Like many martial arts, jiu jitsu has an inherent focus on learning.
The cool thing about this is that practices that focus on learning also have an inherent focus on growth. You can see it in the language. Compare the way that we talk about BJJ versus other sports. You play basketball, but you train jiu jitsu.
So now we return to the age-old question: “How do I get better at jiu jitsu.”
The most common answer to this question is as wise as it is simple: “train.”
Common variations of this answer include various prepositions and adverbs that modify the advice in different ways. Some of my favorites are: “just train,” “train more,” and “just train more.”
The answer stings because of its simplicity and truth. It is offensive to the mind, which in turn insists I already knew that!
This answer forces to face ourselves. It strips away all excuses. Am I training or am I not? Answer the question honestly because the most important factor in getting better at jiu jitsu is consistency
The most consistent you are, the better you will get. The opposite is also true. Less consistency means less progress.
It doesn’t matter how complex or innovative a training methodology is if it isn’t being executed on the mats. Strength and conditioning are not a substitute for technique. While smart training will certainly accelerate your rate of improvement, these benefits cannot be enjoyed unless one actually practices jiu jitsu. There are no short cuts. The training must be done.
While this might seem like kind of a bummer, it is actually great news. It means that anyone who does the work can become a master at BJJ. All you need to do is stay on the path.
THE HARDEST PART OF JIU JITSU:
This is where we all run into difficulty. Most people think that the hardest part of learning jiu jitsu is the physical and mental task of the martial art. Not true, the hardest part is actually maintaining the practice for the years that it takes to learn it.
In other words, the path to jiu jitsu mastery may be difficult in and of itself, but staying on the path despite these difficulty is even more difficult.
This is because there are so many other things going on in our lives. Sometimes, the other things in our lives have to take priority, and require us to take time off training.
Jiu jitsu is also very physically demanding in a specific way, which can not only lead to an accumulation of bumps and bruises, but also imbalances in musculature and movement mechanics over the years. If not properly dealt with, these minor issues can grow into full blown injuries that prevent you from training.
As such, simply telling ourselves to be more consistent is a poor strategy. The possibility of unforeseen life events or injuries taking us out of training is a very real problem. If we do nothing more than promise ourselves to stay on the path to jiu jitsu mastery, it is tantamount to burying our heads in the sand and ignoring the problem.
Ignoring the problem leaves us at the mercy of these unpredictable events. We must do the opposite.
Instead of ignoring the problem, we have to acknowledge it. Once we do so, we can start to plan and put safeguards in place to mitigate the chances that we have to take time off jiu jitsu.
HOW TO STAY ON THE PATH TO JIU JITSU MASTERY
Below, I’ve created a list of the top 5 strategies that help me stay on the path.
Keep in mind that there is no need to use every single strategy, and that you might not mesh with all of them. The key thing here is to put something in place as a buffer against both injuries and the unexpected.
Experiment. Figure out which strategies work for you. Come up with your own!
The best method is the method that you will use.
Now, without further ado. The list!
The Top 5
1. Avoid complete time off. Train at least once a week
Complete time off is when you are not training any jiu jitsu for an extended period of time.
Although you might not be optimizing your training for improvement, training even once a week makes a huge difference in maintaining your skill in jiu jitsu. Every little bit counts, and something is still better than nothing.
This has the added benefit of keeping you thinking about BJJ at least some of the time, so when life blesses you with the opportunity to train more often, you’ll have an easier time returning to a regular schedule.
Personally, I’ve found that training once or twice a week keeps me hungry to train jiu jitsu, while not going at all eventually becomes a negative habit that makes it much harder to return to training.
2a. Don’t Max Out Every Day
This one is going to be controversial. Personally, I believe that rolling at 100% intensity too often is actually counterproductive to improvement. Before I go into the reasons why, let’s go over the definition of intensity and volume, as well as what “100%” actually looks like.
Intensity is the level of effort being exerted relative to your maximum capacity.
