Inverted Gear Blog / Valerie Worthington

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.


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You’ll Never Die of Exposure in BJJ, Though You May Want to

The other day I was talking with a student who had recently competed for the first time. He recounted how anxious he was as he waited to compete, how fast he started to experience the adrenaline dump so common for inexperienced competitors once his match started, and how frustrating it was not to be able to apply his game effectively (he lost via a collar choke at about the 3-minute mark). “It really exposed some of my shortcomings,” he said.

I started thinking about the concept of exposure and how often it is linked in my mind with Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu. I can share countless times during my jiu-jitsu career when I felt completely exposed—embarrassed, frustrated, frightened, anxious, disappointed—because of something I said, did, or did not say or do. Times when I got so frazzled at not being able to drill a given technique correctly that I just wanted to go to bed and never get up. Times when I was the uke but did not provide the correct reaction, which made me look stupid but also annoyed the instructor. Times when I was convinced the rest of the class was communicating silently with each other about how hopeless I was or how needlepoint would be a much better use of my time.

And, more recently, times when I must acknowledge that, while I still have many active years ahead of me, my prime performing days are over. Times when I have explained a technique incorrectly or had to say I did not know the answer to a technical question. Times when I am on the defensive while training with someone I “should” be able to handle.

When I feel exposed like this, I become convinced that my soul is on display for the world to judge. It is as if my top layers have been peeled back, but instead of the goopy, bony stuff inside a normal person’s skin, it is all my shortcomings and insecurities about my worth as a person that are revealed. Dramatic sounding, I know, but there is something about the combination of physical exertion and mental gymnastics that jiu-jitsu requires that can leave me feeling vulnerable and, well, exposed.

You might wonder why I keep coming back, if this is what I can expect to happen. It is a question I ask myself before every competition class, every visit to a strange academy, every time I teach a series of techniques for the first time. I have tried to explain it elsewhere, as have many of my fellow long-suffering contemporaries. Suffice it to say that, as a good friend of mine has said repeatedly, I can’t not train. And that tells you something about how compelling it is, if I am willing to lay myself bare so completely and so often.

Or to feel like that is what I am doing, at least. One truism about feeling exposed in Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu is that it is usually worse in our minds than it is in reality. It can feel like everyone is watching or judging, and maybe in the moment that even approaches the truth. But people have a short memory, and eventually, it is likely that the only person who will remember how exposed I felt during that painful jiu-jitsu moment is me. When it comes right down to it, there is an element of self-centeredness to our feelings of exposure, and it does not hurt to try to refrain from taking ourselves too seriously. As other friends have said, it’s only jiu-jitsu.

Of course, this is easier said than done. Feeling vulnerable and at the mercy of others’ good will is stressful and unpleasant, even if we like and trust those others. The student I spoke with about his competition experience is obviously still processing several weeks later, for example. I, too, carry those exposure memories with me, and they do not soften as much with age as I would like. So I tried to be supportive while he talked through some things, and I reminded him that it takes brass ones to take ourselves outside our comfort zones on purpose. This is something jiu-jitsu requires each of us to do on a regular basis, whether in competition or at the academy. None of us who steps on the mat gets away without having to expose ourselves, in all kinds of ways.

This provides a bit of comfort. As does the fact that we are not likely to die from this kind of exposure, though sometimes we may want to.

Have a memory to share about a time you felt completely exposed in jiu-jitsu? Post 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.


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Don’t Go Wasting Their Precious Time: Helping Coaches Help Us

A friend of mine is a physical therapist. He has years of experience helping people recover from trauma that causes them discomfort and limits their ranges of motion. He has tons of suggestions for strengthening muscles, improving stability, and reducing pain, all based on current theory and best practice. He is highly recommended by area surgeons and osteopaths, and on any given day, he is swamped with clients who want the best care for themselves or their loved ones.

Because we are friends, I bust his chops on a regular basis, pretending to get annoyed with him when he recommends a particularly odious weightlifting rep scheme or joking that if he ran a truly full-service operation, he would do my physical therapy exercises for me. Because we are friends, he usually responds with a shrug and a “Yep, life is hard.”

My friend gives the same caliber of advice and expertise to all his clients. Some of them balk at his recommendations like I pretend to, though they are not pretending. These clients will listen to him and then say they would rather not do what he is suggesting, is there any easier way for them to get the same results? He takes it all in stride, patiently re-explaining to his clients what they need to hear, which seems to be at odds sometimes with what they want to do. He and I have joked that for some people, the slogan for his practice should be, “Do what I suggest, or do whatever the hell you want.”

