10 Ways to Improve Your BJJ While Off the Mats
We all want to spend more time on the mats, but inconvenient distractions like our jobs and families and so-called social lives get in the way. These 10 tips will give you ways to improve your BJJ even when you can’t get on the tatami.
1. Practice visualization.
Your mind is your most powerful asset. Harness the power of visualization to “practice” even when you can’t get to practice. You can do this in your free moments, like when you’re standing in the shower, laying in bed before you go to sleep, or when you’re doing that thing people call a job where you sit in front of a computer and look at Reddit 8 hours a day.
Try these guided visualizations:
- Try to recall the details of your last particularly tough round of sparring -- how it started, how it progressed, what problems you encountered, etc.
- What techniques did you learn last class? Pull up a mental image of the instructor. What did they say and how did they demonstrate it? Recall it word for word. How well did you perform it in drilling? What could you improve next time?
- Pick a technique you want to work on. Close your eyes and mentally put yourself into the situation to perform it. How do you move your limbs, where do you put your hands, when do you change grips? Imagine this from a first-person perspective. Do it again from third person.
Many competitors in and outside of BJJ make visualization part of their mental game for calming their nerves and focusing on positive outcomes. I’m no sports psychologist, but you can find many books on the subject if you want to go into the technique in more depth. Check Amazon or your local library.
2. Keep a training journal.
If you struggle with retention, my first piece of advice for that is to keep a training journal. After you train -- perhaps later that night or the next day -- write down or type up what you did in class. Use the same visualization cues I gave in the last tip, then write down what you “see.” The active recall it demands of you is more important than whatever ends up on the page. In fact, I can’t make much sense of my old notes, but they still helped me solidify the lessons in my mind at the time.
You may want to try taking notes during class too. Read “6 Tips for Taking Notes in Jiu-Jitsu” by Ayanthi Gunawardana for good advice on writing in a BJJ notebook.
3. Flowchart your gameplan.
Developing your grappling gameplan can take make a huge difference, especially if you’ve never done it before. This is practically a must for anyone at blue belt level (or soon to be) -- and doubly so for competitors.
I break gameplanning down into two main steps: 1) taking inventory and 2) mapping it out.
Here’s how you take inventory. For each position listed below, write down your best 1-3 techniques for when you’re on top. Then go back through and list 1-3 techniques for when you’re on the bottom
- Standing (takedowns)
- Rear mount
- Side control
- Half guard
- Open guard
- Closed guard
Did you have a solid technique or two for each position? If not, you know what to work on next.
Now that you’ve got your techniques “preloaded” into your mind, let’s map them out. Draw this out with bubbles and arrows.
Your match starts standing. What stance do you take? What grips do you seek? What takedowns do you initiate with? Where does that land you? What do you do there? And so on…
Run through the sequence again, but this time work on the what if’s -- what if your move gets countered this way, what if they escape that way, what if you get your guard passed, etc.
Cycle through that process until you’ve built out a comprehensive gameplan. You don’t need to plan for every possibility, but you want to know your “A game” and how to recover to it when things go wrong.
4. Analyze your strengths and weaknesses.
While you’ve got that journal open, why not go introspective. Honestly appraise yourself and look at your strengths and weaknesses. Rate yourself in these categories:
- Escapes and defenses
- Takedowns and takedown defense
- Guard (closed, open, half, sweeps, pass prevention)
- Pass passing (opening the guard, passing specific open guards)
- Top game
- Back attacks
- Learning speed and knowledge retention
- Strategic thinking
- Determination, heart, grit
- Composure (overcoming nervousness and performance anxiety)
Your ego may sting after a harsh look at yourself, but it’s all in the name of self-growth. The insights you gain here will help you steer your training and study in the future.
5. Set goals.
Sometimes it can feel like you’re just spinning your wheels but not going anywhere in BJJ. What’s this all leading up to? Just another boring class, just another day showing up and not knowing what you’re really heading towards.
