I've been training for a few months and feel like I'm not making a lot of progress. Is this normal?...Read Now
People often question whether or not they are making progress because ‘progress’ is almost never the straight line trajectory that we have been conditioned to expect. Progress in anything challenging, progress in anything worthwhile is a roller coaster. Ups and downs are a NORMAL part of the process towards long term growth & development.
On our good days, we can say that to ourselves and say that we understand that we will all experience low points. BUT, when you’re in one of those valleys, it’s tough to remember that another peak is right in front of you. As you’ll remember from my blog article last week. The jiu jitsu journey is a long one and not everyone makes it through.
Before I get into giving you three tips to help you measure your success, I want to address quitting really quickly. This isn’t something that people talk about, but I think it’s important to share with you my feelings on the subject. Not everyone makes it to black belt, most people quit. BUT, that’s not because most people can’t achieve black belt. I truly believe that every one of my students has what it takes physically to earn one. The test comes from the mental side. “Can you see the peaks, when you’re in the valleys?” If you can, then congratulations, you’re on the path to black belt. If the valleys, and your subsequent frustration, threaten to overtake your whole mindset, then you’re standing in your own way & creating your own road block to black belt.
So, here’s my advice about quitting, when it’s ok, and when I believe you should push through. If you’ve given jiu jitsu a fair chance, (see below) & it’s not for you, that’s fine. There is no shame in liking something else better. BUT, I believe that you’ve only earned the right to ‘quit on your best day.’ If you are training well, having fun, competing well, and everything's going right, and at the end of the day, you still would prefer to do something else with your time, then jiu jitsu is not for you, and you’ve earned the right to walk away. My wife, Amy, is a blue belt and doesn’t train anymore. She might pick it up again at some point, but right now, she’s raising our kids and training fitness kickboxing. She didn’t quit on a bad day, in fact, not long before her last roll, she earned a stripe on her blue belt.
But, If you have a terrible tournament or awful training sessions, you can’t turn your back on your training, or turn your back on yourself. Quitting on your ‘worst day,’ is giving in to your own roadblocks. There’s no growth there and quitting then is doing a disservice to yourself.
So, how do you cope when you’re in a valley & you can’t see the other side? What do you do when you feel like you’re not making any progress?
Here are three tips that I use to help move this from a ‘feeling,’ to a measurable metric that can guarantee growth & progress.
1) Do you have consistency in your training schedule?
As you’ll remember from last week, consistency doesn’t need to be 6 classes per week. Consistency means that every week, rain or shine, summer or winter, good days or bad, you come in to train in the same number of classes. For most of my students, 2 to 3 classes per week is the perfect, sustainable number of classes. If you want more growth, faster, take a look at your training schedule. How many times per week are you actually training? (Not just thinking about training..) This seems strange, but a lot of people think they train more than they do. I’ve heard it many times before. People say they train 5 times per week, but they usually train 3 at the most. (If you’re unsure of how often you really train, you can ask at the front desk, we take attendance.)
This is the number one reason why we use rosters and encourage consistency in your schedule. When your training schedule is set in stone, you arrange the other things in your life around it. When you try to fit your training schedule around your life, you rarely make it. When was the last time you randomly found a few hours in your schedule? Never.. Schedule your training like you schedule your job or your school & you’ll be consistent.
2) Are you training to learn or training to win?
When you roll, are you working on the technique that I showed in the class, or are you doing your own thing? Imagine doing that in a traditional classroom situation. If you’re paying and going to class to earn a degree. And when the professor gives you a syllabus, you take a look at it and say, “Yeah.. That’s probably good for a lot of people, but I’ll figure out my own path… I watch a lot of Youtube..”
I will never understand how people think that makes sense.. If you’ve never done something before, how can you be the person who directs your own course of study? When you choose an academy, that’s something you should be looking for. Is the Professor someone I trust to direct my course of study? Can this person guide my development in the sport? It’s a huge responsibility, one that I take very seriously. I call myself a “Teaching Pro,” because I think that’s a position that needs to cross over into our sport. In golf, they have ‘touring pros’ that you see on TV every week, and ‘teaching pros’ who are the men & women who train everyone from the pros down to the hobby golfer. When you choose an academy, you’re choosing an environment that you love, a place that’s clean & professional, where you feel comfortable.. But you’re also choosing your ‘teaching pro.’ So, assuming that you have a Professor that you trust who takes pride in creating the best possible curriculum, trust their course of study.
Another side training to win is straight ego. I know this side from my own experience. There was a time at purple belt where I tried to win every match. I always did the same thing. I like the guard, and I knew my favorite and best submissions. I always went for the same thing and I tapped a lot of people with it. It was my goal to tap my partner with that same submission in every match. While repetition isn’t a bad thing on its own, I was NEVER working on understanding anything else. So, once my training partners learned my game, I couldn’t hit my go-to moves as much as I could before. I felt like I was getting worse because I couldn’t tap people at will. My training partners were uncovering my weakness and I didn’t like it.
My professors told me that I needed to open up my game and try new things. I hated the vulnerability and the fact that I was getting tapped more. But through that, I was rounding out my game and growing. It led me to a huge breakthrough and I reached another one of those peaks. The mental breakthrough of being unafraid to try new things in my matches is one of the biggest advancements I made as a purple belt.
Its through experiences like that that have guided me in writing curriculum for URSA Academy. I want people to find their style, but I want them to understand a little bit of everything. If you work what I teach, even when it’s not one of your favorite positions, techniques, or styles, you will be a better jiu jitsu player than if you stay in your comfort zone and always go for the same wins.
3) Put some numbers to your training...