I get it. People as a species often balk at following advice, even if we believe it is in our best interest. I sometimes do this myself. Still, there is never a doubt that I will do what my friend suggests, because I have committed to certain personal goals that his expertise and support can help me achieve.

The same phenomenon happens with instruction and coaching in jiu-jitsu. The instructors I admire will give everything to their students, going the extra mile if they think it will help someone’s progress. For instance, they will add competition-style training to the schedule, take the time to go to tournaments to coach and support, and share resources and connect their students to others who can help them meet their nutrition or life-balance goals.

It is disheartening, then, when students who claim to want to train for competition fail to show up for those sessions. Or when students fail to make weight because they waited until the last minute, which means the instructor who cleared his/her schedule to be available to attend a tournament discovers there is no one to coach. Or when students pick the instructor’s brain for resources on nutrition, cross-training, and the like, only to leave the piece of paper with all the recommendations on the floor for the instructor to find days later, crumpled and covered in shoeprints.

To be clear, I am not saying I wish students would stop asking questions and requesting assistance. There is nothing more gratifying than being able to help someone progress toward a goal, and conscientious instructors take this on willingly. I know this from experience as a student, and I try to embody it as an instructor.

What I am saying is that I would like to encourage all of us to pursue an additional goal: acquiring the self-awareness needed to set goals that reflect our true desires. A group of sages called the Spice Girls once implored, “So, tell me what you want, what you really, really want.” Perhaps the reason people sometimes have a problem taking advice is because they are not truly committed to what the advice will help them do. I am not making a value judgment by saying so: There are plenty of things I am not committed to, and I find that to be perfectly acceptable.

It is when I claim to be committed to a goal, to the point of requesting that others invest their own time and resources in me, and then phone in my efforts or do not pull my weight at all, that the problem arises. No instructor should have to work harder than a student to help that student meet a goal, and no instructor should have to put up with having his or her time and effort wasted.

The moral of the story is, we must know ourselves and our motivations. If we are not sure of our goals, it is okay, even preferable, to think on it. I suspect most instructors would say that helping a student create realistic and attainable goals is always time well spent, especially if it safeguards against spinning wheels in the future.

So, let us all set goals, but let us also be honest about our willingness and ability to realize them. If we “really really want” to <insert goal here>, we must remember that, again in the words of the Spice Girls, we “have got to give.”

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.


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Ask a Panda: How to Deal with “Let’s Just Go Light” Guy/Gal


I am a male blue belt, 5’10” and 165lbs. I’m not small, but I’m also not the largest person in my gym. I try to be a good training partner, and I want to keep myself safe during training too.

I’m sure you’ve heard my question before: How do you deal with people who say want to go light during live training but then come at you super hard? It gets frustrating, and I’m worried I might get injured.


“Let’s Just Go Light” guy or gal is one of the most long-standing jiu-jitsu archetypes, though not one of the most beloved. In the typical situation, one person asks a partner to “just go light,” but then comes out of the gate like he or she is in a steel-cage death match. Some people probably do this to get the jump on the other person, but I am willing to bet that most genuinely have no idea that they are doing anything other than going as gently as a summer breeze. They are like those memes that show a .gif of a high-level judoka effortlessly tossing an opponent next to a .gif of a baby elephant trying to knock down a post with the captions “What I think I look like when doing takedowns” and “What I actually look like when doing takedowns.”

Instructors may not spend as much time as we probably should explaining how to “go light” or to flow roll, so the first thing to do is establish what it means. There are tons of ways to describe what is supposed to be happening during a flow roll or a warm-up round, but let us get straight to the heart of the matter. When we go light, it is each person’s job to strategically give up position. Let me say that again: When we go light, it is each person’s job to strategically give up position.

Think about it: Does it take more energy to refuse a sweep or to allow it to happen when your partner has executed correctly? The answer is probably obvious. When we allow a sweep to happen, then, we are, by definition, going lighter than when we defend. Logically, it makes sense that we would want to let the sweep happen, at least sometimes, if we are doing right by our partners in a “go light” situation.

