How to Make Rapid Improvement in BJJ, MMA, Wrestling, and other combat sports

How to Make Rapid Improvement in BJJ, MMA, Wrestling, and other combat sports

I made rapid improvements in my Brazilian Jiu Jitsu Game by watching Video. You can use video as a powerful learning tool also. Here are tip and insights form some of the best athletes and coaches on how to do it right.

I’ll also share my experience as an NCAA division I wrestler, BJJ black belt, and MMA trainer. One of the people who contributed is Dave Esposito. He is qualified to weigh in as both a coach and a competitor. He says: “You have to be an idiot not to watch video”. These are strong words and Dave’s resume is equally strong. He is a wrestling coach at one of the best private clubs in the country, Edge Wrestling. He is also a nationally recognized MMA trainer who has coached and cornered former UFC Champ Frank Edgar, current WSOF champ David Branch, as well as other UFC fighters. One of his students in wrestling is current IBJJF absolute world champion Bernardo Faria. He was a two time all American and National runner up at Div I Lehigh U. in the sport of wresting. We’ll get some specific tips from Dave later as wells as from other standouts of Jiu Jitsu, Wrestling, Mixed Martial Arts, and Muay Thai.

First, no mater what combat sport you participate, in there are three basic categories of video you can watch. They are:
1.) Watching Yourself– sometimes referred to as video feedback when applied to a specific skill or movement
2.) Watching video of elite competitor, which I’ll refer to as competition footage. When used to model a specific skill this is sometimes referred to as video modeling.
3.) Watching instructional videos
Another category of video that could be included is watching a specific opponent.
We’ll start with watching yourself.

Watching Yourself
Watching video of yourself can boost body awareness. Former Muay Thai fighter from camp Chuwatana and trainer Kru David Reese encourages athletes to watch themselves fight and train. He believes watching acts as a reality check. Fighters can see how they really move.
Although there is scientific research to back this up I was able to find relatively few research papers on video improving athletic performance. There is more research from other fields such as work place task improvement and medical practitioner skills improvement from watching video. Some of the findings seem to be applicable. One researcher that is often cited relating to feedback from watching self performance is P.W. Dowrick. The author writes some guidelines that where found to make video feedback more effective:

“first, the criterion pattern should be a model movement pattern; second, the angle of viewing must be from a position that can pick up key points in the movement pattern; third, there should be a relatively short time delay between performing and viewing, and also between viewing and performing again; fourth, the athletes should have control over the videotape’s „slow motion,‟ „pause,‟ and „replay‟ functions to allow them to fully analyze their performance; finally, the athletes must have some method of identifying the errors in their movement patterns so that changes can be made on subsequent attempts”

These are good tips but not always practical. Smart phones makes it more practical to take a video to the practice area anywhere and apply some of the tips mentioned above.
Most of the scientific studies mix techniques such as video feedback and video modeling. I feel these tips can apply to watching video of yourself, particularly tips of minimizing time delay and use of video controls (pause, slow-motion).

In one graduate level study of capoeira participants which used video analysis of their performances concluded: “ results suggest that adding video feedback to typical coaching and practice techniques could reduce the number of practice sessions required to improve a difficult skill” .

Watching Video of Elite Competitors
Maybe the most important benefit of watching elite competitors is to learn new technique and see techniques tested at the highest levels. Elite Brazilian Jiu Jitsu coach Shawn Williams cites this as one of the main values he derives from watching video. Shawn is also a former competitor at the black belt level and one of the most renowned analysts of competition BJJ. Because combat sports have so many factors such as strength, mental attitude, and general athleticism, ineffective techniques sometimes seem effective at lower levels. Watching elite competitors can expose flaws in techniques. Shawn also says that he likes to watch elite competitors doing similar techniques. He analyzes how they do the same technique or work for the same position in different ways.

Dave Esposito, who was introduced earlier, cites a similar but slightly different reason for watching elite competitors. Dave says that it can broaden your stylistic horizons. For example he likes to watch Russian wrestlers because they are stylistically very different from the style he was exposed to in the United States. Dave uses video to learn new techniques. He applies many of the methods mentioned earlier. Here is how he describes his method for learning a new technique from video:
“Watch the technique in full speed, slow motion, rewind, re-watch, try the technique and repeat this cycle. Understand the position that the technique is used. Note the action that happens before the technique allowing it work and note the action that follows the technique to maintain the advantage. “

John Danaher, Jiu Jitsu coach to two UFC champions, told me that it is important to watch the best of the best. He has said “don’t watch low level people” . John feels that you assimilate movement patterns you watch. . John is one of the best Jiu Jitsu Coaches in the world based on the most important criteria for a coach, his students’ success at the highest levels. He is a ardent believer in watching video of competitors to learn techniques and movement patterns. Here John is stressing the “modeling” aspect of watching video.

