Why Is Open Mat So Special?
By Joshua Rozenboom
Peruse any academy’s schedule, and you’ll see two of the most enigmatic words in the Jiu Jitsu language: open mat. To the uninitiated, open mat sounds vague and benign. What does it mean? Is it free time for students? Can you just show up and do cartwheels or WWE moves? Is it the battleground for the die-hards who are perfecting secret death holds? Open mat is all of these things, and none of them. Open mat is the best class that is not a class, and is arguably one of the most important sessions of the week.
Traditionally, open mat serves a couple of purposes. One, it allows unstructured time for students to work on their own. Classes aren’t necessarily personalized; everyone learns the same techniques at the same time, and should be drilling what the instructor chooses. Some students, however, will have different questions, problems, or positions to work that aren’t covered in class. Open mat is a great time for students to drill more personal aspects of their game.
Second, it allows students and instructors to train everyday without needing a dedicated staff to guide the class. Even instructors want to be students now and then, and open mat is a kind of level playing field where everyone can show up and train. Higher belts get to train with each other and spend time exchanging ideas and positional information without the confines of an instructor lead class. Lower belts get to practice freely, against whomever they can, and if they’re lucky will get some high-level assistance in a less formal environment. Open mat is a place where you really see how eager students are to help each other and exchange information.
Beyond that, however, open mat has become a communal hub, a common room of the local Jiu Jitsu community. There are a handful of schools in the Phoenix area that host true “open mats” on the weekends, where students from all schools are welcome to show up and train under one roof. At these open invite sessions, you’ll find a huge variety of Jiu Jitsu practitioners. The who’s who of local competitors will drop in to train with each other outside of the pressure of competition. Professors from other teams will show up with their students to help support their peers and build unity between academies. Students who are in-between schools, or are having trouble attending regular classes for scheduling reasons, have the chance to keep their Jiu Jitsu alive on the weekends.
For the new students who show up to these sessions, the spirit and the community of Jiu Jitsu are on display. Some have become holiday traditions, where one school or another will extend open invites to local academies and anyone looking for a place to train when their school might be closed. And in some cases, academies will host open mat fundraisers for a student in need or a local charity, often with great support from the community.
Open mat may sound like free time, and in that regard it’s valuable: more drilling and more sparring is always good for your Jiu Jitsu. But in many ways open mat is bigger; it’s about the community, and the progress of Jiu Jitsu as a sport. It’s about meeting friends and understanding that we’re all united through this art that we all love. So go do some cartwheels and support your local open mat!