However, logic and ego do not necessarily work hand in hand. Grapplers as a species often neglect to connect the fact that while allowing a sweep, for instance, also results in our partner “getting the better of us” in some way, this is the goal of going light. If both people are doing it right, then both partners stand to benefit from a flow roll because both partners are allowing each other to get the better of them at different times.

Everyone gets this intellectually. When we square off and feel ourselves losing position, though, we tend to go bananas and to throw our best collaborative intentions out the window. This results in a zero-sum game rather than a joint effort toward helping both people gain ground.

The thing is, we cannot really control what our partners do, only what we do. In this situation, you are the “lucky” one, because you have been given the gift of awareness. There was probably a time in your jiu-jitsu career when you were the person you are now concerned about, because you did not have the presence of mind you do now. But with power comes responsibility, so the suggestions I have are for how you can monitor and modify your own behavior. This may not be what you were hoping for, but with patience and thoughtfulness, they can help you AND help you pay it forward to your overly energetic flow rolling partners.

The first thing to do when going light with someone else is to set your own intention to do so—you do not want to be the person in the pair who takes unfair advantage. Many people accompany the fist bump that precedes most rounds with a verbalized wish for good training. Take that moment and that wish seriously, and decide you are going to work with your partner collaboratively. Try to stay relaxed, and if you find your entire body tensing like a rubber band, take a deep breath and let it out slowly.

The second thing to do is to pay attention during the round. Often when we train, we let our bodies do the work and give our minds over to the meditative aspects of training. When we are first learning to go light, though, we may need to focus more on how we are moving, how tense we are, and how determined we are to maintain dominance. Just like we cannot relegate specific sequences to our muscle memory until our muscles remember how to do them, we cannot expect to flow roll well if we do not concentrate on doing so, at least at first. So, breathe deeply. Check the tension of your muscles. Try to be like water. If you feel yourself straining or breathing rapidly, slow down.

Another thing to try when you feel you are staying calm and relaxed but feel the force of a wind tunnel coming at you is to stop moving. Your partner will eventually notice, and sometimes that can serve as a non-verbal reminder to them that they need to relax a little. At the very least, it will make them stop and take notice for a second. If necessary, you can say something like, “I was getting a little bit tense, so I wanted to take a breath.” (I understand that you may not actually be the person who is getting tense, but this is where ego control comes in handy.) Repeat as needed. Note that this also has the added benefit of giving you something reasonable to say and do if your partner happens to outrank you; many of us at all belt levels need to work on just going light, not just beginners.

A third thing to do is tap. As with ceasing your movement, tapping can give you an opportunity to reset. Oftentimes we can escalate each other’s energy without meaning to, and if you feel your shared energy getting too animated, you can say something like, “I feel like we are a bit more intense than we want to be, so I figured we could just reset.”

In short, the best thing you can do is model appropriate behavior, react calmly when the behavior is less than appropriate (e.g., stop moving or tap to energy rather than a finish), and be supportive as your partner learns a bit more every day about how to control his/her energy. If all else fails, mentally categorize that person as someone you will go hard with for now; if they ask you go to light, find a reason to say no. You have a responsibility to help your teammates, but you also have a responsibility to keep yourself safe.

How do others help your partners get the hang of flow rolling? Post your suggestions in the comments section.

Have a question? Get an answer from Val!

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.


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Ask a Panda: Dealing with the Jiu-Jitsu Blahs

Question: I am a brown belt, and I love jiu-jitsu. I am in it for the long haul—there is no question about that—but sometimes I find myself feeling ambivalent. I look at some of my teammates, particularly ones who have not been training for as long as I have, and they seem so excited. I know I used to feel that way, but nowadays it feels more like a slog. Lately I go to class, get in my reps and my rounds, and am out the door at the end while some people are still tinkering and asking questions, or even just chatting. These are all things I used to do, but no more. I do not feel enthusiastic or inspired, though I know I am still committed.

My question is: What do I do? I know I will always train, but how do I get through this slump? How do I get back the excitement I used to feel about training?

Answer: I suspect all of us ask this question of ourselves at different points in our lives, regardless of whether we train. Even the most exciting times in our lives eventually end or even out. This is not always bad. In fact, a heart-stopping level of excitement is usually unsustainable for the long haul. Consider the feelings people often have for a new crush. That person may permeate all their thoughts and disrupt their normal functioning—they cannot eat, they cannot sleep, they cannot concentrate, all because they are consumed with thoughts of this special someone. Eventually, though, if this ardor is to be sustainable, it must mellow out; otherwise it is impossible to see to the rest of life’s demands.

