Five Steps to Jiu-Jitsu Expertise

Want to be good at jiu-jitsu? That puts you in illustrious—and sometimes obsessed—company. Thousands of people are striving for the same thing, all over the world. Numerous theories about learning can help explain the process by which people go from being unskilled at a technique sequence, to becoming somewhat skilled, to becoming ever more skilled. Research and best practice remind us that different people require different types of inputs and supports for learning.

That all sounds impressive, right? Lots of big words and concepts and whatnot. Here is the truth, though: When I try to learn a new technique, it feels like I flounder around for days and weeks and months and lifetimes, convinced I will never be able to execute it on even the most collaborative partner, let alone a resisting opponent. Somehow, though, I make progress, to the point where over time, moves I once struggled with become go-tos.

It used to seem like a mystery, how I went from not being able to jiu-jitsu, to being able to jiu-jitsu a little bit, to, over time, being able to jiu-jitsu better and better. One day I could not pull off a move, and the next day I was all about it. But with the benefit of hindsight, I have realized that the reason it seemed like an on-off switch was because I was discounting many steps in the process, steps that did not look like progress to me because I was still “losing.” I started to realize that before I could effectively pull off a technique, there were conditions that had to occur first, and those conditions tended to follow a set pattern. Here is what I discovered about how I learn jiu-jitsu techniques:

First, I am exposed to a technique in class and drilling. The nature of the technique dictates how much context I will have for it. If it is a variation on a technique or sequence I am familiar with, I will have a pre-existing structure for understanding it. If it is something I have not seen or experienced much, I will have less understanding of how it works and how it fits with other things I already know. If I am at the beginning of my jiu-jitsu journey, I will have very little context and very little experience contorting my body into the necessary positions, which means that old learning curve will be steep.

Second, I encounter the opportunity to set up the technique during live rolling but do not notice. It is not until class is over and I am going over the live rolling in my mind that I will recognize that missed chance. Believe it or not, though, this is progress. Want to know how I know? Because I can almost guarantee that there were many earlier training sessions during which the exact same opportunity presented itself and I never realized it, not later, not ever. The fact I recognized it at all is a step forward.

Third, my recognition synapses kick in more quickly, and I notice during the roll that the opportunity presented itself. I have still missed my window, but this time I missed it by seconds or minutes as opposed to hours or days. I may even miss an opportunity to execute a different move because I am in the process of realizing I missed the first one. Again, it may not feel like progress because the result is the same, or even worse, but my brain and body are slowly coming into sync. Like the raptors in Jurassic Park, I remember.

Fourth, I notice the opportunity to set up the technique, actually set it up, and fail. For the first time, the opportunity to apply the technique I have been drilling makes itself plain at the exact moment I need it to, shining like the pearly gates. I go to work—and still end up on the losing end of the exchange. I miss a detail or wait a split second too long, or on the flip side, I rush it. My partner counters effectively, and I come up short again. I rage inwardly for the umpteenth time because I did not “do it right,” though yet again, this is a step forward: I did not earn points, but I scored the advantage.

Fifth, I notice the opportunity to set up the technique, set it up, and succeed. This is the pay dirt step. The step where I look around and say to myself, “Where the heck did that come from? Did it really happen?” The step where it seems like I pulled the move out of some part of my anatomy. I felt this exact way the first time I ever took the mount during live training. I had side control and clumsily threw my leg over my partner’s body, expecting I would be stopped mid-throw. But I got on top, and if I had been in a movie, the soundtrack would have swelled and the camera would have zoomed in on my disbelieving face. I looked around and saw that the view was breathtaking. I realized I had no idea what to do next, and then I got reversed. It was the best reversal of my life.

It is lovely to have that out-of-nowhere feeling step five brings, but since it often takes so long to get there, it is also nice to have a sense of the steps that come before. I have learned that when I am aware enough to realize I “failed,” it means I succeeded. Then the goal is to succeed a little more successfully the next time.

That is the process I follow for becoming an expert in jiu-jitsu. Of course, there is also a sixth step: I repeat the steps for every one of the thousands of techniques I want to learn.

Do you notice yourself “failing” as part of your learning process? Post your observations to comments.

About Valerie Worthington

Here, in no particular order, are some of the things that define me: parents who are psychologists, a childhood spent in the New Jersey suburbs except for a year my family spent in Germany, studying English literature and learning theory, always trying for the funny--not matter how self-deprecating, and Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu, a martial art I have been training for almost 20 years. I travel a lot and enjoy snacks just as much. I am reasonably intelligent, but this is undercut by my love of irreverence and childish humor. I am also the author of Training Wheels: How a Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu Road Trip Jump-Started My Search for a Fulfilling Life.