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About the author: Sam Joseph is a 3rd degree black belt, head instructor and owner of Buckhead Jiu Jitsu in Atlanta.

One of my students pulled me aside the other day and asked me what I consider to be a GREAT question.  He asked me: “what do I considered the best way(s) to stay focused on improving his BJJ game vs simply focusing on moving up in BJJ rank.”

As we discussed this topic, I found I had some very specific ideas that I want to share on a very important and sometimes confusing topic.

The first thing I’d suggest you should do to keep your focus on improving your BJJ game is develop a love for drilling. As we all know, top black belts have varying opinions on drilling. Competitors like Andre Galvao and Keenan Cornelius are huge drilling advocates, while others, like Kit Dale, play down the impact that drilling can have on your development. My focus is on what works for MOST people and, in my opinion, drilling (when done correctly and diligently) helps most people improve at a quicker rate.

The real key is to develop a love for either the repetition of drilling or a love for the impact you know it will have on your game. That will allow you to be the person who repeats the new move 1000 times as opposed to the person who does it twice and then impatiently looks at the instructor. It will also allow you to be the person who more quickly can apply techniques in sparring as you will not be spending time “figuring out the move” while sparring.

This brings me to the second tip to help you keep focused on actually improving your BJJ game: get something from every roll/sparring engagement.

Sparring can be challenging in that you often end up with a partner who is not a “perfect fit”.  They may be much more advanced than you or way more athletic. Conversely, they could be an inferior athlete or much less-versed in grappling than you.  In one case, you feel “over-matched” and in the other situation, you feel “bored” and you just “sleep-walk” your way through the session.

Both of these scenarios are OPPORTUNITIES for growth!  Someone much better technically than you gives you the chance to test your limits with enthusiasm.  You can gauge how they respond to your attacks and/or see how they attack and test your defenses. This is a real chance to LEARN and GROW.  I remember training with ADCC champion Pablo Popovitch when I was a brown belt and lived in Florida. Pablo was not only one of the very best nogi grapplers in the world, but he was a superior athlete to me. It was a humbling experience EVERY time we rolled… and we rolled often. The great part of it is that, to this day, I remember how he FELT… the speed, pressure and smoothness of his game - and that helped me establish a new standard for my own game.  Pablo, by simply being better than me, pushed me to be better.

This leads me to the opposite side of this equation. What happens when I am the “better practitioner/athlete” and how does that help my overall development?

Roger Gracie, the most decorated BJJ competitor of all-time, won most of his black belt world titles while living in London, England and not Brazil.  Roger was surrounded by his students, who while growing in technical ability and accomplishments by the day, were not yet at the same level as the best training partners who would be available to Roger in Brazil.  When asked about his training, one of the things Roger talked about was starting training sessions in “danger”/bad positions.  This served as an equalizer of sorts and allowed Roger and his partners to benefit.

Positional training and training specific situations also allow a “superior athlete/grappler” to get real value from training with someone else.  You can multiply the benefits by narrowing the focus of the live/semi-live training.  For example, you may have a partner who you can easily submit when you are on top, but they have a really good passing game that gives you problems. You could play “pass and sweep”.  This would allow you to work on your guard retention and sweeping against their strength and give you the chance to improve part of your BJJ game.


Staying in the area of sparring, the concept of “embracing tapping” is very liberating as you look to improve your BJJ.  If you walk into any school, the highest ranking black belt has most likely tapped the most.  We do not usually think in those terms as we just see this person having their way with everyone on the mat, but it is true. They tapped, learned from it, made adjustments and came back better. Whether consciously or not, they “embraced tapping” and that empowered them to improve and advance their games. The ability to see opportunity to grow and improve where many only see failure is often what sets these athletes apart from people who end up quitting the sport.

Finally, the best tip I have to keep your head in the right place when it comes to improving your BJJ vs moving up in rank is to set SPECIFIC GOALS. This, on face-value, sounds a little contradictory, but specific goals can be positive when they help provide inspiration to do the work required to improve. The key is to not allow the goals to be the “end-all/be-all”. Goals like “getting the next belt by year’s end” and “winning two tournaments this year” can help get you to the academy consistently and keep you on your diet and/or inspire you to spend 30 more minutes drilling.  These actions will help you with your ultimate goal of improving your game. The key is setting up specific goals that are in alignment with helping you improve in the long run.

There is great irony in the question of how to keep your focus on advancing your BJJ vs just advancing your rank. The reason is that by keeping your focus on advancing your game, you will invariably put yourself in position to steadily get promoted.  The same actions that support your BJJ growth technically and athletically will put you in positions to move from belt to belt.  The exclusive upside of this approach will be the more holistic BJJ view you develop as you advance in belt rank. You will put yourself in a position to fully enjoy all the aspects of your journey (social, mental, technical, physical) as you will not be singularly focused moving from white to blue to purple to brown to black.

I hope you take these tips, focus on your BJJ game growth and let ALL the benefits come to you!  See you on the mat!!
November 19, 2018 — Jiu Jitsu Style