The feeling of not being able to improve, real or merely imagined, afflicts nearly everyone at some stage during their development as a Brazilian jiu jitsu athlete. Particularly common amongst the blue and purple belt ranks these technical plateaus are usually brought on by a combination of two factors. The first factor is that you have simply been training long enough that you’ve finished the majority of your technical acquisition and the second is that you are now good enough to take some pride in your performance.
While it is true that BJJ is a constantly evolving art that always presents you with new things to learn the reality is that by the time you’re half way through your blue belt you’ve seen and can probably perform a rough approximation of 90% of techniques. This means that after this point problem solving is now a case of getting better at what you already know or finding a new way to apply what you know. Plateaus occur because refining a technique or position takes a lot more time and effort than superficially learning one or because the athlete makes no attempt to deepen their understanding and continues to search for another new technique that will solve all their problems.
When you’re a white belt you expect practically everybody regardless of relative rank or size to tap you out at least occasionally. As your skills develop you experience more consistent performance and begin to have expectations about how rolls with particular sparring partners – or competition opponents – will play out. While consistent performance can feel extremely gratifying the associated ego boost can cause some severe problems with your continuing development. If whenever you roll Wally you expect to “win” and trying something new might lead to you not “winning” it can be very tempting to play the same game you always do in order to ensure victory.
So now you know why you’re stuck in a plateau, what are you going to do about it?
Take your technical work seriously
While performing repetitions of techniques is not the most exciting part of class it is still one of the most important things you can do for your long term development as a Brazilian jiu jitsu athlete. Technical work develops the hard skills of jiu jitsu – nearly all submissions and certain passes, sweeps and throws – discrete skills that you want to be able to perform essentially the same way every time. The better your ability to execute these skills the better your potential performance in BJJ.
Improving these skills takes time and mindful effort. I’ve previously written about ideal rep schemes and how to avoid the law of diminishing returns with your technical work but I’ve never addressed ideal mindset before. While this could be a whole article in itself (and at some point probably will be) the fundamental idea is to be fully engaged with what you are doing. Try to make every repetition as good as you are able, ruthlessly but unemotionally correct errors and pay particular attention to smoothly precisely sequencing the technique.
Develop your weaknesses
Attempting to develop a perceived area of weakness is often an athlete’s go to response to a period of technical stagnation. Unfortunately this is also the strategy that is most likely to result in the athlete becoming even more depressed by their apparent lack of progress. The main mistake people make when they are trying to develop the weaker aspects of their game is to focus on those aspects independent from their existing skill set.
Typically the weaker areas of your game are the areas you enjoy the least and so if, for example, you hate being in half guard then trying to learn to play a half guard game will not only be a slow, painful process but one that you are very likely to quit.
However if you link your weakness to a strength we get a different story. Attaching a weakness to a strength tends to result in almost immediate success and you begin developing a positive associations with your new area of training. The more success and positive associations you have the more likely it is you will continue working on that weakness.
To illustrate how you actually do this let’s continue with our half guard example. Let’s say that while you have a weak half guard you also have a very strong spider guard. In this case, to link the weakness to the strength you make the only goal of half guard to be “get to spider guard”. This way you’re not trying to learn the entirety of the half guard game – just one tiny portion of it. As your training partners begin to counter your transition to spider guard you’ll start to develop solutions to those problems and your half guard game will broaden.
Develop your weaknesses so that you can bring your strengths to bear.
Play more when you roll
Play is creative, inspirational and one of the most natural and effective training tools we have at our disposal. The trap we can fall into when we are training is to start treating rolling like either a competition or a fight when it is in fact merely preparation for these events. The best approach to a competition or a fight is to deviate as little as possible from your favored techniques and strategies whilst essentially fleeing unfamiliar territory. Training on the other hand should be an exploration of techniques, strategies and territory both familiar and unfamiliar and this is only really possible in a play – meaning low consequence – environment. Play allows you to discover, test and challenge new ideas without the threat that competition necessitates.
Playing when you roll doesn’t necessarily mean rolling loose or slow; Playing when you roll is about having the freedom from consequence to learn optimally.
Focus your energies
This one is seemingly obvious but often neglected. If you work on everything you might as well be working on nothing. When training specifically to overcome a plateau in skill development focus your energies into developing one area of your jiu jitsu at a time. The more specific you are the more effective your training will be.