Our Opponents Are Our Best Teachers

Our opponents are our best teachers.

More than a win or a loss, I try to take something, some piece of information or experience from every opponent I face.  If we are not competing with the intention of improving our own games, what’s the point of competition?

Whenever I lose a match, I trace the steps my opponent had to take to defeat me.  Like in chess, if you truly analyze a game you can find the precise blunder or mistake made that caused the transfer of control from you to your opponent.  At a high level, that moment can be a tiny miscalculation, or it can be a gross error.

Once I’ve determined what that moment was, I drill the scenario in which that moment took place, and I choose a better alternative to my mistake.  I then deliberately place myself in that scenario dozens of times in live training against partners of all levels with the intention of seeing whether or not my solution to the problem works, and if it does, I try to sharpen my application of the solution.

These moments that I analyze can be simply brief missteps during a match, moments upon which my opponent may not have even known to capitalize, or they could be catastrophic failures that caused me to get submitted in spectacular fashion.  It doesn’t matter.  Knowledge is knowledge.

All of this information is gleaned from brief experiences with opponents that I usually don’t even know.

Then there are the “repeat offenders.”  Given that probably about 90% of the competitions I do are within a two hour radius of my house, there are certain people that I face off against over and over again.  Over time, we learn each others’ games (much like I do with my training partners) and figure out each others’ strengths and weaknesses.

A recent example from my own competition career:

One of my opponents at a competition about a year and a half ago, Sam, and I tore through our sides of an absolute bracket. We were set to meet in the finals.  I happened to be sick as a dog that day but was performing way better than I expected. However, I honestly didn’t feel up to the match.  I talked to Sam about this before we stepped on the mat and basically told him that I would step out there with him and give him my best, but that if he caught me, to please do his best to avoid injuring me.

We went out there and had an absolute war, both of us putting on really good performances.  Ultimately about 10 minutes into the match (no time limit sub only) he caught me in a tight heel hook, and I submitted.  He didn’t crank the heel hook, which I greatly appreciated.

We faced off again a few months later. This time, I felt much better, but again, Sam managed to outwork me and got a knee bar about 14 minutes into the match.

These two submission losses weighed heavily on me, and I started intensely training and learning leg locks.  I sought out instruction from people who know leg locks, and started going for them in training and in competition.

Interestingly enough, months later we competed at the same tournament but were in different divisions. Sam coached me.  We may be out to beat each other down on the mat when we compete, but we have become friendly over time.  I don’t have anything against Sam; I just hate losing to him!

A few weeks ago I met Sam again on the mat in competition.  We had two matches. The first one I won by heel hook. This was my very first win against this opponent.  The second match he had an answer for me and beat me by kimura.  Back to the drawing board!

If it wasn’t for Sam, I wouldn’t have ventured into the dark world of leg locks.  I wouldn’t have gone outside of my comfort zone the way I did.  Sam taught me so much about my strengths and weaknesses.  I hate losing to Sam or other opponents, but ultimately losing was what forced me to grow.  And this is not the only opponent with whom I have had these kinds of exchanges.


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