I came across an interesting blog post the other day where the author talks about the risk of regressing in one’s jiu-jitsu skills despite regular practice.
Probably lots of us have felt at one time or another like we are moving backwards in our BJJ skills. Realistically though, if you are training consistently this is unlikely to actually be the case. The feeling that you are regressing generally comes from one of two sources:
1) Your training partners are progressing faster than you. If you are improving by x units per month and your sparring partners are improving by 2x units, then you’ll find yourself being dominated and tapped out by folks you used to spar evenly with. This can certainly feel like you are regressing.
2) Your perception and understanding of how you should execute your technique is improving faster than your physical technique. This you leads you to see more of the flaws in how you execute your movements. This is a common problem across many fields. I’ve frequently encountered it in my own music practice. Fortunately, if this is the case, you can just keep practicing and your body will eventually start to catch up with your brain.
It is possible to stagnate in your development – to make very slow practice despite attending class regularly. This will usually result in the experience referenced in scenario #1 above. I’d like to describe an approach to training that will help avoid stagnation and also give a more useful standard to measure your own progression than just the percentage of submissions you get against the guys you train with all the time.
Step 1: Identify a weak point in your game. Right now, one of my weaker areas is my open guard against a standing opponent. I have a lazy old-man jiu-jitsu game and I’ve gotten comfortable with using closed guard to slow a match down to my level. Open guard with a standing opponent is a much faster, more complex, dynamic, and athletic game.
Step 2: Identify just one important thing you should be doing differently in this position. In the case of my open guard against standing opponents, I have been neglecting the option of transitioning to the sit-up guard and threatening a single-leg. Once you identify the change you need to make, start trying it in sparring. At this point it doesn’t matter so much whether you suceed in the technique or not. What’s important is that you remember to try. Over the next few weeks, I plan to transition to the sit-up guard every chance I get, win or lose, just so that it can become a new habit. The measurement of your improvement at this stage is how often you remember to try to execute your new movement.
Step 3: Assuming the new movement doesn’t succeed every time (it won’t), identify just a few (no more than 3 at a time) technical details that you need to improve in order to help the new movement work. One of my teachers has already helped me find a few improvements I needed to make to my sit-up guard/single-leg attack. Once I’ve built the habit of trying to execute the attack at every opportunity, I plan on spending the next few weeks making sure that every time I try sitting up and taking the single-leg that I apply those specific details correctly. Once again, the measure of improvement at this stage is not how often you suceed in beating your opponent – it’s how consistently you remember to apply these specific details under stress.
Once you’ve gotten through stage 3, you can go back and repeat it with some additional details, or you can move on to step 4.
Step 4: If your new movement is feeling fairly solid, examine the most likely “what-ifs.” Once my sit-up guard to single-leg has become both reflexive and technically sound, I’ll look at the counter that my sparring partners most often use to stop the single-leg and identify the highest-percentage sweep to counter their counter. Once I’ve done that, it’s back to step 2 and step 3, first getting into the habit of trying the new movement and then making it technically sound. Once I’ve done that, I’ll repeat the process for the new most common counter, until I’ve built a short sequence of reliable moves to try. At this step, the measure of progress is having an actual combination of moves built into a consistent habit.
Note – it’s possible that while I am doing all this, some of my sparring partners will be doing the same thing with their top game vs the open guard and at the end my winning percentage against them won’t have improved at all. That’s okay. Even if I’m losing a match, I can still tell when I am playing a better technical game.
One final note – keep training. As long as you are focused on learning more than on winning, you will get better. Some of the talented prodigies who are blowing past you now will end quitting after a year or two or three. Jiu-jitsu is a lifetime of learning. If you train smart and can avoid career-ending injuries you can keep learning until the day you die.