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By Sam Joseph

The road to a Brazilian jiu jitsu black belt can take 8-10 years if you are not a “full-time BJJ student”- which most people are not.  With that in mind, it is not surprising that all BJJ athletes have times when they hit “training plateaus”. 

Training plateaus are periods of time when the athlete feels like he/she is not improving regardless of the effort being put into their routine. To make matters worse, sometimes in these plateaus athletes actually feel like they are regressing. Plateaus are not respecters of belts…they afflict ALL belt levels and can strike at any time!

The good news is that these plateaus do happen to everyone who has put on a gi and trained for a significant period of time. The bad news is that the reality of that does not make you feel any better when you are in the middle of one of these plateaus, which can last for weeks or even months.

Plateaus can happen for a variety of reasons: over-training, not training enough, bad results in sparring or at a tournament, a slow recovery from an injury, trouble mastering a new technique or series of techniques, being ‘looked over’ for a belt promotion, etc. Over the years, I have hit a few plateaus and overcome them, so here are a few tips that you can incorporate to shorten the amount of time you are in this situation and to set yourself up for a nice jump of improvement when you come out of it!

 Tip 1: Drill the basics!

This will probably be the least popular tip, as drilling the basics is not a “sexy” idea. BUT, it is a key concept.  To drive home this point, think about these BJJ athletes:   Roger Gracie, Rodolfo Viera, Rafa and Gui Mendes.  While they are all very well-conditioned, they are all different in body type and in their outstanding physical attributes. Roger is long, Rodolfo is short for his weight and powerful, Rafa is a “normal-sized” man and Gui is fairly thin. I point this out because what they have in common is they are pathologically fundamentally sound.

Roger won the 2010 Mundials by cross-choking almost all of his competitors in his weight and the open division. Watching Rodolfo’s passing of the guard is like seeing a visual textbook. If you show Rafa Mendes your shoulder blades, he sticks to your back like he is super-glued to it. And, Gui’s pressure passing technique is simply perfection.

These athletes are able to show this technique in competitive environments, as they are hard-wired into them via hours and hours of drilling.  When I have come out of the other side of plateaus, I often have looked back to find small details that I was missing and/or getting wrong that sabotaged positions and movements.  Drilling the basics will help you clean them up and keep them clean so that you do not fall into this trap even as you learn more positions and concepts.

Tip 2:  Do positional training

Often people define plateaus by their ability to do well in sparring. If someone they used to tap starts to tap them or if someone they used to handle easily starts giving them problems, they feel like they are not getting better.  I have a few issues with making “how you do in sparring” the main measure of your BJJ progression, but in the spirit of getting out of the situation regardless of your attitude, my second tip is to incorporate positional training into your routine.

When I was a blue belt, the weakest part of my game was my open guard. When we sparred at the end of class, I was wary of working on it because if the person passed I would be stuck in a bad position - possibly for the rest of the roll. This was troubling because I knew that I had to improve that part of my game if I was going to take my BJJ to the next level.  Finally, one of my training partners came up with the idea of playing “pass and sweep” at the end of class.  We would start in open guard and when one of us either passed the guard or swept the other one, we would start again. This allowed us to go 100% but it also allowed us to TRY NEW THINGS as we did not have the fear of being “stuck” if something failed.

Both our guards improved so much doing this that we started getting together on Sundays to do this exclusively.  Over the years, we incorporated this concept into our training in various positions and have been rewarded with improvements each time. Positional training allows you to focus on an area in a way that can drive improvement via repetition  and competition.


Tip 3: Keep a training journal

I am a big believer in keeping some kind of training journal.  You can search online and find some really complex ones or you can simply get a notebook and organize one in a way that you feel most comfortable (that’s what I did).  The key is writing down notes on positions or concepts in a way where you can easily revisit if need be. One of the reasons this helps you when you hit a plateau is that plateaus are often MENTAL! One of my favorite sayings is that “things are neither as great nor as bad as you think they are”. That is often the case when people think about their training - they are neither the best BJJ athlete who ever lived nor are they the worst person ever to put on a gi.  In the past when I have been down on my training, I have looked back through my journal and been pleasantly reminded of techniques and concepts that I learned.  The simple process of reviewing often reinforced the idea that I had learned quite a bit over the years and that put me in a more positive mental state towards training, even during bad periods. Sometimes the journal provided more tangible benefit as I found “answers” to “questions” in training I was having problems with that were causing me to feel stuck.

Tip 4:  S-Roll

I discovered S-Rolling, or Submission Rolling, while a brown belt and training in Los Angeles with Shawn Williams (Renzo Gracie black belt/head instructor at 5-Star Martial Arts).  In a nutshell, S-Rolling is sparring using very little power and taking turns being the instigator with your partner. There are a couple of keys to making this effective.  First, while you aren’t using power your movements must be technically sound- offensively and defensively.  If you are caught in a position you are not familiar with, you do not just “power out”, you tap and explore the position later.  Everything must be technically sound.  Also, a lack of power does not equal a lack of speed.  You move and flow at as close to normal speed as possible. For me, this is one of the most beneficial parts of good S-Rolling. By flowing without power, you often are able to clean up entries/transitions/techniques AND it also EXPOSES gaps in entries/transition/techniques. This type of training enables you to get all the technical benefits of training with a partner without EGO interfering - aka ‘who won the roll?’. When done correctly, you also can get a GREAT cardio workout in, as you are constantly moving.  Often, the EGO is ultra-sensitive while in a  plateau and S-Rolling allows for technical advancement and hard-training without giving the EGO an opportunity to sabotage your efforts to get out of the plateau.

For me, the important thing about the inevitable plateaus is how they are responded to - specifically how they can be shortened and how their negative impact can be minimised.  Incorporate these tips into your strategy and watch your training plateaus become inconveniences rather than obstacles that potentially derail your training or take you away from the sport we love.  See you on the mat!!

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February 12, 2015 — Jiu Jitsu Style