One scientist who’s research backs this up is Daniel Glaser. He found that ballet dancers and capoiera dancers who watched video of dance had activation in the neural areas that where active when they were actually performing dance. This points to a possible scientific explanation of why an athlete might assimilate movement patterns. Author Todd Harwgrove points out that Glaser’s study indicates that you will only benefit from watching if you have some experience in the activity you are watching. The idea that experts get more out of watching video makes intuitive sense. This idea is echoed and taken a step further by Josh Waitskin in his excellent book The Art of Learning: A Journey in the Pursuit of Excellence (2007). He finds that a master can process data differently by chunking many imputs. For example a chess master can look at a board and because of his experience see patterns that allow him/to forgo processing as much total information. The master does not have to analyze consciously each possible move but instead relies on intuitive reactions signaled by observing patterns. If this seems like a poor explanation it probably is. It is a complex idea that Josh does a good job of explaining in the book. Get the book! A relevant side note is that Josh designed with Marcelo Garcia which is the gold standard of Brazilian Jiu Jitsu instructional video websites. It is the most revolutionary video study tool for combat sports available. Shawn Williams feels that practitioners with different levels of understanding see different things when watching competitions. He fells similar to what the study by Glaser found; that there needs to be a baseline of understanding before video of elite competition can be of much help. He cited 6 month to three years for this base understanding to take hold in BJJ.

I found watching the best competitors compete to be beneficial early in my own wrestling career through modeling. I remember watching a clip of John Smith (USA’s most decorated freestyle wrestler) doing a leg attack finish transition. I was injured and not able to drill it. The transition is relatively complex. I found myself doing it in a competitive situation when I returned to competition after the injury even though I had never practiced it.

Other valuable tools for watching competitoon, in addition to youtube, are and For MMA , UFC fight pass is a must.

Because there is some much video available now it is important to focus. In the past video of combat sports was relatively scarce. Now there is almost an oversaturation. Here’s what another well known Jiu Jitsu Coach Karel Pravec says about focus: “Students need to select a practitioner who excels at a specific technique or aspect of jiu jitsu that that the student wants to learn. He also advises not to get caught up in just watching the latest trend technique. Instead focus on what you want to integrate into your game. He says: “Seek out high level competition footage with a goal in mind.”

At a coaching level I have seen video used to illustrate either mistakes or show excellent use of strategy. An example is when I was allowed to sit in on a US national freestlyle wrestling team video strategy session. Then coach Zeke Jones used short video clips of the single leg hold and start position that was used as a tiebreaker at the time in international wrestling. He was using the video to illustrate mistakes in strategy primarily and also which specific technique where most effective. I see this as slightly different than modeling a technique. Zeke seemed to be trying to impart a broader perspective to the athletes. He was giving them examples of what could happen and what seemed to be the best approach to a relatively novel situation. It was novel because the rules had recently instated a modified single-leg position start as an overtime tie-breaker. This is a good example of why I always stress to newer students to watch competition footage. It gives them experience, even if it is not first hand, of situations that occur that they may not have encountered yet. For example, a novice jiu jitsu player might see that getting the hips too high when passing allowed another player to get a sweep or leglock attack started. In practice the novice jiu jitsu player may not have yet had this happen against other novice players.

Another reason to watch competition footage is that it has a confidence/ motivational boost effect. It does this for me and others have said the same. Positive motivation is one of the most important factors that lead to improvement. Think about jiu jitsu all-time great Marcelo Garcia’s constant refrain in “A Fighter’s Mind” (good bookby Sam Harris) that he “loves jiu jitsu more”. Watching competition footage seems to make practitioners like combat sports more. It makes me excited to see people performing at the highest level. Watching Marcelo, Satiev (wrestling), George St. Pierre (MMA) and many others is one of my top self-motivation techniques. If you are scheduled to train and aren’t feeling motivated try watching one of your favorites for 10 minutes and check back in with your mental state. For quick motivation I sometimes watch highlight. Here one of my favorites for pure motivation:

Both happen to be from freestyle wrestling. Pick your favorite combat sport.
On the negative side, sometimes watching the best in the world can give you an unrealistic sense of what is possible for you. Beginners have to guard against getting too hyped up on their capabilities. Both coaches input and watching video of their own performances can help here.

