Feel Like You Aren’t Improving in BJJ ? Some Practical Tips to Accelerate Progress
Today one of the students training in open mat asked me what seems like an important question. He said something like: “I feel like I’m not making much progress in jiu jitsu. I’m getting in 3-4 days a week. What mix of Fundamentals class, Intermediate class, and open mat should I be doing and how can I keep progressing.” The first thing I said was to mention something that the great multiple time Olympic Champion wrestler Sergei Belaglazov once told me when I was about 13 years old, in his Russian accent. He said, gesturing with his hand: “the path is never straight up. Sometimes you are flat, then you make quick improvement. It’s not a straight line as you improve.” I’ve found this to be very true in both my own experience and coaching during over 30 years of wrestling, jiu jitsu and MMA. The sudden ups though don’t always come as a brilliant epiphany. Sometimes they are even hard to notice, especially when your training partners are also improving. The takeaway for BJJ, Muay Thai, wrestling, and MMA practitioners is not to always expect linear or even consistent progress. That said, the following tips WILL help you progress. Although these are addressing BJJ students at Stout Training – Team Renzo Gracie Pittsburgh, the ideas are applicable to other combat sports and martial arts.
You have to do jiu jitsu, relatively often and consistently to get better. Two sessions per weeks is usually the bare minimum to see any real improvement at the beginner stages. We’ve all heard the adage that “mat time” trumps almost everything else over the long term. This is true……up to a point. At lower skill levels it is easier to make improvement by just showing up. During your first 4-8 months this may be the best approach for many, if the teacher and curriculums are adequate. Show up at LEAST twice per week, ideally 3-4 times per week, and just take in your experiences in class. At a certain point though you are going to experience a flattening of your learning curve, a diminishing of returns if you just “show up”. If you’ve been in jiu jitsu long enough you probably can think of a friend or training partner that is pretty consistent, gets lots of mat time, but never seems to improve. Some will say; “He just doesn’t have talent, ability”. While natural or innate aptitude is a real thing I don’t think it accounts for long term stagnation of people who are putting in the time . A few things stand out in people who show up often but don’t improve.
Active vs Passive Learning
The first is having a passive, receiving attitude. Another way to describe what I mean is just letting and instructor feed you material and not engaging with it. For example, you may be executing a technique in the following way: your instructor told you to put your right arm on the hip, grip the left leg, now drive your partner’s leg back. A passive learner does the basic moments but doesn’t think about what they are doing. They are just going through the motions, just doing it without thought. The proper way to practice is to try the technique, then understand what each movement is trying to accomplish. It is important and think about how the technique can be applied and why it works overall. This is much different than mechanically just doing a series of movements.
Live Training Partner Selection
A second reason for lack of improvement has to do with live training and selection of partners. If someone always selects partners who are less skilled than them their defense can suffer and they can even develop bad habits. Sometime the best learning happens when someone shuts down a technique. For example a leg drag without proper body position and grips may work on a white or even blue belt but if you do the same technique on a purple belt it will be ineffective. This is an example of an opportunity to improve and correct those mistakes. If someone always selects partners that are significantly more skilled or much bigger and stronger they may never develop offense and may become tense and lack a fluid game. This is because they are always defending, and usually a step behind. Shawn Williams, renowned Jiu Jitsu instructor, goes so far as to say that when there exists a significant skill difference the more skilled person is “drilling”, even when live training because they are generally in control of the situation. What is the optimum mix? John Danaher, another legendary Jiu Jitsu and MMA instructor I’ve had the pleasure to learn from, once told me once that 70/30 is a good guide. He says 70 percent of your live training should be with those less skilled than you while the remaining 30 percent should be with people of your skill level or higher. This is a big advantage of being a member of a larger school with lots of training partners and also a reason to travel occasionally and possibly do competitions.
Reflection and Self-Coaching
I mentioned that failing in a technique is a learning opportunity. To improve faster seize those opportunities. The only way to do this is to reflect on what happened. Your opponent escaped from your armbar? Why? In what position did it happen? Has a similar thing happened before during training? Or, maybe you keep sweeping opponents from the same position. What is making your sweep effective? Reflect on this and follow up by putting yourself in these positions during drilling and live training with the intent on exploring them. Ask training partners and instructors to help you with specific positions.
