It’s kind of embarrassing to say this, but I secretly used to think that I was a genius at BJJ.
Like most people, my first six months in Jiu Jitsu went pretty much like this:
Go to class, drill the moves, get smashed by upper belts, go home, eat, sleep, repeat.
From all outside appearances, I was average… but on the inside, I imagined I had hidden talents, just waiting to emerge.
While I was waiting for my inner genius to manifest, I continued to train as much as I could. In the following months, I noticed that I was getting better. I got tapped less often and, every once in a while, would even get a submission of my own.
Looking back at that time, I now see that I was making consistent progress month over month — but at the time, it didn’t feel like that at all.
The Burn Out
No matter how fast I improved, I still felt like I was falling short of “how well I should be doing.” I also got extremely frustrated with myself whenever I performed poorly. To me, every mistake or “loss” during practice was a strike against me. If a training partner got the better of me, I took it as proof that I wasn’t really a genius.
Eventually, my chronic dissatisfaction lead to me getting sick of BJJ, and I promptly found any excuse not to go to training.
For about a month, I filled the gap in my schedule with video games and hangouts with my friends. I probably would have continued in that direction indefinitely, if not for a timely phone call from Professor Wil.
The conversation was pretty basic. He didn’t try to say anything profound or motivate me with false praise. In fact, he didn’t mention anything about my jiu jitsu at all. He simply asked how I was doing and checked up on me as a person.
I gave the standard response, “I’m good. Everything is okay.” I wasn’t lying either. Everything was okay. It wasn’t like I was going through a crisis or tragedy. I was just burnt out.
After I hung up the phone, I started to think:
Why was I so sick of Brazilian Jiu Jitsu?
Where did that initial passion go?
When did I stop enjoying it?
That night, I sat and thought for a long time, trying to answer these questions. Eventually, I just gave up and went to sleep. When I woke up the next morning, it became clear to me that thinking wasn’t going to solve anything at this point. It was time go back.
Going Back to BJJ
Later that day, I went and took my first Jiu Jitsu class all month. I’m not exaggerating when I say this: that class was the best class of my life. Everything seemed easier. I was hitting techniques that I used to struggle with left and right. It was like being in the matrix. I left the academy that night feeling like a million bucks.
As I was driving home, I started to wonder why I had performed so well.
I mean, I hadn’t been to class all month! How was it possible that I did better after taking several weeks off than when I was practicing every day? Technique gets better with practice, not without it. So.. what gives?
That’s when it hit me. The reason that I did better after the break had nothing to do with technique and everything to do with mentality. That night, I had inadvertently made a single mental shift that not only improved my performance on the mats, but also drastically altered the way that I approach jiu jitsu.
Don’t Think — Act!
Let’s do a quick comparison between the two states of mind I was in: the one before I took a layoff, and the one after.
- High expectations for performance during classes
- Judging and “grading” myself on my Jiu Jitsu
- Obsessed with being a genius/having talent
- Searching for “proof” that I was good
- Compared myself with others in the academy
- Little to no expectations regarding performance
- Content with the fact that I was able to train
As I was comparing the two mindsets, the first thing I realized was that there were a lot more things going through my head before the break. When I tried to remember what I was thinking after I came back, I couldn’t really do it because I wasn’t thinking about anything.
Let me explain.
Before my break, my obsession with the idea of being a genius lead me to ruthlessly judge myself with every rep and roll. Instead of appreciating the progress that I was making, I wasted time and energy comparing myself with not only the other people in the room, but my self-imposed ideal of who I should be.
On the night I returned to jiu jitsu, I wasn’t worried about how I did, or whether I was talented, or or what my performance said about me as a person. You see, I was fully aware that I was out of practice and had ZERO expectations for myself.
It was precisely that lack of expectation that gave me the freedom to “just do jiu jitsu.” For the first time ever, I let go of the pressure of maintaining my identity as someone who was gifted at BJJ. I allowed myself to become fully immersed in what I was doing — and it felt amazing!
Instead of judging myself on how I did or , I simply “did.” Because I was more focused on the task in front of me, I did better. This taught me a valuable lesson: believing that you’re talented doesn’t make you better at jiu jitsu, actually doing jiu jitsu does.
To be or not to be a Genius
In light of my realization, I started to remember all of the times I was stressed out about whether I was a genius or not.
As I thought about it more, I realized what a ridiculous question this was. There’s no clear cut way to measure talent. Sure, you can look at competition results, your rate of progress, and count the number of taps you get each class as “proof” of your genius.
Here’s the thing though: no matter how much “proof” you’ve gathered up, it won’t change the fact that the next time you slap hands to begin a roll, you will have to fight for the win all the same. During that fight, none of your past wins will help you. The only things that will help are skill and preparation.
Both skill and preparation are things that can only be gained by trading two resources that everyone has: time and effort. While being a genius or having talent definitely comes with its perks, it doesn’t mean that you’re exempt from this transaction.
As uber-athlete Kevin Durant said on the day he was drafted into the NBA, “hard work beats talent when talent doesn’t work hard.”
For every talented competitor you see on the podium at Worlds, there are dozens of equally talented people who didn’t make the trip, didn’t put in the work, or didn’t even stick with jiu jitsu.
Being talented is not essential to get better at jiu jitsu, but hard work is. You might as well put your focus on doing the work instead of whether or not you’re a genius.
For me, realizing that I’m not a BJJ genius marked a turning point in my jiu jitsu. Just like how a lack of expectations for myself led me to perform better than usual on my first day back to the academy, coming to grips with the fact that I am not a genius brought clarity to my training.
I knew that I would have to approach training with more focus. Because I threw the idea of being more gifted than anyone out the window, I doubled down on outworking them instead. I no longer got frustrated when I struggled or felt down when I failed. What reason would there for me to get upset? After all, I’m not a genius. 😉
We all have a tendency to want to see ourselves in a favorable light. There’s nothing wrong with that. It’s natural, it’s normal, and it’s very very common. However, we also have a tendency to become attached to the image we’ve created in our heads about who we are.
When this happens, we often attempt (in my case, obsessively) to maintain the image over almost anything else. The image becomes an expectation, and the pressure to fulfill that expectation distracts you from the things you actually need to be focusing on.
Let go of those expectations. I’m not saying that none of you guys are geniuses at BJJ. Who knows, you might actually be one. However, what I am saying is that there are more important things you can invest your time and energy into.
There’s no way to know whether you actually have the kind of talent that you think you have (or don’t have), so stop wasting your energy.
Instead, focus on the basics. Coming to class consistently, work your butt off, and enjoy your time doing Jiu Jitsu. If you do this or, in other words, actually try to improve your game every time you step on the mats, you’ll be miles ahead of the “talented” person who sits around trying to see where they stand amongst their peers.
Genius or not, you’ll still have to work hard. Better get busy.
— Coach Joe