Carlson Gracie once said "If you want to be a lion you must train with lions."
So must you train with the best to be the best?
Many of us harbor a secret fear that if we are not training with the best we may question our skills and ultimately ourselves.
What if there is no barometer?
Imagine if you are trying to lose weight but you can never step on a scale to weigh yourself? You think you are losing weight because you can looking in the mirror and see improvement in your physique but you worry you may be deceiving yourself. You feel the need to test yourself, to weigh in so to speak. But sometimes you just have to trust yourself.
You may ask yourself "Am I good at jiu jitsu at the elite level or just within my bubble?"
There's no doubt when you want to reach the elite level it helps to be in an environment with others who have walked the path.
So generally speaking Carlson is right.
In fact I'm sure this even goes far beyond Jiu Jitsu.
When it comes to most sports or endeavors this is commonly the case. Surround yourself with talent in order to gain skills.
But there is hope for those without access to lions.
There are anomalies.
Each year the top ten wrestling teams have NCAA champions. Yet often a few guys from small lesser ranked schools will pop in the mix. It's rare, but it happens. And that person is often driven beyond the norm.
In MMA look at Conor McGregor, whether you believe he is skilled or not, his achievements are rare for his environment. He did not come up training with a team of UFC title contenders yet he succeeded.
In Wrestling, look at American Brandon Slay, an Olympic Champion, who was far inferior on paper to Russian wrestler Buvasair Saitiev. Yet the one area where Slay was strong Saitiev was weakest. Brandon had an amazing double leg takedown and after studying hundreds of matches of Buvasair he focused in on this one aspect and succeeded. You can watch it here.
In BJJ, the people at the top of the podium will generally come from the more competitive schools but every so often a will make it there without all the top training partners.
They may not get the most cutting edge techniques that many feel are necessary. But it can happen and it has.
Roger Gracie once said in Fighters Only Magazine this when asked who he was able to train with when he came to the UK after getting his black belt (at a time when there were hardly any others at his level in the UK).
Roger said: "The secret is in the person, if you really want to improve it doesn’t matter who you train with, you can find a way to get better. When I got my black belt I moved to London. I trained with my students, and would be rolling with blue and purple belts. I continued to get better, because I trained with dedication and not losing my focus.
I would still go to Brazil to train, and New York to train with my cousin Renzo for a month a year. I had to be cleverer, to improve myself I had to put myself in difficult positions that no-one could actually put me in, where I needed to escape. For example, I’d let someone put a choke on deep and from situations like that I improved. Anyone who is better can go out an demolish their training partners who aren’t as good as them, but you won’t learn like that, you won’t get better.
I also was able to train with Braulio Estima who is here, and we would train once or twice a week. I know people who have the best training partners but still don’t reach their potential, they don’t train the best way they could, so don’t improve as they could."
So what if you are at a recreational gym where there are no lions? Can you become a champion?