Goal setting can set you on a path where you feel you’re making real progress. Plateaus are easier to break through when you see how each day is getting you closer to your big picture goals.
Write down your answers to this:
- What big goals do you want to accomplish in the next 10 years?
- 5 years?
- 1 year?
- 6 months?
- 3 months?
- 1 month?
You can limit that list to just BJJ goals if you want, but if you’ve got big goals outside of BJJ too (like becoming a doctor, moving to a new country, etc.) you’ll probably want them all laid out together for the sake of logistics.
Once you have your big picture goals, work backwards to the medium level goals that will help you get there. Then down to the short term goals. Do they all support each other?
The idea here is to have long term goals that you feel very passionate about, then aligning your lower level goals so they point you in that direction. Achieving your lifetime goals will be the result of doing mundane things again and again over many days until those days add up into years, and those years into decades.
Nelson wrote a good article about his goal setting practice called “Your Jiu-Jitsu Report Card” and gives examples of realistic goals in “Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu goals that do not involve becoming a world champion.” You can read my thoughts on how to reach your goals in “What Drives Success in BJJ.”
6. Study instructionals.
At no time in history has it been easier to learn from the world’s best BJJ teachers. You’ve got your pick of DVDs, membership sites, apps, streaming services, and ol’ faithful YouTube. The trouble is finding the right place to put your attention.
My advice is to narrow your focus. Pick a certain position or technique and research how the top competitors do it. You could also pick a specific competitor and examine their game. (More on this in the next tip.)
Thankfully there has been a trend in the BJJ instructional marketing to focus on specific guards or techniques, so you can focus your research into your particular interests. This is my favorite type of instructional. I just about fall asleep trying to watch “101 moves, BJJ from A-Z” DVDs these days. To shamelessly plug my instructional, Mastering the Crucifix, it is dedicated to a single topic -- that’s right, you guessed it -- the crucifix. (A birdie told me that Nelson may be releasing an instructional soon too…)
7. Analyze competition footage.
As with instructionals, you can find more competition footage than ever before. Rather than explain it all again, check out Marshal D. Carper’s article “Supplement Your Training with Competition Footage.” Pick your favorite competitors and channel your inner BJJ Scout!
8. Improve your health and strengthen your body.
Until VR gaming makes significant advances, you’re stuck doing BJJ with your flesh and bones body. That’s unfortunate because BJJ will wreck your joints over enough years of training and injuries. The best way to counter-act this is with a smart strength and conditioning routine.
The exact form it takes is up to you and your desired results. Perhaps refer to your physical weaknesses from the earlier self-analysis. You can’t go wrong sticking to the basics though. My main advice is to keep it simple and go for general health and strength to balance out the stresses BJJ puts on your joints.
9. Find fun complementary activities and sports.
This may be blasphemous to admit publicly, but it’s OK to do things other than BJJ. In fact, they can even help.
Many outdoor activities have crossovers to BJJ. They may develop grip strength, balance, coordination, breath control, and what people like to call “functional strength” (AKA being good at doing stuff with your body.) Examples: swimming, surfing, stand-up paddle boarding, kayaking, rock climbing, hiking, trail running, bike riding, and more.
And God forbid you just do something besides BJJ because it’s fun.
10. Plug in to the hivemind.
Thanks to the internet, you can connect with grapplers from all over the world. If you have a problem or question, it’s likely someone else already did too, and you’re only a Google search away from the answer. If not, there are many good forums to ask your questions. For online BJJ discussion and news, the Inverted Gear team spends most of our time on Reddit’s /r/bjj, but many older BJJ/MMA message boards have built up communities.
Every week, /r/bjj runs a White Belt Wednesdays thread where no question is too stupid or basic, which is a good way to get dumb questions out of your system. You can write “/u/Aesopian” in anything you post over there to get my attention and I’ll come by to reply if I can help.
Those are my 10 best tips for improving your BJJ when you can’t do BJJ. Nothing replaces plain old mat time, but this gives you plenty to do when that’s not available.
Comment below with your tips if you've got ones to add!