The Pain of Invisible Progress

The Pain of Invisible Progress

Measuring your own progress in jiu-jitsu is a difficult challenge. In sports where you are not actively facing an adversary every session, you sometimes have a clearer insight into whether you did better today than you did yesterday. If you’re lifting weights, you can look at how much weight you moved to measure your progress. If you’re on the rower, you can look at your previous times. If you are learning to draw, you can compare the drawing you did today to a similar drawing you did a few months ago.

In jiu-jitsu, a good day can be the result of so many variables that you might not be able to tell if you actually got better. Did I do better today or was Mark just tired? Is my guard getting worse or did Sean figure out the guard pass he has been working on? Am I making any progress at all because the upper belt I usually feel okay against totally annihilated me today?

The core of the problem is that we don’t have static markers to measure ourselves against on a day to day basis. In our sport, the markers are always moving as our training partners continue to improve as well.

This is frustrating for me sometimes as a practitioner, but I worry more about my students. Sometimes I catch a face of disappointment after a series of tough rolls, and they ask, “Am I ever going to get better?”

“You are getting better.”

“It doesn’t feel like it.”

And that’s an awfu feeling. When we invest so much of ourselves into something, we want to see a return, we want to see that we are making progress. That progress is a big reward and therefore a significant motivator. It is disheartening to feel like you are not good enough or are incapable of getting better.

From the outside, as an instructor watching students train, progress that is invisible to my students is often visible to me. More than that, progress that is invisible to a student is often visible to training partners.

Here’s why:

  • We want progress to be big breakthrough moments where suddenly everything falls into place and we come out of the montage a superhero, but the reality is that progress is made in small steps and many of those small steps are not obvious.
  • When we try to evaluate ourselves mid-training, we lack perspective. We don’t have the mental energy to do a mental side-by-side comparison of two versions of ourselves, so we end up using a mostly useless measuring stick of “did I win.”
  • When I watch you drill and roll several times a week, I can see when movements are getting smoother, and I can see when you are making better technical choices, even if you aren’t “winning” more rolls.
  • When someone rolls against you, you might not feel that they had to defend an attack harder or pull out more of an A-game to get around your guard, but they can. You might not notice that you were a more difficult problem to solve today, but training partners often can.

Unfortunately, this means that much of your progress will be invisible to you. Even if I tell you that your instructors and training partners can see that you are getting better, that is not very reassuring or motivating. If you’re like me, you probably believe that you are the one exception who is never getting better no matter how much time you spend training.

So here’s how to make the invisible more visible:

  • Drill techniques and do more isolation sparring. If you can execute a technique with more fluidity than before, that is progress. If you are working on a particular position, put yourself there over and over and apply your new techniques against progressively increasing resistance. This is not quite analogous to lifting weights, but the focus is narrow enough that you can see more clearly when you are doing better.
  • Watch video of yourself. If you are competing, going back through old competition footage is often a great (if not uncomfortable) way to see your progress. You will likely cringe at some of the choices you made, but that’s actually a good sign. You have learned more jiu-jitsu since that match, and you can see what you could have done better. If you are not competing, film a few rolls at the gym, stash them away for a few months, then watch them again.
  • Set specific goals. My instructor, Jeff Rockwell, talks about how when he wanted to work on a particular choke he made it a goal to get 100 times, so each time he rolled he went for that attack over and over again. When you give yourself mini challenges like this, you force yourself to not only work on one thing, but you also give yourself some data. When you first learn a move, the early 20 or so successful applications might come slowly, but as you get better you are likely to see the last 20 reps rack up more quickly.
  • Communicate with your training partners. A good training partner, someone near your level who gives you competitive rolls, can be a great source of feedback. Take time to talk about each other’s games. Share what parts of a roll were tough for you, and ask questions about how a move felt or perhaps what you should be doing differently in response to your partner’s favorite moves. When you use each other as learning tools, you can often get answers to questions like “was that new choke close?” and your partner might surprisingly say “I almost died but was just too stubborn.” That’s helpful.

Progress can be an amorphous concept in jiu-jitsu. You will never move forward in a straight line or make consistently obvious jumps in your technique, especially as you get in the deep waters of colored belts. Part of the journey will eventually mean accepting that your improvements will become granular and hard to define, and that means having to put more trust in your instructors and in your training process. While we can do a lot to make the invisible parts of our path more visible, we should not forget to use good training practices and to surround ourselves with good teachers and good training partners. If you keep showing up, if you keep trying to be better, and if you keep working with skilled jiu-jiteiros, you will improve.