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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. 

The Brazilian jiu jitsu experience is a journey.  It takes time to learn the sport, experience the culture and grow as an athlete.  Just like any journey, there are obstacles and roadblocks that pop up, which can distract or take you off the path.

The good news is that some of these potential pitfalls are common, easily recognisable and can be addressed in ways that minimise any impact. Here are a few of them, with some tips on how to keep them from derailing you and your progress!

Potential Pitfall #1:  Taking Too Much Time Off!

Things happen that take everyone off the mat from time to time. Injuries, work obligations, family commitments and other things conspire to make us take time away from training, or training as much as you want to train. These things happen and there is not anything overtly wrong with them, but what often happens as a result is that you have an easy entry into spending more time away from the mat than necessary. This can obviously have a huge impact on your progression as a BJJ athlete. The temptation can be that if you cannot train as much as you think you should, or as hard as you think you want to train, you do not train at all. This not only has the obvious negative impact on your existing rate of progress, but it also robs you of the opportunity to accelerate your rate of progress.

When we were purple belts at the Yamasaki Academy Washington DC, one of my training partners, David Jacobs, broke his thumb and had a cast just short of his elbow. This obviously limited his ability to train and spar and he was worried about the impact the 6-8 weeks off the mat would have on his progression.  After one week away, David came back with a new plan - he covered his cast and did “leg-only” drills and light sparring using his one hand and legs.  While it was frustrating at first to be limited in his training, it was extremely productive. When his cast came off, David found that all that drilling and legwork vastly improved his guard.  The negative injury became a POSITIVE because David did not fall into the trap of taking too much time away from the mat.

I am not saying we should ignore injuries and other aspects of your life away from training. I am saying to think in terms of what you “can do” as opposed to be too quick to think of what you “cannot do”.  When circumstances take you away from the mat, do what you need to do (rest an injury, take care of personal issues etc). The key is to make sure that you do not do MORE than you need and therefore negatively impact your BJJ!

Potential Pitfall #2:  Comparing Yourself to Others vs Focusing on Your Own Improvement!

It can be easy to fall into the “comparison trap”. You can get sucked into trying to out-do a teammate or a competitor very easily, as BJJ is a combat sport. One problem with this mode of thinking is that you start thinking about achieving results that are not entirely in your control.  You cannot control someone else’s schedule, training or conditioning program, so making that such a huge factor in how you evaluate success can be self-defeating. Your ability to achieve your goals in the sport, whatever they may be, would be better served by focusing that energy on self-improvement. Ironically, the strides you make by keeping your attention on your technical game/conditioning/gap-improvement etc will actually put in you in a much better position to compare favorably with others. Applying this principle will also allow you to learn to celebrate your individual improvement rather than comparing yourself to others. This help all helps you to maintain a HEALTHY love for BJJ as a sport and a lifestyle.

Potential Pitfall #3: Getting on the BJJ Emotional Roller Coaster!

Things like learning new techniques, hitting new techniques in training, doing well in sparring/tournaments can take us to real “highs”. On the other end of the spectrum is the real low that things like a poor performance in sparring/a tournament, a perceived “rut” in learning etc can bring on.  The thing is that it is so easy to LOVE BJJ and the BJJ journey that you unwittingly get on and ride the BJJ Emotional Roller Coaster.

I remember literally crying buckets after placing 3rd in my first Pan American (what it was called then) BJJ tournament in 2000 as a blue belt.  I had won 3 matches, lost in the semi-final by advantage and all I could think about was how I did not win gold. I sat in a corner with my bronze medal around my neck and cried for 15 minutes. There were many people walking by me who would have gladly changed places with me that day, but all I could focus on was my “non-win” and I was down on myself for weeks. Now, in retrospect, I celebrate the success I had that day as well as the lessons I learned in defeat.  I could have saved myself a lot of pain if, in this situation and others, I had a bit more perspective and stayed more even-keel in how I evaluated situations in BJJ. Sometimes the best way to avoid this is to keep a great core-group of teammates and training partners around you who will give it to you “straight” and help keep you grounded whether things are going well or you are in the midst of challenging times on the mat.

Emotions are great, but the trick is to manage your emotions in a way that they ENHANCE your BJJ experience and ability to have success!  Staying off the roller coaster and keeping things in perspective is step one.

Potential Pitfall #4:  Avoid Working Escapes!!

Escapes are just as much a part of BJJ as armbars, berimbolos and guard passes, but they often do not inspire the same excitement.  I have heard people dismiss escapes and shun drilling them, saying things like, “If I’m caught, I’ll just tap”.  That attitude is a huge impediment to your BJJ development, as EVERYONE gets caught. The real question is, who has the tools to get out once caught. Roger Gracie is arguably the greatest BJJ competitor of all-time and recently came back to the gi to compete against Marcus Buchecha, the openweight Mundial champion, in a submission-only match at a Metamoris event. Towards the end of the match, Buchecha caught Roger in an armbar and it was only Roger’s technical ability, matched by his courage, which allowed him to escape. My take away was that if Roger can get caught, ANYONE can get caught - and EVERYONE needs to focus on technical escapes with the same energy and enthusiasm as they do other BJJ techniques.

Enjoy the fact that BJJ not only allows you the ability to attack, but it also gives you options to defend submissions and continue the fight! Allow yourself to fall in love with the technical aspects of properly executed escapes the same way you are with fancy sweeps and flying submissions. This essential aspect of BJJ may not be nearly as flashy, but it will impact your BJJ game just as much and it may allow you to snatch victory from the jaws of defeat.

Obstacles come up in everyone’s BJJ journey. Overcoming and learning from these can be some of the most cherished experiences you have IF you do not allow them to be the end of your BJJ story. The above potential pitfalls are pretty universal and, if not addressed, can take on a life of their own.  Heed the warnings, address them and move on to bigger and better things in BJJ. See you on the mat!

February 10, 2017 — Jiu Jitsu Style