The Law of Diminishing Returns is an economic concept that asserts that after a certain point, further investment (or effort) does not increase your expected return. In fact it can reduce it.
I first encountered this term, in relation to grappling, at an academy I was training at in Macon, Georgia. I was training with Rick, better known as Bumble Bee. Bumble Bee was 6’6 and 290 pounds and the nicest guy you would want to meet. The thing is, it would be nice to meet him in a regular setting. You don’t necessarily want to deal with him in a grappling session.
If I were closer to Bumble Bee’s size then grappling against him would not have been a problem. However, I was six inches shorter than he was and 70 pounds lighter. I was at a serious disadvantage. But at 6 ft., 220 pounds, I was the biggest of the smaller guys so I was always and I mean always paired with Rick.
When we squared off to roll against each other the same thing happened every time. We would slap hands and end up in a clinch. He would push me onto my back and I would pull guard. He would then dig his elbows into my thighs to make me open my legs. (This simple technique doesn’t usually work when going up against a person of similar build, but his size and strength made it feel as if I had two spears digging into my thighs.) After that he would pass into side control. We would then spend the next five to ten minutes with him lying on top of my sternum until he could secure the Kimura. Rinse and repeat.
My instructor Cam, witnessing my struggles week in and out, told me in his southern twang, “Bakari, you’re bumping up against the Law of Diminishing Returns.” He told me I might be a small guy when compared to Bumble Bee but I was relatively big when compared to the other guys in class. He said that the smaller guys could use their flexibility, speed and small amounts of space to get out of danger when wrestling Rick. However, the closer someone got to Bumble Bee’s size and strength they gave up speed, flexibility and the ability to create space.
He told me I was using my assets to my disadvantage. Unfortunately, I was at the point where my strength and size (although good for an average size opponent) was a detriment when facing Bumble Bee. Why? Matching strength was a no-no since his power dwarfed mine. Also, his size nullified any girth tricks I could try to employ. Further, if I were to gain anymore size, it would further inhibit my ability to create space.
In other words, Bumble Bee possessed strength and size in ‘spades.’ I would be wasting my time trying to match gifts that he naturally and easily produced. My best bet against Bumblebee would be to improve my flexibility, increase my speed, become leaner and refine my technical ability. (This is what BJJ is about anyway.)
Although I learned a lesson from rolling with my nearly 300 pound grappling buddy in Georgia, I still did not fully grasp how the Law of Diminishing Returns could apply to grappling until a year later. By this point I was living in Florida and training at a new academy. It was my first time being able to train with a gi. My previous four year of training (not including Judo) had been no-gi. After eight months my professor let me know that I could test for a belt. I couldn’t wait as I was very tired of people looking at my White Belt and assuming that I knew nothing.
I naturally assumed that I would be receiving a Blue Belt, but after testing I was informed that I would be receiving four stripes on my White Belt instead. I was also told that I could re-test again in three months for my Blue Belt.
I wanted that Blue Belt.
A fire lit in me like no other time in my previous four years of grappling. I increased the number of times I went to class each week and I drilled 100 techniques every day at home. I did all of these things no matter how I felt after work, no matter what else needed to be accomplished that day and regardless of how my body felt.
I didn’t want any surprises.
Needless to say, by the time of the test, my shoulders were creaking and my neck popped every time I turned my head to the left. I was sore all of the time and walked with a slight limp. I was a complete mess. Yet, I did earn my Blue Belt.
But looking back, I probably would have received the Blue Belt anyway. I believe I was ready for it when I first tested. When I first arrived at the academy I was able to tap all but one of the guys who were testing for Blue Belt my first go around. I also possessed the requisite technical ability. I also trained in Judo, which definitely helped my Brazilian Jiu-jitsu. But these guys had been training there for a year or more and I had only been there for eight months, so I believe I had to wait my turn. (Hence, the four stripes.)
In my efforts to insure that I would do well during testing I severely over-trained. I trained for a belt promotion as if I were fighting for a UFC championship. But, all I had to do that day was demonstrate 10 different techniques and then grapple a different person every minute for 10 minutes straight.
I was a classic example of overkill!
Recovery and Realizations
It took several months before my shoulders and neck stopped clicking and my limp went away. In fact, a large part of me being able to heal was due to my knee being injured the following week in class. (I folded my leg inward on a 260-pound guy that was trying to pass my guard. My knee folded in like a toothpick snapping. The pain caused an out of body experience and I emitted a scream that I am still ashamed of to this day. As a result, I had to stop training for five weeks before I could return.)
But that time away from BJJ helped me learn valuable lessons about grappling and more specifically, Brazilian Jiu-jitsu. I realized that I needed to pace myself and to be patient and that the art of grappling is akin to running a marathon and not a sprint. I realized that I can’t force people to promote me. There are politics and traditions that no amount of skill or attendance in class will overcome. Further I learned that over-training in attempts to get good (for individual growth) or for advancement and recognition (belt ranking) only leads to burnout, injuries and disillusionment and disappointment when it doesn’t happen as expected. As my current Professor always says, “Jiu-jitsu is a Haaaaard sport! It’s the hardest sport I have ever been involved with.”
We all have different goals with grappling but regardless of our desired outcomes we need to take a balanced approach in our efforts to avoid becoming a victim of The Law of Diminishing Returns.