MMA Concepts: Training for Skill NOT to WIN


Training is integral to becoming good at jiu-jitsu. It’s the same as learning a language, an instrument, or any technical skill, and it doesn’t matter if your ultimate goal is to have the skills to win a street fight or to dominate in a mixed-martial arts tournament. Learning jiu-jitsu takes time, effort, and repetition. There are no shortcuts to mastery.

Because sparring and rolling with other fighters is a core component of any martial arts training, it should be no surprise that jiu-jitsu training involves a lot of work with partners. In some cases, you may work with a partner at only 50% intensity as you learn new moves. This is particularly common for people who are new to martial arts.

As you increase in intensity, however, you may begin to believe that your performance during training matters as much as your performance during a real fight. Consequently, you might become increasingly fixated on whether you win or lose. Intellectually, you may know that training is not a real fight scenario and that getting tapped by an opponent is not the same as losing. Emotionally, it is always difficult to lose, especially in a room full of your peers.

The Ape Reflex

Lex Fridman refers to this impulse to always show dominance and never look weak as the “ape reflex.” It’s something that virtually everyone feels when they are in a competition, particularly when the competition involves measuring one’s physical strength or fighting ability against an opponent. It is a very powerful motivator during actual fights, and it can be the deciding factor among competitors of equal skill and strength.

However, this ape reflex can also be a hinderance to learning new skills. Rather than losing as you develop new techniques, listening to the ape reflex can make you stick to the same handful of moves that have worked for you in the past. Rather than taking risks in scenarios where there is nothing of real value on the line and expanding your knowledge of jiu-jitsu, you stay with what’s comfortable and never evolve beyond a one-dimensional fighter.

As John Danaher told Lex on his podcast, this is mistake. “You don’t need to win every battle,” he says in the below video. “You only need to win the battles that count.” John goes on to say, “You have to see training for what it is. Training is about skill development, not about winning or losing.”

Handicapped Training

John says that he is a big proponent of what is known as handicapped training, which is when a fighter purposefully starts off from a very weak position, and then devises a strategy to get out of it. It’s a beneficial training method for four reasons.


First and foremost, it forces fighters who may be accustomed to being in a dominant position to practice escapes. Consequently, when they face another elite fighter who puts them on the defensive, they will have a well-rounded enough jiu-jitsu game to be able to adapt and triumph.


Secondly, it levels the playing field enough so that more advanced fighters can benefit from working with more inexperienced fighters. After all, a lot of jiu-jitsu training is about learning to anticipate how others will respond given a set of circumstances, and then knowing how to counteract those moves. By rolling with more people, even very experienced fighters get to see more variations and learn how to adjust their technique to become more effective fighters.

Quelling the ape reflex

John mentions that Garry Tonon regularly uses handicapping training, oftentimes taking the method to extremes. He may start in a fully locked strangle, 100% on, with both of his hands behind his back. Seven times out of ten, he will get out of the hold. Three times out of ten, he won’t.

While this is amazing, John notes that the intermediate students who manage to submit Garry will oftentimes brag to their friends and assume that they’re naturals. Garry’s response is to shrug it off. He has managed to quiet the ape reflex and recognizes that putting yourself in a weakened position ultimately makes you stronger when it counts. He has managed to not let his ego stand in the way of his training.

Ignoring the lizard brain

Finally, handicapped training forces fighters to become accustomed to difficult situations. This allows them to learn how to control their fear responses in the hopes that they will be able to avoid a panic if they happened in a real fight scenario. This panic response is regulated by your brain’s limbic system, which is often referred to as your “lizard brain.” When it begins to fire on all cylinders, you stop thinking like a rational human and behave like a frightened animal.

While the lizard brain can help reptiles escape from predators, it does not make people better jiu-jitsu fighters. In fact, it makes them worse. When fighters are in a panic, they not only waste energy—they also make mistakes that their opponents can exploit. By constantly putting yourself into bad situations and becoming accustomed to them, you can learn how to quiet your lizard brain so that you can strategize and use jiu-jitsu more effectively.