This article was written by 3rd-Degree Roger Gracie Jiu-Jitsu Black Belt Nicolas Gregoriades.
We’ve all been there. That feeling of desperately wanting your BJJ to improve but it seeming like your progress is slow or non-existent. I experienced this often during the first few years following my black belt promotion. It was torturous. I felt like no matter what I did, I just wasn't getting any better. Eventually, I broke through that plateau, but I definitely could have done it faster if I'd been aware of some of the pitfalls on this list. Here are several things that could be slowing down your BJJ development:
1. You Train Too Little
It may sound obvious, but you’d be amazed how many jiu jitsu guys train 1-2 times per week and then wonder why they’re not getting any better. It’s my belief that training once per week is almost a complete waste of time. A seven day gap between sessions is way too long. Sure, you may be taught (or discover) something great in class, but by the time the next lesson rolls around, if you haven’t had at least one chance to revise and reinforce it in your memory, you’ll most likely forget it. Twice per week is enough (barely) for maintenance of your current skills but it will be hard to get much better. It’s my current perspective that three times per week is the absolute minimum for decent progress, and I have found that four sessions per week is the sweet spot between too little and too much. But this is different for everyone. A 20 year old professional jiu jitsu athlete with his own 'pharmacist' and who does nothing else but train and sleep might be able to push that to 12 sessions. A 50 year old with a stressful job and family might find even 4 tough classes too much for him. It’s up to you to figure this out by feeling what works for you.
2. You Train Too Much
Ok so it’s pretty unlikely that this is an issue for you, but it does happen. As is the case with many aspects of western society, our community often suffers from the ‘more is better’ mentality. We tend to think things like ‘Well if training 4 times per week is good, then training 8 times per week will be twice as good!’. It just doesn’t work like this. You have a limited ability to recover and if you exceed that ability, becoming overtrained is a very likely outcome. And it’s not just the number of training sessions you have per week, it’s also the intensity of those sessions. Doing some light drilling with a buddy is not the same as attending your academy’s competition sparring class. Again, it’s entirely up to you to figure out where the line between too much and too little training is, and how to walk that line.
3. Your Coach Sucks
For the vast majority of the people reading this is not an issue. Most jiu jitsu coaches are committed and passionate teachers, and your lack of progress is something you should take personal responsibility for. But in a few rare cases a crappy instructor could be what's slowing your development. Your coach may be an amazing competitor, but if his idea of teaching is to show a couple of moves and then sit against the wall playing on his phone while the students bumble through them, then he’s a lousy instructor. Teaching jiu jitsu is an active endeavour. A good coach demonstrates and corrects. A great coach demonstrates, corrects and motivates. If you're wondering whether or not your coach is hindering your progress, you might want to ask some of the following questions:
- When was the last time he sparred with you?
- When was the last time he gave you some individual attention and gave you actionable advice on how to improve?
- How often does he come over and correct your form while you are drilling?
- How committed does he seem to the progress of you and your teammates?
4. You're Not Conditioned
If you’re weak and inflexible with no stamina, you can learn all the fancy jiu jitsu techniques and concepts in the world, but they’re not going to help much. Well-conditioned athletes learn faster, recover more quickly and are less likely to get injured. So stop making excuses as to why you can’t swing a kettlebell or do some laps in the pool and get fit for the sake of your jiu jitsu. There are many traditional ways to improve your conditioning. If you’ve mastered all of these (unlikely) here are some more stimulating methods of becoming stronger, fitter and more balanced.
5. You Have No Plan
Jiu jitsu is just like so many other areas of life - without goals you become directionless. If you’re fit and have a great coach, you can go just go to the academy four times per week and you will definitely improve. But if you have a plan, you’ll improve much, much faster. I suggest that every couple of months you run a detailed analysis of your game and figure out the areas that you need to focus on. For example, last week I took an objective look at my game and realised that my half-guard is really not working the way I want it to. Now when I head to training I have a couple of concepts and techniques from that position that I focus on. When it comes to the sparring part of the class I actively seek out half-guard and practice them. In a couple of months I'll reassess and potentially focus on something else.
6. You’re Bored
I definitely do not believe that you need to be constantly trying new stuff. Most jiu jitsu guys collect far too many techniques and never practice anything to enough depth of understanding and ability. But at the same time, many of us get really good at certain things and then we become reliant on them. Or we don’t push ourselves enough. This can be characterised by not seeking out tougher training partners, or avoiding the challenge of competing. So after the 100th time you’ve used the scissor-sweep on a white belt at your gym, you start to become bored. You then lose energy and desire to train and your game stagnates. No matter what your belt or level of ability, there is always room for growth in jiu jitsu. There are so many new and interesting techniques, training methods and perspectives that boredom should never be an issue for long - but it’s your job to keep searching and growing.
7. You Haven’t 'Zoomed Out'
I'm sure you've experienced this before. You tap out to a lower belt during a sparring match, or you get beaten in a comp and then suddenly you feel that your whole game has gone to shit. You could be feeling this way because you're too zoomed in. You think your progress should go like this:
But in reality, jiu jitsu progress happens a lot more like this:
You could think that your jits is not getting better but just be on one of the flat parts of the curve. Your performance in the sparring segment of class is not a good yardstick. Think about it: if your coach is doing his job, and your classmates are all training as hard as you are, you’re all going to be getting better. This means that the guy who could beat you last month will still be better than you next month! Here’s my favourite exercise for 'zooming back out' and getting a more accurate idea of my progress: Each year on your birthday, ask yourself ‘Could the me of today beat the me of a year ago?’ If the answer is 'yes', then you're on the right track.