A longstanding couple may not always feel that giddy, crush-y feeling for each other, but in the best-case scenario, that feeling becomes more of an accent to a deeper, stronger connection. It sounds like you might have the same kind of relationship with jiu-jitsu: it started out like a wildfire and morphed into a steady blaze, but sometimes it feels that blaze is in danger of dwindling to an ember. Read on for some suggestions for feeding the flames.

Ask some teammates what excites them about jiu-jitsu. People who have not been training for as long as you are more likely to demonstrate youthful exuberance because they are less likely to have accumulated injuries and experienced the cumulative physical and mental effects of years of the jiu-jitsu grind. Ask some of them what excites them; you might awaken some reminders of your own early enthusiasm that have become muted by years of dedication.

Switch up your game. After years of training, sometimes our worldview narrows. We invest time and effort in certain sequences and go-to moves, and/or we find ourselves in similar situations roll after roll. This can certainly become repetitive at times. One cure for this is to branch out. Got a teammate who leglocks everyone? Looking to try more smash-pass tactics? Rusty on the feet? Find someone whose game incorporates these aspects of jiu-jitsu and become a new student all over again. You may experience the wonder of learning something new, and you will have the added benefit of being able to learn more quickly than your white belt self, thanks to your years of training.

Teach. Another way to combat the blahs in your training is to teach. Most teachers, of jiu-jitsu or of other things, will tell you that being a teacher requires an orientation to a subject matter that is different from that of a student. As a simple experiment, think about one of your favorite sequences to execute during training. Now, think about how you would explain to a novice how you do it and how they could do it. Extend the experiment by delivering your explanation to someone, and think about how your focus and energy compare to those of your student perspective. By teaching, you can develop an even more sophisticated understanding of techniques in your arsenal, and you also get to experience the satisfaction of helping someone else achieve a goal. If you like the feeling, talk to your instructor about opportunities to teach a class here and there.

Go to a tournament. Even if you do not compete and have no interest in competing, the energy at a jiu-jitsu tournament is a marked departure from what you are likely to experience at your academy. Take it all in: the matches, of course, but also the comments and reactions of the spectators, the activity in the bullpen, the commands of the referees and coaches. Observe the preparation of the competitors and their intensity in competition. Even check out the interactions at the snack bars and gear tables. Do some serious people-watching. All of this spectacle is part of the world you have chosen to participate in, and perhaps by watching a competition you will be inspired by techniques you see or the camaraderie of teammates. Go and observe. See what moves you.

Visit a different academy. Experiencing the environment at a different academy can be a shot in the arm in much the same way going to a tournament can. Everything from the way instructors run warm-ups to the kinds of techniques the students tend to go for can provide different stimuli. So, whether you are traveling for business or taking a field trip, investigate how the other half lives. Just make sure to clear it with your instructor first.

Take some time off. Sometimes lethargy and ambivalence are a sign of burnout. If it has been a while since you have taken an extended period of time off (we’re talking days or weeks, not hours, people), consider unplugging. Yes, I know, you may fear that on one of the days you are gone your instructor will divulge the one simple trick that will make you a jiu-jitsu master the likes of which the world has not seen since <insert name of person you believe is the GOAT>. But if you are burned out, you will be no good to anyone anyway. Rest is a vital part of training, and if you do not schedule breaks into your training, then you are not training as effectively as you could.

Embrace a new normal—for now. You are a brown belt, which means you have likely been training for upwards of six or eight years. Chances are that when you started jiu-jitsu, your life circumstances were different. Perhaps back then you did not have children and now you do. Perhaps you have a more demanding job. Perhaps you have acquired additional interests, which is allowed. It simply means you will need to allocate your available time differently.

It sounds like you still enjoy training. Perhaps you simply do not have time to linger anymore because you have other things to get to. This could be your new normal—for now. You come to class, get your work done, and go on your way, because right now that is what your life demands. Then the cycle will continue, and perhaps you will find you have a bit more free time. Such is life, and variety is one of the characteristics that keeps it from becoming too blah, which is where we started in the first place.

You are bound to experience the blahs if you train long enough. If you find yourself struggling a bit with motivation or inspiration, try one of the tactics described above to jump start your energy. Good luck, and thank you for the question!

Have a question for Val? Submit it here!

Photo credit: CAM Photos & Design

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