The Case for Stubbornness

As a character trait, being stubborn is usually considered negative. Someone who is stubborn insists on a path no matter what, sometimes in the face of overwhelming opposition. They grit their teeth and refuse to be swayed.

In jiu-jitsu—and in sports in general—a certain kind of stubbornness is mandatory to achieve success. If you are not willing to fail repeatedly until you get it right, you will likely find it difficult to progress, especially as your competition gets tougher and tougher. To learn, and to grow, you have to be willing to believe that a technique or a move can work for you and hold that belief over a long stretch of training and through countless screw ups.

Here’s an example: Christian Flores is a skateboarder, and he isn’t shy about saying that he knows he isn’t the best or even the most consistent skater, but he’s passionate. He had a trick in mind that he wanted to land, and it took him two years to get it right. By his own estimation, he went to the same spot 10 times a year and attempted the trick 100 times each go, and on two occasions had to go to the hospital as a result of failing. So that’s a lot of attempts before getting it right.

Flores fell down a lot. No, really, a lot. Watch the video.

Working on one trick for two years sounds insane to me, someone who tried standing on a skateboard once and promptly fell on his face, but when I look at what it takes to advance in jiu-jitsu, two years sounds completely reasonable. Once you get beyond blue belt and move into the twilight years of purple belt, your little technical projects—adding that new technique or strategy to your game—is no longer the one or two month fix that you had at white belt. You start to look at four or six-month chunks at a minimum.

In my case, it took me 6 months to really start nailing arm drags, and starting to nail butterfly guard was another 6 months. Beyond trolling white belts, the majority of those stretches were pure failure. I’d miss a detail or misjudge my timing or use the wrong variation at the wrong time. In jiu-jitsu screwing up might not mean dropping your head on cement like it does in skateboarding, but there can still be a significant amount of pain to mix in with your self-loathing when you realize that your arm drag failed and you are now getting your guard passed.

But that’s how you get really good. You say, “I am working on this thing,” and you insist on going for that thing relentlessly, every class and every roll. You get sick of it. Your partners get sick of it. And your instructor might even get sick of it. But you keep trying it. You keep trying to stick that landing no matter how many times you fail.

There is a little bit of that always get back up when you fall happy go-lucky fuzzy feel good sentiment here, but to me it’s more scientific than a simple moral victory. Yes, you won’t be defeated or denied, but each failure is a little learning experience giftwrapped in frustration. If you are willing to look past the parts that suck, you can learn a lot about yourself and the technique you are working to master.

After a lot of failure, you eventually map all (or virtually all) of the possible scenarios you can encounter when you try a technique. With all of the surprises taken off of the table, you can focus on the known, and gradually refine and hone until you are sharper and faster than anyone else you know with the move.

It takes time, though. And it takes falling down a lot. If you stick with it, you come out the other side a much better grappler, which really just means looking for the next opportunity to fail again.