The Revenge of the Plateau, Episode 75

The Revenge of the Plateau, Episode 75

Training Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu is a long-tail pursuit, and I am approaching the point where I will have spent a longer period of time learning jiu-jitsu than I spent in formal education. That’s a long time.

The challenge of a hobby like this is that your development is not a steady climb. Early on, the wins and insights come rapidly. When you know nothing about grappling, any bit of information you capture is a step forward, and you can make a great deal of progress by simply collecting knowledge and filling in gaps. I often tell my students that I am jealous of white belts for this reason. Every single class they attend is something new and exciting, and it almost always moves them forward on their journeys.

Eventually—sometimes as early as blue belt—your training hits a lull. You feel as though you are not improving, and worse yet, it looks as if your training partners are starting to pass you by. You come to class. You drill the moves. But your game is off. You aren’t hitting the moves you want to hit, and it’s not getting any better.

Welcome to the dreaded plateau.

Plateaus in training are inevitable. Everyone, on a long enough timeline, experiences a drift in their progress. The more advanced one’s knowledge becomes, the more difficult it is to glean insights and to learn something truly new. This is why prestigious awards are associated with scientific breakthroughs, and those breakthroughs are often the result of decades of research and experimentation. Put simply, learning is hard, bro.

For me, the longest plateau I ever experienced was three years long. I had a string of injuries. I changed gyms. I took over teaching a new program. Many of my training partners were less experienced grapplers. All of these factors blended together to give me the prolonged feeling of being stuck in place.

That’s extreme, but it gave me a great deal of time to think about the experience and how I might be able to help my own students conquer their plateaus when they have to face them.

Here is what I tell them:
  1. The feeling of a plateau is deceiving. Even if you feel like you are not improving but are still going to class, you probably are getting better. For my extended plateau, I spent a great deal of covering ground I had covered before to recover my performance, and that was actually good for me. I didn’t know it then, of course, but now I can see that I was making improvements that were invisible to me.

  2. Plateaus are a good sign. If you have reached the point where it is possible for you to plateau, that’s evidence of the progress you have made in your career thus far and also speaks to the commitment you have to your training. The feeling of the plateau might be awful, but winning a marathon does not feel that great either in terms of what it does to your body. Try to reframe the challenge to recognize how far you have come.

  3. There is no magical cure for plateaus. The best way to address them is to do the things that are good for your development no matter how your training feels: take a private lesson, pick up a new instructional, experiment with a new position, and just keep training. The plateau will break eventually, so don’t let it break you first.

  4. Your progress and your teammates’ progress are not linear. We want to believe that improving in anything is a smooth upward line, but true progress looks a lot more like a scribble. You explode forward. You drift backward. You lull in a plateau. You get hurt and have to recover progress you had made once before. When you understand that, you can also be less harsh with how you compare your progress to the progress of others. There will come a time when your drift backward aligns with your best friend’s explosion forward, and she will choke the acai out of you for months. Be happy for her instead of sad for yourself.
Don’t forget that training is supposed to be fun. Jiu-jitsu is a difficult sport, and it gets more difficult the deeper you go. There is joy in that adversity, but you have to give yourself some slack to find it.

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