I am an old young BJJ black belt, but I still know that feeling of hitting a plateau. I am old in the sense that I am over 40, but young as I have had my black belt for only two years. Take that as a disclaimer as you read the following. Last week, after training, one of my students was looking visibly defeated, staring blankly at the wall. As every coach would do, I approached her, and found she was dealing with one of the worst combos: a bad day at work, plus a bad day at the dojo, plus the “plateau” phase. We had a discussion that led me to a deeper self-reflection on my coaching, and to a broader extent, the teaching aspect of BJJ.
How to Overcome the Plateau Feeling in BJJ
First of all, let me address the feeling of emptiness one gets when BJJ isn’t going our way. More experienced Jiujiteiros will all tell you the same: we have days, weeks, months, even years, where we feel that we’re making no progress in our BJJ. This feeling is normal in any activity. Whether you’re playing soccer, chess, tennis or whatever. The issues with BJJ come from the fact that this activity is as real as you get. BJJ is a primal activity. When we roll, we unconsciously accept that the outcome is a death sentence.
Death is not actually a realistic risk. Fortunately, we can tap. And even if we cannot, our opponent will eventually let go. But the emotional consequence of being submitted is that we accept we have been at the mercy of another human. In almost any other activity, there are few consequences to losing, as it is “just a game”. Moreover, when we spar in stand-up fights, and to some extent in MMA, there are often psychological biases: “I lost but if I was going 100 per cent this hook would have put him out”; “I didn’t want to injure him”; “In a real fight, those leg kicks would have…” etc etc. The very nature of BJJ is that the “would” part is almost non-existent.
The “gentle art”, as it is sometimes called, means that submissions can come with little physical effort, and even if it comes after a tough battle, the dominance of the winner is never questionable, as is the sanctity of the submission. The “would“ is invalid, and so too is our easy psychological way out. Now, there are a few things that need to be said to overcome these feelings.
One of the best sayings in BJJ is “a black belt is a white belt who never quit” and every single one of them has hit a plateau at one point or another. We’ve all heard this, and it’s one of the most accurate sayings there is. We all have bad moments, but if we keep going and keep turning up, we will eventually overcome these periods, build strength from our failures, and see all our efforts come to fruition.
Stop Comparing Yourself to Others
We tend (and I think this is normal) to compare ourselves with our peers. We say things like:
“Tom has been promoted and I started the same day as him.”
“Brad won his division and I lost my first match.”
“I used to tap Laura and now she is tapping me.”
If you’re guilty of these thoughts, don’t worry. We all have them. However, we cannot compare what is not comparable. Laura, Tom and Brad are different individuals. Their days are different, their past and future are as well. Perhaps they haven’t hit their plateau in BJJ yet. Or perhaps they’ve just come out of it.
You’re Better Than You Think
I know I just said not to compare yourself to others, but if we’re going to do it, let’s do it right. There are almost 8 billion people on this earth right now, and roughly 3 million BJJ practitioners. That means that even if you were the worst BJJ practitioner on earth, you would still be ahead of 99.6% of the population. So chin up!
Finally, understand that we are no longer hunter-gatherers. And very few of us are professional fighters, or work in fields like security. So for the majority of us, the pursuit of being awesome at BJJ clearly falls in the hobby category. As much as it is triggering to our primal nature, BJJ is just a hobby. It’s a damn good, addictive hobby, but a hobby nonetheless. So, do not put too much pressure on yourselves. Try to find pleasure in the process of daily practice, rather than focusing only on outcomes. Do this, and you’ll magically let go of a massive weight around your neck in BJJ, and surely progress faster and leave your plateau behind.
Us coaches should also understand that we are teaching individuals that do not necessarily aspire to become champions, but enjoy the art. We should therefore create an environment where they can develop themselves as better Jiujiteiros, and moreover, better humans.
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