Radhames Familia and the Study of Wrestling and BJJ Champions

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    Besides being an excellent student of the best athletes and grapplers in the world (he probably owns more Jiu Jitsu DVDs and has read more books on the topic than just about anyone I know), Radhames (AKA: “Junior”) Familia is also not a slouch.

     

     

     

     

     

     

     

     

     

     

    Radhames Familia after winning his division in the 2011 ADCC Tournament in Abu Dhabi.

    Having first seen grappling through his experiences in Army Combatives, he quickly became fascinated with this kind of “body chess,” and after a little experience with Judo, he came home eager to take the study of Brazilian Jiu Jitsu seriously. Having recently won a number of medals and $5,000 in the 2011 ADCC pro trials (in Abu Dhabi, where he fought and defeated the sons of Arab sheiks), Junior now has his heart set on the BJJ Pan Ams and Worlds.
    As a high level competitor, he’s a bit out of place in the small state of Rhode Island – which produces almost no other IBJJF competitors. Hence, he must find his inspiration and insight from the best in the world – even if he never gets to meet these heroes in person. The three themes that we spoke of most in our overview of his “study of champions” were: drilling, training, and the mental game of combat sports.


    Drilling in Brazilian Jiu Jitsu

     

    Right off the bat, Junior associates drilling with high level competitors – and essentially believes that through all the evidence and patterns he’s seen with great competitors, people who do not drill do not take competition seriously.
    His belief is that to take drilling seriously you have to set the bar where the best competitors in the world set the bar. Through conversations in greats like Caio Terra, other BJJ champions, and world-class wrestlers, Junior sets the bar very high, but its about more than reps.
    Drilling can be done in a myriad of ways, and needn’t just be the kind of mindless “going through the motions” that many people make it out to be. On the one hand there needs to be a time for a kind of slower, more exploratory drilling that focuses on refining the nuances of a technique – and on the other hand there needs to be faster (often timed) drilling that focuses on burning perfect technique and clean sequences into muscle memory – something Junior believes most champions do.


    Variety in BJJ Training Strategies

     

    In our interview, Junior brought up a point that I thought was particularly fascinating:

    In most sports (IE: boxing, soccer, football, wrestling, etc…) , the biggest emphasis of practice is something between a pure technical focus and a pure competitive focus. In BJJ, people usually learn by either learning moves from an instructor, or from rolling live. In the grand scheme, those are two opposite extremes of training – and the BEST schools do activities that exist between these two opposite poles.

    Junior refers to Olympic wrestlers and the athletes in the famous BJJ documentary called “Arte Suave” (like Andre Galvao, Rubens Charles, etc…), who do shadow grappling (grappling against an imaginary opponent), drilling of the essential motions of Jiu Jitsu (shrimping, stand-ups, etc…), flow grappling (a kind of light sparring where both partners just flow through positions and hit techniques on one another just to see where they end up and learn about new positions and moves) and other kinds of exercises that aren’t quite as light as learning a technique, and also aren’t quite as hard as competitive sparring.
    Junior believes that using plenty of activities between these two extremes is how the best in the world in all sports develop their skills fastest and most sustainably.

    Junior battling it out in another BJJ absolute division.


    The ‘Mental Game’ of Combat Sports

     

    Of everything that Junior has learned from wrestling and from the world’s best wrestlers, he says that far and above the aspect of ‘mental toughness’ is what stands out the most as a key factor in success (and he’s memorized a surprising number of their best quotes). There are a few key themes that came up time and time again in our conversation:


    A) Taking the Harder Path

     

    Henry Cejudo (US gold medalist in wrestling at the 2008 Beijing Olympics) says that we need to always do things we don’t want to do because this translates to the mentality we need on the mat.
    Junior told me some crazy stories about how hard the best wrestlers would practice, and that often they may have crossed into the domain of “overtraining” and yielded less physical benefit from workouts because of it – but that the mentality developed from pushing through pain and agony time and time again – the mentality of choosing the harder path and taking it – proved more valuable on the mats than anything else.
    Hence, Junior goes for runs in the early morning (a-la Rocky Balboa) not because he gets any more fitness benefit in the early hours, but because its just harder to do. He tells stories of world-class wrestlers running themselves into the ground in practices only describable and “mind-numbing,” then taking painfully cold showers in ice water without flinching. He believes that if Jiu Jitsu athletes trained this hard, the sport would reach another level entirely.


    B) Setting Rigid and High Standards

     

    Cael Sanderson says “You have to live every day like a champion.” Lee Kemp asks himself “Will this take me closer to, or farther away from being a chamion?” before he eats anything. The best in the world have less off-days… or even less “off-moments,” than their peers.
    Its about finding a game plan and holding to it with religious fervor, never allowing the all-important little details of diet, sleep, and quality training slip away for even one minute. Most people are incapable of doing this.


    C) Going Above and Beyond the Competition

    Terry Brands once said something like “The difference between 1st and 2nd is doing something every day that your competition isn’t doing.”
    It could be twenty extra reps of a takedown, it could be another round of calisthenics, it could be a morning drilling session. Whatever it is, it should go beyond what anyone in your division is even thinking about doing.
    The important lesson that Junior learned from wrestling is that not only will this kind of practice yeild physical and mental toughness benefits, it also makes a competitor feel more worthy of victory – feel more deserving of the gold – which is an extremely important kind of mental attitude at the highest level of competition.
    The athlete who knows he has worked harder than his opponent’s keeps this in the back of his mind and carries it into every match.

    Dan Faggella

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