’s say for one whole year you drink your whey protein and do your bench presses all day long and develop superb chest and shoulder strength. Let’s say for argument sake that for one year you suddenly are unable to train at all, totally zero sets and reps, maybe because of a new job, papers to pass, deadlines, marriage and a baby, and all life can throw at you along with the kitchen sink. How much of the strength you built up would stay with you after that year? After two or three years?

Let’s say you instead spend the whole year learning everything you can about heel hooks, practicing heel hooks during practice, learning all kinds of variations in the heel hooks, doing your techniques on both the left side and right side, watching a whole bunch of heel hook videos on youtube and trying them out with your buddies. Even if you dropped out of the sport for a couple years and came back on the mats I bet you’d still know quite a lot about heel hooks.

2. Progress takes time, be patient.

Like any skill set, like driving, playing the guitar or learning a foreign language, learning martial arts takes time. Learn the value of drilling something over and over again, and spending lots of good solid sparring time on the mat or in the ring.

Don’t mentally beat yourself up if you weren’t able to apply a new technique you’ve been working on, or didn’t react to a situation the way you’ve drilled yourself to. Just keep at it and try it again. And if you aren’t able to get in your move in this training session, you just might swing it on the next, or maybe the one after that.

If you put your mind to a move and keep practicing it, and the technique is sound, you eventually will get use it in sparring or in competition. Progress takes time.

3. Stop Crying Over Your Injuries, Learn to Live with Them.
So you’ve got a bad knee. Focus more on your guard game. There are lots of ways you can continue to engage in the sport you love even with a little dent or scratch here and there.

There is story of a famous BJJ player who due to a serious injury in his groin muscles couldn’t keep a dominant top grappling position or get into a full closed guard – at best he could only work from the half-guard. But he never let his injury stop him from practicing. After some time of training despite his disability he ended up becoming a master of working submissions from the half-guard. And even when his injuries healed, he kept this half-guard skills and would sometimes even let people have the half-guard so he could work his moves. There is another story of a famous Turkish freestyle wrestler who has a congenitally deformed leg. He became so proficient at attacks and defenses working around his deformity that sometimes during competitions he would offer his opponent his deformed leg, which would leave his opponent to embarrassed not to take it.

Don’t take my word for it, before engaging in any sport, please consult a physician (my lawyer likes this phrase).

4. When you have to tap, you have to tap.

It’s embarrassing to say it, so I have to say it – I learned this the hard way. Towards the end of my college years, I was once training like a mad water buffalo in a rice paddy for months for a fight in one of the top local MMA circuits. With the fighting nearing, I foolishly decided to take on an underground MMA match held at my university scheduled two weeks before fight night as a “warm-up match” for a major fight. So there I was during the underground fight, my fists flailing, ferocious like a mad (light-weight) water buffalo working the ground and pound. During one of the referee restarts in the match after we went off bounds (there wasn’t even a proper cage, just a mat on concrete) my Japanese opponent slipped in a heel hook on my left leg. With the roaring of the spectators, many of them my friends, and my own stupidity, I refused to tap despite the heel hook being sunk in deep. So my opponent, rightly so, ripped out my knee.

I had to use crutches for six weeks, I missed my really big fight which I was training so hard for months for. I felt like absolute crap. For the first two or three days after the fight every time I had to piss my girlfriend (now my wife) has to almost carry me and help me hobble to the bathroom doorway so I could piss all over the bathroom floor (reaching the toilet was just out of the question). I deserved it.

If you’re there with no means of escape and know you’re had, just tap. I repeat, just tap.

5. Confidence plays a very big role

When sparring, confidence plays a big role. It is a very important tangible part of training and fighting. You have to get on the mat or step into the cage knowing that you’re going to do a good job and that you are in full possession of your skills. Even when you train, you have to be confident that you if you play your cards right you have a fair chancing of applying your moves. When competing especially, a lack of confidence will crush you well before the first the first punch lands or the first takedown attempt. Confidence is worth a lot more than what most people think it is.

(Photo credits: Sakara – Legionarius by Luca Rossato, licensed under CC BY 2.0)

About Duke Villanueva 17 Articles
Duke is full-time career diplomat assigned in China. He is a two-time collegiate Judo champion. He's also done quite well in Wrestling, BJJ, MMA and Fencing in his years as an athlete. Once a week, he still trains and coaches in grappling and MMA. He's married with two wonderful kids, and a couple of naughty dogs.

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