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Anyone who has trained BJJ for any significant amount of time will have, whether they realise it or not, danced the `Brazilian Tango`.

In case it doesn`t immediately spring to mind, let me remind you of some of the steps involved:

Variation 1: two steps forward, one step back
Variation 2: three steps forward, one step back
Variation 3: one step forward, two steps back!

Does it sound a little familiar yet?

The `Brazilian Tango` is the name I have given to the frustrating training phenomenon when, perversely, gains are seemingly coupled with backward steps in progress.

It is not a phenomenon unique to BJJ, but knowing other sports performers suffer the same fate does little to ease the pain; I have seen many athletes leave their chosen sport due to these perceived regressions in standard. How often have you heard around academies, “Man, I couldn`t do anything today. I don`t know what`s wrong with me,” “I just got tapped by girls I never tap to,” “I`m training hard but I feel I’m getting worse, not better”?

In this article I would like to offer some tips and insights that I have found useful in not only surviving the ‘Brazilian Tango’, but looking forward to dancing it.

Practice makes perfect

Most of us have grown up to believe and expect hard work to pay off. These sort of maxims proliferate our training psyches:

· Train hard, fight easy
· 10,000 hours to mastery
· Practice makes perfect

Remember, as a child, learning to ride a bike: There was certainly pain involved; hours in the park, falling off, getting back on, crying, parents fixing the holes in our knees. Then, after the hours of toil and trouble, we could do it; a little wobbly at first, but we could do it, never to look back. We were riding.

It would be absurd to think, after ‘cracking the bicycling code’ that we would one day, for no apparent reason, just fall off; completely losing our acquired skills and dropping standards, reduced once again to the levels of a ‘mere pedestrian’! So why does this sort of thing happen in our BJJ training? Why must we dance the ‘Brazilian Tango’? How can we feel better about dancing it?

Are we really moving backwards?

As bad as our ‘bad days’ feel, when we dance the Tango are we really taking backward steps? Could we actually be mistaking regression for progress? If we are suffering regression, is there a simple cause and solution?

It’s harder than riding a bike

As much of a worldly conquest as it seems, riding a bike is so much easier than BJJ!

BJJ is a deeply complex sport and art that engages us at every level; physically, mentally and emotionally. The skills we use to master bike riding (balance, upper and lower body co-ordination, focus) are only just sufficient to make it through the warm up of a classic BJJ class! We must never underestimate how difficult it is to do what we are doing! (The details of motor and other skill complexity in the learning of BJJ are beyond the range of this article, but I suggest you read “Mechanisms of Motor Learning and Martial Arts Instruction’ by Khawer Masood to gain a deeper understanding).

As you progress, your instructor will be introducing you to ever more complex moves that can, initially, leave you feeling overwhelmed and that, all of a sudden, ‘you can’t do this BJJ thing anymore’. You can; you've just been asked to learn something infinitely more complex that has caused you to momentarily panic whilst you find your feet (it’s actually a compliment that your instructor respects your skills enough to bestow this new level of difficulty upon you).

To counteract this, periodically go back to basic moves that you know you do well: this will return a sense of security amidst the maelstrom and remind you that you do still have a level of competency.

Need an early night?

An Academy is an intense place (even the more relaxed ones); a heady mix of strong wills, desire and striving for development creates an atmosphere that obliges students to improve. This dynamic can mean, amidst the sweat and tears, that we fail to pay attention to the internal messages from our bodies that are telling us that we are tired and need to rest. We may well be pushing ourselves toward exhaustion in an attempt to ‘keep up’ (doing both morning classes and night classes are a good example). When our performance dips it could simply indicate that we need ‘a time out’.

