Doh! How Mistakes Define Your Jiu-Jitsu

Your progress in Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu can be measured in many ways. Some strive to earn the next belt and judge themselves against the rank of everyone they go up against. We can lay out the techniques and skills we expect you to be learning at each belt rank. We can talk about it in terms of efficiency and flow or developing gameplans.

But today, I want to present a simple idea: that most of your progress can be measured by looking at mistakes -- both the ones you make and the ones your opponents make, and how you each evolve as you make fewer and fewer.

To put it simply, you can judge yourself by how well you are doing these two things:

  1. Reducing the number of mistakes you make and how bad they are.
  2. Becoming able to take advantage of smaller and more subtle mistakes.

What you are doing instead of making these mistakes -- and how you capitalize on the mistakes your opponents make -- is up to you and all the techniques and skills you learn.

With our eye on mistakes as our measure of progress, let’s look at how you advance by focusing on them:

1. Stop making big mistakes.

As a beginner fresh off the streets, you are bumbling into armbars and diving head first into chokes because you don’t know any better. Your first big improvement come from simply calming down and pacing yourself, recognizing the positions you are in, and developing the basic habits you need to stay safe as you work toward your immediate goal, like escaping a bad position without exploding or making things worse for yourself.

2. Take advantage of your opponent’s big mistakes.

As you begin to grasp the basics, it becomes your turn to take advantage of all the mistakes the greener beginners are making. When your opponent throws a freebie at you, you know to take it. This is the level of basic self defense against an untrained attacker and sparring with other white belts. The plan is to stay safe and conserve energy, knowing that eventually your opponent will get frustrated and over-commit out of desperation and that’s when you get them.

3. Push your opponent into making mistakes.

You and your training partners are getting the hang of things, and you are making fewer and fewer gross errors. You can no longer just play it completely safe and wait for them to throw the match. This is when you need to start developing your ability to go on the offensive and pursue your gameplan. You are more bold in breaking the stalemates by initiating on your opponent. Instead of waiting, you are working toward your goals, and you are ready to catch your opponent when they get tripped up trying to stop you.

4. Trick your opponent into making small mistakes.

As you would expect, with each advance you make, your opponents advances to nullify you. You are in an arms race where each day you are learning to counter what you got caught in the day before. The mistakes are getting smaller and less frequent. You need timing and sensitivity to capitalize on the little errors. The “mistakes” at this level may be invisible to novices, as they are often just moments of hesitation, or a hand or foot placement that’s just an inch out of place. When your opponent is skilled, you need to learn how to make little mistakes into big problems.

5. Take advantage of your opponent doing “the right thing.”

As your awareness of the “game” grows, you will reach the point where you have seen and experienced so much that very little surprises you anymore. You know counters to the counters, and counters to those too. You can follow your gameplan or improvise. You are naturally at right place at the right time, and you can strike in the smallest windows of opportunity. On paper, your opponent made no outright “mistake,” but you knew how to take advantage of the situation anyway. You set your opponent up to take the bait, knowing that even if they do the right thing, it’s “wrong” because you are ready for it and know just how to counter it.

6. Be so good your opponent’s big mistake was taking the match.

If you are at this level, you don’t need my advice! Congrats!


Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu is a complex subject, so I do not expect we can sum up everything you need to know about it in two lines talking about “mistakes.” But I hope you can see the value in taking this approach to conceptualizing it, and that what I shared above gives you greater insight into where you are in your journey and what to strive for next.

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