Developing Your Favorite Technique vs Expanding Your Repertoire
There are two seemingly opposing ideas that need to be balanced in order not to stagnate. First you have to find your favorite positions, moves and transitions and continually improve on these until you are better than your opponents. By better I mean better understanding, better timing, better follow-ups, and better integration of your favorite positions into the semi-chaotic flow of a match or live training. How do you do this? This is where the Art (arte suave, martial art etc.) comes in. It is what feels best for you, what you continually find yourself in, what appeals to you on an aesthetic level. There is also some influence on your style by the team you are part of. For example if your teacher likes leg locks you will be more likely to make this part of your style. Body type and certain physical gifts and limitations may play a roll. For example if you are 5’5” tall, ten percent body fat, and weigh 240, The triangle may not be one of your favorite techniques. But for the 6’3” 155lb guy the triangle may be an integral part of his game. For the tall lanky person it makes sense to learn some guards that play into triangles and focus on shutting down all the escapes from triangles. On the other side some people, particularly blue belts in my experience, will sometimes get stuck only playing one game. For example they will only play traditional half guard. First this gets stale and boring. Second it is very limited and a higher-level opponent may find a way not to let you into your game. Going to classes can help here as well as watching competition and instructional. There are almost infinite variations of technique and you don’t need to learn them all. You do need to have and an answer in your style to several common positions like standing, top open guards, closed guard, half guard etc. In developing your own game it is important to drill / play with positions outside of structured classes. Two things can help. One is to get a trusted and regular training partner to do at least 15 minutes of drilling or non-competitive training with you on a regular basis. Open mats are good for this. Another is to stay focused. Don’t always play around with the current trending move or submission then move on to something else. . Stay on something until you learn it well enough to either eliminate it as not being an integral part of your game, or integrate it into your overall style. Private lessons can also be a big benefit in finding and developing your style.
Classes vs Open training
The ideal mix would be some of each. As you progress you need less formal classes and more self-structured practice. This doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t come to class. You see some of the most accomplished athletes in the world taking formal classes. For example the last time I was at Renzo Gracie NYC academy a few weeks ago, UFC Champion George St. Pierre was taking Johns Danaher’s class along with me and all types of other students. At first , beginner classes should be 100% of your training, during your first several months of jiu jitsu (if you are at a good school of course). As you progress a mix of drilling with trusted partners, live training with a large variety of partners, class at least one class per week, and an occasional private lesson focused on some specific areas is optimal. Part of the benefit of self-structured drilling is it forces you to make a plan. One of my former wrestling coaches, Greg Strobel (former USA Olympic coach), felt that designing their own practices was essential for high level wrestlers to reach their potential.
Conclusion and Key Points
I often get students ask me “what can I do to get better”. Wanting an edge is a good thing, a good attitude. While I recognize that there is a desire to improve and respect this, the way this question is put sometimes betrays either impatience or a passive learning attitude. In the beginning stages my answer is often just keep coming to class consistently. Sometimes this is not what students want to hear, especially in the modern world of quick gratification, but it is the best advice based on years of personal and coaching experience. For those who have had more training time the answer can usually be summarized as the points below:
-Take a more active (vs passive) role in your learning
-Reflect and be your own coach
– Use live training to improve
– Build YOUR style, your favorite techniques and “go deep” into them
What all these things have in common is FOCUS or said in another way ATTENTION. These can be abstract concepts. What it means more specifically is attention to your mistakes, attention to the whys of the techniques, attention to what is working, attention to patterns. These types of focus are all involved in taking action on the key points above. Is it easy? No! Attention and focus seem to be harder than anything for most. It’s harder work than most physical or other mental things. If it were easy everyone would do it, right? Lastly don’t be too hard on yourself. As I mentioned at the beginning Jiu JItsu and probably most other skills are never a consistent climb but a path with hills and valleys. It is easier to focus if you enjoy what you are doing. So my final advice is adopting an attitude that that makes jiu jitsu fun! That way even the hard part, focusing, will be rewarding.
Warren Stout – Renzo Gracie Black Belt Jiu Jitsu, former wrestler, head instructor Stout Training