As you progress in Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu, the burden of responsibility for your improvements shifts away from your instructor and onto you. It makes sense that a beginner should look to their teacher for guidance, but this dependence on being fed information can lead to frustration later on when your progress stalls out. Your instructor will always play a role, but they cannot be with you every moment to see your every rep, every round of sparring, and know your every thought.
Clear your headspace
Many of us struggle to carve out time to get to the gym to train. You are rushing to class after a long day at work, then rushing home afterwards to clean up, eat a hasty dinner, and somehow fit in some family time (or Netflix time).
This hectic pace does not lend itself to having a focused mindset during training. Take a minute for yourself before the class starts to clear your mind. Many of you will naturally do this during your pre-class stretching. If you are not doing it already, make it a habit. Simple practices like mindfulness meditation or breathing exercises to clear your mind while you do mobility work can get you in the right headspace.
Come with a goal in mind
As you clear your head and mentally prepare for class, think of your goals for this training session. A goal can be as simple as “Don’t panic and gas out in sparring” or as specific as “Only go for armbars on left arms.”
Avoid making unhealthy goals like “Defeat my nemesis” or “Never tap out.” An unhealthy goal fails to focus on learning (which includes “failing” as you challenge yourself) or obsessing over who taps who.
A good goal will help you improve even when you do not achieve it because it moves you in the right directions just by the act of trying to achieve it.
Have a question ready
As an instructor, I always leave a few minutes at the end of every class for questions, but more often than not, I’m met with silence. Then after we bow out and people are heading for the changing room, a loner sidles up and goes “Well, actually, I was wondering…”
Maybe social anxiety keeps people from asking in front of the group, or the question did not pop into their heads until a few minutes after I asked, but I like answering questions in front of a group so I can maximize how many students can benefit from it.
Most instructors will prefer questions related to what was covered that day, but once those are out of the way, they are usually happy to answer general questions. Why not take advantage of it?
Have a technique to practice
Coming to class with a technique or two in mind is always a good idea, so you can put in reps if you find yourself with a free moment and a willing training partner, especially after class. Only drilling what you are shown in class will slow your progress because not every technique will go into your game or be the right thing for you to be working on at this time. You need to put in your extra reps to flesh out your own game.
Ask your sparring partners for tips
After a round of sparring, in the break before the next one starts, ask your partner if they have any tips for you. Just a short sentence or two is all you are looking for. This is especially valuable for white belts to do after training with higher belts. Do not expect them to stop everything and give you a mini private lesson, but comments like “Keep your arms in tighter” or “Be careful about leading with your head down” are valuable. These little tips quickly add up when you ask them everyday.
Reflect on your experiences
A Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu class can be an overstimulating and, to be honest, confusing experience. It is a mix of cardio and conditioning, learning and practicing strange new motor skills, plus socializing with people (who are sometimes relative strangers) then getting mauled by them. You can walk out feeling like you came out of the other end of a tornado.
Just as you did before class, give yourself at least a minute of quiet reflection to gather yourself. This will prepare you to go into your next training session with the goals, questions, and techniques to practice, like I suggested above. You may do this later when you are at home showering or lying down to sleep (if you’re like me, this happens involuntarily anyway.) Keeping a written or typed journal is a formal way to do this, which I highly recommend.
These tips are simple enough that everyone can do them every class, and that simplicity is their strength, but the key to their success is consistency. Build these habits so they are second nature, and you will develop the skills you need to guide your own progress and break through plateaus. Your progress through Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu is built on many small actions, done consistently, over many years. I hope this advice helps those years pass more smoothly.