Volume, on the other hand, is the quantity of training.
If you are training at an intensity of “100,” it means that you are going completely balls to the wall. You are using as much strength, speed, and athleticism as you can as well as completely emptying your gas tank. 100% means everything you’ve got.
Now, the “old school” mentality might contend that more is always better, and that not training as hard as you can is a product of a lack of willpower and laziness. This is simply not true.
Realistically, an athlete cannot maintain 100% output every single day for an extended period of time. While full speed training is both beneficial and necessary, it is extremely stressful for the body, which means that it takes longer to recover from these kinds of sessions.
The body can only handle so much without adequate recovery. Eventually, the wheels are going to start to come off. In the real world, this looks like nagging injuries, psychological burn-out, and weakened performance.
In the long run, the athlete who maxes out every single day ends up training less at a lower overall intensity than they would have if they had chosen a more conservative intensity.
2b. More Volume, Less Intensity
Alternatively, you can reduce the intensity and up the volume.
The idea is to train just hard enough to create an adaptation while leaving you fresh enough match your level of intensity the very next day.
Instead of training at 100% until your body burns itself out, try training at 70-80%. Holding back 20-30% of your strength and athleticism will help you to focus on using proper technique. Finally, the lowered intensity prevents your body from getting too beat up.
Jiu jitsu is a marathon, not a sprint. Train at a level sustainable to you, and get to BJJ class more often.
3. Tap early and often
If getting better at jiu jitsu is your goal, the last thing you want to is get an injury, especially one that you could have prevented!
A good training partner might release a submission if he or she senses that you will injure yourself, but it is your responsibility to protect yourself.
The whole purpose of training is to get better. The insanely fun, addictive, and competitive aspects of jiu jitsu are just a by-product of the pursuit of this central purpose. Having an injury doesn’t mean you can’t train, but it definitely makes it more difficult. Tapping out does not mean that you’re bad at jiu jitsu. It doesn’t make you a wuss either. It’s just feedback.
So you got caught in a submission. No big deal. Tap out, reset the position, and get back to work.
Don’t hamstring your own progress by taking on unnecessary injuries.
4. Just get yourself to class
I learned this strategy three years ago from a conversation with Professor Wil.
It was my first day back after two and a half weeks off. It was a Wednesday night, so it was gi, and we were doing round-robins. I was standing by the fence waiting for my turn when he came up to me and asked me where I’d been. I shrugged and said “I’ve just been a little mentally weak.”
The funny thing about us humans is that even when we love something as much as we love jiu jitsu, there are times when we get sick of it.
It’s not a character flaw or weakness. It’s a feature of the machine. The mind shuns monotony and seeks novelty. We would get tired of our favorite food just as we get tired of jiu jitsu if we were forced to eat it every day.
With this knowledge in mind, we have to devise a way to overcome this tendency. Despite knowing that persistence will result in a greater reward, our brains crave the quick reward of skipping training (if only for a change of pace).
The solution he gave me was simple: Just get yourself to class.
Something magical happens when you stop arguing with yourself, get in your car, and just drive yourself to BJJ class. The rationalizations start to quiet a little. Once you’re on the mats and completed the warmup, they completely disappear. Soon, the class is in session and you’re training. The next thing you know, class is over and you’ve done it.
This is the magic of momentum. When you’re stuck in an argument with yourself about going to BJJ, it can seem like the last thing you want to do. However, once you’ve overcome that initial inertia, you start to build momentum in a positive direction and it becomes easy. The key is to skip the argument and get straight to building momentum.
Turn off your brain and get your ass to class.
5. Double Down On Recovery
The fifth and final strategy on this list is none other than recovery!
Recovery is an essential component of every training program for every sport. It’s literally how you get better.
Improving at jiu jitsu can be divided into two separate components: mental and physical.
The mental side consists of the neurological pathways built by repetition and conceptual understanding of the systems of BJJ. The development of “muscle memory”, coordination, mobility, and body awareness are a result of this part of training.
