“How can I get better at Jiu Jitsu? I know mat time is a big part of it, but what else can I be doing to optimize my growth?”
– Me (7 years ago in an online forum)
When I asked this question in a popular online forum I was mostly blown off and given conflicting advice. Just train more. Lift weights. Don’t lift, it wastes training time. There seemed to be no focus to HOW to actually get better at Jiu Jitsu. I should just keep banging my head against the wall until it worked.
What are the frameworks in training that lead to success? How should I be building my skills? What pitfalls should I watch out for?
Looking back on my journey now, it isn’t really a very complicated question to answer. I’ve written blog posts about most of the individual components, which you can click through to learn more about each topic.
Before I start, let me be clear that there are no shortcuts or easy routes. You have to put in the time and learn by doing, but knowing where to turn, or having a checklist of focus areas keeps the journey progressing. It wasn’t too long ago I was the worst grappler on the mat (by a lot), and now I’ve been teaching classes multiple days a week and I’ve had to get creative to make sure I’m getting better every day.
1.) Train Consistently To Get Better At Jiu Jitsu
When I picked out my ideal number of days per week to train and stuck to it, my growth became steady. Sure some days were better than others, but my overall trajectory was upwards.
I had to make some changes to how I manage my time to keep the space in my schedule. After a few months of consistency my training became a habit instead of an isolated event. This scheduled training time carried me through most of my journey on its momentum alone.
I could even find ways to improve my training off the mats by strategically using resources like YouTube.
For me having a buddy system was a good way to keep my growth competitive. Just showing up on a daily basis to check a box is not the same as coming in and training with purpose every day. There were some days where my mindset was just to make it through the class, but the more purposeful my overall goals were, the stronger the growth.
Taking ownership of my individual BJJ journey allowed me to take charge of being my own coach. I could focus on the areas where I needed to grow and pursue answers. I was no longer in the passenger seat waiting to arrive at an unknown destination.
The next few points are just gas on the fire for growth. If someone focused only on consistent training they can eventually achieve the rank of black belt. Never quit!
“It’s not who’s good, it is who’s left” – Chris Haueter
2.) Take Private Lessons To Get Better At Jiu Jitsu
With consistent training there is a good mix of learning new techniques, drilling, and rolling competitively. Eventually obstacles should show up on this journey. I found that there were some positions that I learned very easily, and others that just didn’t make much sense to me. When I found an entire position wasn’t making sense I realized it was time to take a private lesson.
After taking a private lesson I’ve always felt like I could have figured those answers out on my own, it just would have taken a very long time. Privates are shortcuts to knowledge and spending $100 to save 6 months of frustration has always been worth it. I know that to get better at Jiu Jitsu is largely predicated on time on the mat. Taking a few private lessons a year keeps my journey on course and shortens the time it takes to achieve my goals.
Strategically utilized private lessons are one of the main tools to prevent plateaus in improvement. Whereas consistent training was largely about application, having the right information is invaluable to getting better at Jiu Jitsu. Just having the knowledge from a private lesson is useless without putting it into practice. Make sure you aren’t repeating my biggest white belt mistake!
Adding focused knowledge to empower more correct defensive responses and attack chains.
3.) Attend Seminars To Get Better At Jiu Jitsu
Like private lessons, seminars are an important tool for getting better at Jiu Jitsu. The disadvantage, is unlike a private lesson these are not customized and tuned to my direct needs. Seminars help me expand my horizons and diversify my game.
During my first 5 or 6 years of training I made it my goal to make it to almost every seminar available. I actually made this decision after I missed a seminar and got smashed so much worse by everyone who had attended it. The difference was noticeable. I would way rather spend the money on a seminar than buy another gi for my collection or supplements.
An interesting aspect of seminars is that sometimes I have learned things in seminars that I didn’t know I needed to understand. When taking private lessons I’ve typically guided the process knowing what I have to work on. With seminars, I’ve been surprised to realize that there are a few concepts I never paid attention to that make everything work. An awareness of these micro-battles can leverage huge results.
Just like with private lessons, I always make sure I am taking detailed notes so I can go back later and drill and work live repetitions until my body knows the moves as well as my mind.
Learn how high level practitioners approach Jiu Jitsu in their best positions. Expand areas of knowledge.
4.) Cross Training To Get Better At Jiu Jitsu
Finding how to maximize my training time within my school was essential to my growth. At a certain point though I needed more variety in styles. Jiu Jitsu is a problem solving martial art, and eventually in my own school, I’ve seen most of the problems before. Cross-training is a unique chance to experience unique styles.
Branching out and experiencing new problems in cross training is a great preparation for competing in tournaments. The stakes aren’t as high yet, but it is definitely a trial run of thinking on my feet and adapting strategy.
Also, when I was newer I thought that there was only one correct way to do each move. There actually are numerous right ways, and depending on body type and other factors, another gym’s way of doing a move could match up interestingly with my game.
Training no gi when you are used to training gi or training in the gi when you are used to training no gi can spice up your growth as well.
There’s more than one way to skin a cat. Gain experience in those other ways.
5.) Compete In Tournaments To Get Better At Jiu Jitsu
Competing in a tournament is taking a Jiu Jitsu test against another fully resisting opponent who has also agreed to a “high stakes” test of their skills. I feel everyone who wants to become a black belt in Jiu Jitsu should compete at least once (and ideally at least once per belt level). There are few things more pure to show how efficient my techniques are, and how sound my strategy.
I have to have a quality gameplan, and follow the checklist for every tournament. If I loose, back to the drawing board, with daily training, privates, and seminars. If I win, I can’t let the gravity of past success go to my brain.
Just the very act of training for a tournament makes my daily work on the mats much more focused and goal oriented increasing the speed of improvement. I can’t help but get better at Jiu Jitsu when preparing to test myself.
Test live application to make optimized adjustments to preparation, mental training, and execution.
Getting better at Jiu Jitsu isn’t complicated. There are two basic parts – Adding knowledge and building muscle memory of that knowledge in live applications. Keeping track of when it is time to learn versus when it is time to perform helps frame my goals.
The “how” is the most individual part. What works best for one person, may be less effective for another based on learning styles, personalities, drive, and goals.
I can learn from private lessons, seminars, regular classes or even YouTube. Taking notes, and then drilling this knowledge live is how I improve my BJJ skillsets and make changes. Just collecting an encyclopedia of inapplicable knowledge is a waste.
Transferring knowledge into skills is “the work.” Whether I choose to drill, roll, positionally spar, or compete, I can solidify knowledge as muscle memory. The more focused I am on adding small chunks of knowledge at a time, the less overwhelming the process is.
There will be ups and downs in training. Plateaus will occur. Remember, don’t make Jiu Jitsu so serious it keeps you in a rut. Good luck, go train.