Avid BJJ student and A&E Doctor, Marc Barton, explains: “It is widely accepted that tiredness and sleep deprivation impair cognitive performance. Many of the adverse physiological effects, such as increased cortisol levels, reduced growth hormone and testosterone levels, directly effect athletic performance. It’s easy to see, therefore, how tiredness can reduce someone's ability to both learn and apply his or her jiu jitsu. It is also easy for the jiu jitsuka to be oblivious to these effects in the heat of training. The release of adrenaline and other sympathetic hormones can easily mask the body's perception of being tired”

In short: you may be failing because you are ailing! Get some rest!

Pushing boundaries

If you really want to progress, there comes a time when you must move beyond your comfort zone into untested waters. Take, for example, the competitor who wins every local tournament with her ‘signature triangle’. Her room is filled with shiny medals that are the pride of her family and the envy of her colleagues. Who on earth would want to change such a winning formula? She is a ‘star’ in her world.

‘Competitive evolution’ dictates though that this competitor move up a league and into deeper waters; to regional competitions maybe. All of a sudden, her signature triangle is being destroyed, stacked, passed, broken and generally ‘rubbished’. There is every chance that this fighter will leave the event totally demoralised and feeling that she has ‘moved backwards’.

This is the time to objectively assess what has happened: as a ‘big fish in a small pond’ (competing locally with a ‘killer sub’) the accolades flow - medals, t-shirts, free gis and your name at the top of the leader board, but no real change or advancement of your jiu jitsu game. As a ‘smaller fish in a bigger pond’ (competing nationally or internationally with a limited game against a much more diverse range of fighters) the accolades may well dry up! However, the experience you gain from mixing it with these significant others is guaranteed to grow your jiu jitsu.  

You haven’t gone backwards, you've gone forwards; just not towards medals (yet)!

Wide belts

BJJ belts are wider than any other in martial arts. For example, the difference between a recently promoted blue belt and a blue belt on the cusp of purple can be as much as four years experience - this difference in standard can be massive!

This became clear to me in one of the first competitions that I fought in. Leading up to the event I had been training at my academy with my fellow blue belts. I knew them all; most of us had started together and progressed at roughly the same pace. I thought I knew, from inside my world, what a blue belt represented; how different could it be? So when I was triangled quickly by a blue belt from another school I was obviously filled with doubt: “ Have I got worse?”, “Should I be a blue belt?”, “What just happened to me?”.

Two weeks later, in my second competition, the very same fighter was fighting as a purple belt: the ‘word on the street’ was that his defeat of me finalised his promotion (not that I’m some superstar that encourages graduation on my conquest - I suspect his coach had realised it was time for ‘his fish’ to enter a ‘bigger pond’).

Remember, don't pay too much attention to others standards or belts; they have nothing to do with you. Keep your attention on your game and be mindful of your progress only - you will notice your advancements if you pay attention to them.

Out there…

This last thought is a little more ‘out there’. It is 100% anecdotal and my only evidence for it being true is that I have experienced it, and seen others experience it, so consistently that I now firmly believe it as truth: Just at the point when great progress is made, we briefly experience a backward step. It seems to be one of those strange unfathomable ‘Universal truths’ (like electricity- we know it works but where can it be found?, baby pigeons - who has ever seen one?, missing socks in the wash - where do they go?).

I think it works something like this: to experience something, you must first experience its opposite so that the new phenomenon  has a contextual field in which it can exist. Think of the Yin/Yang symbol of Chinese martial arts and medicine: the white of the symbol can only exist within the contrast of the black, the black only appears amidst the white. Regardless of how it works, rest assured that at the point when you despair, good things are just around the corner.

If all else fails, and none of these tips and thoughts assists your dancing of the ‘Brazilian Tango’, go home, ask your mum to make you a cup of tea and get her to tell you how great you are. Mums always think we are ‘the best’ and, you never know, she may also polish your tango shoes as well as sort your laundry.

Enjoy the dance.

Matt Jardine is a full time Martial arts teacher, writer and BJJ fanatic trying to come to terms with escaping side control 

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February 09, 2016 — Jiu Jitsu Style