How to be a Better BJJ Student
One of the biggest challenges in learning jiu-jitsu is what I call the curriculum orbit. The technique you need to overcome your current technical roadblock is probably in your instructor’s mind right now, but the chances of that exact solution being the subject of the next class in you attend is a slot machine of the instructor’s focus, the direction of the overall curriculum, and your own personal schedule.
If the technique is taught on Tuesday but you typically train Monday, Wednesday, Thursday, Saturday, well, tough luck. Maybe you can catch it the next time the technique orbits around.
This is one of the many reasons why you need to take control of your own success. If you simply keep showing up to class, yes, you will consistently improve, but to experience more dramatic gains in your own skill you have to self-direct at least some of your training. You can never replace the expert coaching of a dedicated instructor, but just like they told you back in school (at least, that’s what I’ve heard; I didn’t do much listening at that point in my life): Hitting the library to study after class is the secret to bumping up that GPA.
When you are used to someone else telling you what to do when you train—structuring the class, tweaking your technique, pushing you to work harder—taking on that role for yourself can feel unnatural, but it’s a skill that can be learned and improved, and it’s a skill that I encourage my newest white belts to begin developing as soon as they can.
Here is how to gain more control over your own progress:
Add more repetitions. Seeing a technique once in class is not enough to make it an effective part of your game. In fact, you will probably forget most of what you learn under a one-and-done class format. If you want a technique to stick, add extra drilling repetitions before or after class and at open mat. If you have a long commute or are stuck on a treadmill, mental repetitions can help as well.
Review your rolls. My friend Josh Vogel encourages his students to develop an “internal video camera” so they can think back on what happened during their rolls. If you do not make some effort to remember and to reflect on what happened in a training session, you will struggle to identify opportunities for improvement or adjustment, so take a few minutes after class or on the drive home to run through what you can remember and try to deduce why a roll unfolded the way it did.
Look for connections. One of the biggest challenges in jiu-jitsu is understanding how techniques connect and overlap. When you learn a new technique, try to identify what it has in common with other techniques. For example, if you have a cross sleeve grip in closed guard and a cross sleeve grip in reverse de la Riva how are the mechanics similar? How are they different? From there, start to look at what else you can do with a technique, especially what comes next after you succeed or fail.
Experiment. If a position is giving you trouble, grab a training partner and try to talk through how you might address the problem. To augment this, you can look up a respected and credible instructor on YouTube for ideas of what your other options might be. Having to troubleshoot an idea without the help of an instructor makes your actual class time more valuable as well because you will be able to self-correct and improve even faster.
- Be conscious of skill gaps. One of the most frustrating parts about teaching yourself in any capacity is taking the technique you have been devotedly drilling and then watching it get smashed almost immediately when you roll. As much as this sucks, it’s normal. A new technique will almost always fail on its first few solo flights, so stick with it and work through it, and never expect one of your brand new techniques to automatically give you an upper hand against upper belts.
As I said before, no amount of self-instruction can compensate for the input of a devoted instructor, but adding on a layer of dedicated, studious student can take your training to the next level. You don’t have to add hours and hours of extra training to reap those rewards either. If you can add 20 minutes a week applying my suggestions, you will see results.