One of the best parts of jiu-jitsu is the time after class ends when the coaches talk to us about what we’ve been learning and other aspects of training. At this point I’m tired and feel good about finishing another day of training, even if there were elements that were challenging or techniques I didn’t master (which is often). My mind is often still in these moments. Our coaches are excellent at distilling the important aspects of training – the parts of jiu-jitsu that matter more than a sweet triangle choke – and helping you think about what all of this grappling means in the grand scheme. Here is some of the mat wisdom I’ve received in recent weeks.

Coach Lily on why we train

After class one night Coach Lily asked a deceptively simple question: why do you train jiu-jitsu? When Coach Lily asks a question like this it means she is hinting at some deeper truth. She followed that up by asking everyone if they liked jiu-jitsu and had fun training. Everyone raised their hands. Truthfully, the answer for me on many occasions – at least in the first year – was “no.” There were times I wanted to bag it. The only reason I returned was because I’m stubborn and it keeps  me fit. I think Lily was trying to make a much deeper point; if you get caught up worrying about who is getting promoted, who tapped who and why you aren’t as good as the person next to you then miss the reason you train. While jiu-jitsu has a set of techniques and a system that needs to be mastered everyone approaches and learns the art differently.  No one rolls the same or grows the same. Some develop faster because that’s the way the world works. It doesn’t mean you can’t get there; it just means your road might be the Appalachian Trail rather than the interstate. A longer and tougher journey has upsides that a faster path doesn’t. So you might as well just enjoy the path, wherever it takes you. Ahmed is a world champion and fierce competitor but always seems to take great joy in rolling. It never seems like a chore; it seems like fun.

Coach Eric on frustration

Coach Eric is always present after class or during open rolls, offering technical advice or answering questions. We were working on guard passes and I told him that I was finding it impossible to not get passed or feel like a grappling dummy. Eric said, bluntly, that jiu-jitsu can be very frustrating. But he also admonished us to look at the flip side: if you can survive moments of frustration and keep going you are progressing, even if it feels like a setback.

Coach Alan on the gentle art

We spent a recent Saturday on advanced rolling. I’ve been working to keep my breathing measured but I’m certainly far from perfect. One of my training partners noticed that I was breathing too heavy. I didn’t feel like I was muscling up. But there’s still instinct involved and, yes, I was breathing heavy. So I heeded the advice and tried to slow down and roll relaxed and stay comfortable with what was happening.  It helped frame the rest of the afternoon. I was able to get through the entire 60-plus minute class and didn’t feel destroyed after.

Let’s be honest; even if you are breathe easy and roll technical you still work hard. This is a combat sport, not billiards. My gi was so drenched it could have filled a small bathtub. But, as Coach Alan mentioned on the mat after class ended, learning to roll in a fun but competitive way, with emphasis on technique and function, is the only way to learn. He’s taught similar things about kickboxing; if you try to hit someone as hard as you can in class you will injure a potential training partner or yourself and make no progress. Training relaxed allows you to focus on technique, work on your jiu-jitsu, train longer and more effectively.  Going hard with a tap or nothing mentality only ensures stunted growth. So if I’m breathing too hard feel free to tell me to have fun, don’t get frustrated, breathe and roll to learn.

JUSTIN NORTON has been a member of SBGI-Modcom since 2012 and started training jiu-jitsu in 2013 at 41. He is a former Associated Press reporter and now freelances for magazines including Decibel and Fight!