On the other hand, the physical side consists of all the (you guessed it) physical effects of doing jiu jitsu. Traits like musculature, strength, and endurance are an adaptation to the repeated stressors of the sport.
Here’s the thing: Neurological pathways and physical adaptations are only developed once your body and mind recover from the stressors that stimulated the adaptive response! In other words, you don’t get better while you train, you get better when you rest after training.
Also, as stated in strategy #2, inadequate recovery is recipe for getting injured. At the risk of sounding like a broken record, it’s not good to get injured. It’s obvious, but I think that’s part of the reason why it’s so easy to neglect recovery despite how important it is.
So how do you recover?
Well, I checked google and… there’s a lot of ways. If you haven’t already, I strongly recommend you give it a quick look. It can’t hurt, unless of course you don’t do it. Then you might actually end up hurt.
All jokes aside, I don’t think there’s any need to overcomplicate it. Try to keep it simple.
This means sleep, nutrition, and hydration. Common sense stuff.
Get off your phone before bed. Get 7-8 hours a night. This is hard for me. I’m currently at 6.5 – 7 hours a night. It’s better than what it used to be. I’m working on it.
Eat healthy, which for me means mostly whole, unprocessed foods. Protein, fruit, vegetables, some starch like sweet potatoes or rice. The stuff your mom told you to eat. I’ve also been known to kill entire pints of icecream and pies of pizza, but I try to limit that to a very occasional “once in a while.”
Finally, try to drink a 2-3 liters of water a day. If you’re training jiu jitsu, you need way more than the recommended 8 cups. Hydration is essential for not only recovery but also the proper function of the body as a whole.
If you’re not hydrated, you’ll perform worse, recover slower and eventually die. Seventy percent of our bodies are water. Drink it!
Aside from that, the biggest impact on my recovery has been going to the Friday yoga/mobility classes. Our instructors, Chelsea and Kellie have pushed me (with their hands and, at times, their feet) beyond what I thought was possible. They not only stretched my body, but also my mind with knowledge of body mechanics and mobility.
If you want to take your recovery more seriously, this is a great way to jumpstart your progress. Classes are at 7:30 PM on Friday evenings.
The title of this post is “The Top 5 Ways to Stay on the Path to BJJ Mastery.” Honestly, I’m not a huge fan of the title, but I read somewhere that people tend to read things that have lists like “The 5 Best XYZ” and “25 Most Effective (insert thing here).” So that’s what happened there.
What I really wanted to call this was “Staying on the Path.” Pretty cool right? It’s not that different from the current title, but I felt like it was the most accurate representation of what I was thinking about while writing this.
I decided not to go with it because it seemed kind of very vague and esoteric.
What path? Where does it lead? After all, all paths lead somewhere.
So I added “…to BJJ Mastery” to the end to get the second half of the title. It’s the BJJ path and it leads to BJJ mastery.
But that wasn’t right either. It failed to convey what I meant by the phrase “Stay on the Path.” Yes, doing BJJ is “the path,” and it leads to mastery of the set of skills unique to jiu jitsu, but the incentive of a becoming a master at BJJ is the lesser half of the equation.
The Mastery of BJJ is the pinnacle of every single practitioner’s pursuit. It’s what we’re all so desperately working our asses off for. With that said, the only way to get there is to stay on the path. That’s why it’s important to focus more on maintaining the practice itself, and less on the end result.
If we can consistently get on the mats and train, mastery will take care of itself.
There are many good tricks that can help with this. I’ve listed a few above. But ultimately, it comes down to each of us, alone as individuals, to find our reason for staying on the path.
If you are disconnected with the reason you train jiu jitsu, the practice becomes a chore. Eventually, you’ll use up all of the willpower that you’ve been using to force yourself to keep training. Then what?
All of the best strategies in the world are useless without your personal answer to the question of “Why do I do Brazilian jiu jitsu?”
Find your answer.
Stay on the path.