Instructional Video is everywhere and for everything now. It is a case of too much data. I believe I got more out of watching one instructional incessantly when my options where very limited. This echo’s what renouned strength trainer Pavel Tsatsouline says in one of the benefits of Soviet training methods. They limit options. It goes back to focus. Focus on something you want to improve and find instructional videos dealing with it. The majority of good instructional videos are from the best competitors although this is not always the case. Ask your trainer, your coach, or those with more experience for good recommendations. All of the elite coaches and athletes I spoke with for this article believed that watching video of competition footage was more valuable and something they did more than watching instructional. For a sport as complex as jiu jitsu I still feel that I learn from instructional videos. Some of the different strengths I look for in instructionals are:
1. Does it apply to my current focus
2. Is it appropriate for my bodytype and natural ability
3. Does the teacher use both verbal and demonstration
4. Does the instructional fit into a system
5. Does it give me insight into why a technique works in a live situation
I’ll explain what I mean by the last two (4 & 5) . If a technique is isolated it does not have much value. It will be difficult to apply and easy to forget. If I don’t understand why the technique works I can try to analyze it on my own but it is not an efficient use of video time. I may be able to learn it just as well by watching competition footage. Some of my favorite video instructionals are:

Beloglazov series (wrestling circa 1992) ( Brazilian Jiu Jitsu current)
Strobel: Unfair advantage ( Wrestling Circa 2005)
Inue Judo: Uchi Mata (Judo Circa 2004)

Each is very different. The strength of the Belaglazov videos is it’s systematic approach. Everything is links together in a logically organized system. It starts with the tieup or a position and branches techniques off of that start point based on leading opponents into a set of different reactions. is organized to cross-reference techniques, store and organize different types of footage for study. It is really revolutionary in it’s approach to searching and organizing both instructional footage and footage of Marcelo training. Training footage of elites is relatively rare compared with competition or instructional. This data base of instruction and training is always growing and includes some other greats. Other BJJ greats have started online sites. Some of them are similar to Marcelo’s and some are of lower quality and quantity of material.

Strobel’s takedown series is useful because it does a great job of tying the techniques to an important concept; the idea of getting an “unfair advantage”. This give the techniques a cohesiveness and simplicity that makes them easier to learn and apply.

Kosei Inue’s is unique because of it’s laser focus on one technique, the Uchi Mata. It does branch into variations and secondary complimenting techniques but always based on attacking with Uchi Mata. It also has the best production value including multiple camera angles, slow motion, and is interspersed with live examples of Inue doing the techniques he is instructing in top level competition. The narrator is a great expert as well. I consider this the gold standard of single instructional videos even though I am not an expert and do not really like practicing Judo.

More Tips on How to Watch Video Effective

Greg Strobel, was Division I power, Lehigh University head coach during some of their best years and US Olympic wrestling team coach for one of the USA’s most successful teams. He was also one of the earliest adopters of film study among University Level wrestling coaches. He studied his athletes’ opponents. He had athletes analyze their own performances and also studied top wrestlers to learn techniques. He says: “it is important to have a routine and a schedule for watching video just like any other type of training.”
He would often watch in order to learn technique while he was riding an aerodyne bike for exercise.

Shawn Williams feels that any type of video can bring much more benefit when watched with a trusted coach. As a coach he sees benefit, mostly at the highest levels, from analyzing opponents but give the caveat that some athletes can get increased anxiety from watching this type of video. David Reese strongly echoes this: “It can take fighters out of their own game.” In these cases Shawn say coaches can watch and analyze in place of the athlete. Shawn says of technical study: “I don’t watch specific people for technique as much as I watch positions”. What he means is that he doesn’t fixate so much on the personality when studying to learn. He focuses on the essence of the techniques, in some cases comparing how they are done by a few top level competitors.

A great study done on positional video of the BJJ World championships was done by They found that roughly 70% of submissions come from back control at the black belt level during the model year. Another large percentage come from leg locks. I found similar results analyzing the year previous to Bishops more comprehensive study. Through analyzing what positions where most effective in theIBJJF world championships at the black belt level Bishop gives us incite on what to focus our practice on. It can also inform competitive strategy. This type of data would be very hard to collect without video.

Finally there is some antidotal evidence that watching live events has a slightly different effect than watching video. Recent studies also indicate that watching three D movies can boost general cognitive ability and reaction time.


Across different combat sports among coaches and athletes at the elite levels all I have spoken to feel watching video will improve your performance. They also feel that competition footage is the most valuable. Focus is essential and most have specific methods and/or routines that they use when watching video. The benefits from watching video go beyond learning techniques. They include assimilating movement patterns, understanding strategy, motivation, and self-analysis.

Top 5 Tips for Using Video to Improve Combat Sports Performance
1. Focus on specific positions, your game
2. Use a method and or routine in video study
3. Watch the best competitors competing as your primary video study
4. Get input from a coach when using video of yourself or Instructional videos (particularly for beginners)
5. Enjoy It! You learn more in a positive mindset and it motivates you to practice

For a little more advice watch 2015 Blackbelt Pan IBJJ no-gi champ and 3 x EBI  submission grappling champion Garry Tonon talk about watching video to get improve.