To truly take “feel” out of the equation, we need to put some measurable numbers to you training. Don’t get me wrong, “feel” has its place. If you’re in a tournament and you lose a match, but we talk about the points where you did well and we feel that what you did was a ‘win’ & a learning experience for you, then you should feel good about that. But IN the academy, ‘feel’ can lie. You can feel bad when you tap, when you’re really learning. You can feel great when you win, but not growing. So, let’s put numbers to it.
Everyone in the academy should have the goal of training 20-30+ matches per week. We train 3 min. matches in class. Your goal should be to train 10 matches per class. Assuming you are healthy, try to be the first AND last person rolling on the mat. If you find yourself taking unnecessary breaks, sitting out, walking in the lobby, grabbing drinks, or spending more of your time talking about rolling than actually rolling, than you are slowing your own development. If you increase the number of matches you roll per class, then per week, you will see your development follow the same path.
This is one of the most common questions I hear at URSA Academy. Honestly, I’ve been hearing this question years before I opened our school. The canned answer here is 7-10 years. But if it were that simple, I wouldn’t have wasted my time writing a blog post about it. And I have enough experience answering it that I’m actually changing the question. It’s not “How long does it take to get a black belt?” It’s “How long does it take YOU to get a black belt?” That question is much more relevant, more accurate, and it will give you a ton of insight about yourself & what to expect throughout your journey in jiu jitsu.
First, let’s talk about the factors that can swing that 7 - 10 year estimate one way or another. Your skill level, natural talent, outside influences, family, etc. can ALL change how long it takes you to get a black belt. If you are a young phenom & an athletic specimen with a Division 1 wrestling background, a judo black belt, & an understanding of how to best leverage that background in jiu jitsu, AND you enter the sport humble, willing to learn, & willing to work hard, then you’re going to get your black belt faster than most.
If you are a father of 3 who trains 2-3 times per week as a way to stay healthy, have fun, be part of a team, & do something good for himself, you can also earn a black belt, it will just take a little longer.
All of those variables impact the amount of time it will take you to earn a black belt in jiu jitsu. BUT, the ONE factor that is consistent amongst all of my students, and in my opinion, the Most important factor that influences this promotion is consistency in your training.
Please don’t misunderstand me here, I’m not recommending that all my students train 6 times per week. (Unless you’re trying to be a high level competitor.) For 95% of my students, who are hobbyists or hobby competitors, I’m looking for a long term sustainable training schedule. Two - three times per week is enough.
I have a buddy that I trained with as a white belt who never trained more than 2-3 times per week. But the key to his success, is that he never trained less than that either. Today, he is a black belt professor of a successful academy down in Toledo.
For me, I had much bigger swings in my training. I can look back and see exactly how the frequency of my training and the consistency of my schedule directly impacted my promotions. I was a FOUR YEAR blue belt. At the time, I was working a ton of different jobs, sometimes making money, sometimes I was too broke to pay my training bill, I went to school, sometimes part time, others full time. Ultimately training was not my main focus, so I earned roughly a stripe per year.
Then came purple belt and a switch flipped for me. I started training hard. I was having a tough time finding real work, so I focused my energy on the only thing I could control. I poured all of my frustration into my training. I trained 6 days a week, sometimes 2x per day. In my first promotion as a purple belt, I earned 2 stripes. I was promoted to brown belt in a year and a half and jumped over an entire class of purple belts who had gotten their purple belts ahead of me.
I didn’t all of the sudden get more talented, I just outworked them.
As a brown belt, I started competing in IBJJF tournaments. My instructor, Saulo Ribeiro also asked me to open my own academy under him. My skills were there, but I had to get my head straight about what I was going to try to do with jiu jitsu. The biggest area of growth as a brown belt wasn’t in the guard or the mount position, it was in the 6 inches between my ears. I had to mature into a black belt.
Now that I’ve trained and promoted hundreds of students, I believe that you have to mature in every belt. This has nothing to do with age either. We work with people of all ages at URSA Academy, but if you’ve ever been promoted in the sport before, you understand that the feeling is different on the first day in your new belt, from the feeling wearing it 6 months, 1 year, 2 years later.
The elimination of the “belt chaser” mentality is one of the first signs of ‘maturation’ in jiu jitsu. Nobody asks me about promotions more than new white belts.. Followed closely by blue belts. By purple and brown, people rarely ask about promotions. At URSA Academy, we have monthly test & promotion weeks. My purple and brown belts train consistently during those weeks. It’s no different than any other week of training. White belts and blue belts always show up more that week than any other week.
Now don’t misunderstand me. I don’t care what it is that brings you into class, as long as you come on the mats & train. If test & promotion week bumps up your attendance, good. Hopefully watching everyone working hard, seeing other people get promoted, & supporting your teammates will help motivate you train more. But showing up on test & promotion week only won’t increase the frequency of your promotion. Promotions may be awarded on test week, but they are earned on the weeks in between.
I love working with white and blue belts. As a coach, it’s the part of your journey where I can help my students the most. White and blue is tough road. You’re still learning the mental side as well as the physical game of jiu jitsu. The temptation to quit still creeps up every once in awhile when you hit a rough patch.
They often have to fight that feeling of ‘not getting better’ or actually ‘getting worse.’ White & blue belts can go through long stretches where they don’t SEE their progress. They don’t yet understand the long term up & down journey of jiu jitsu. They don’t understand that everything they are experiencing on the mat, all of these setbacks are actually piling up under the surface, stacking on top of eachother, building up pressure, until they burst forward with a huge breakthrough that catapults them to the next level.
Through the maturation process, you begin to understand what you know, & what you don’t. What you have to learn, & how to learn it. How you can grow your own game & how you can help others. Why are you doing this? What is your motivation? When you begin to answer these questions, the answers add up to tip the scales over from the extrinsic motivation that comes from belt promotions or physical medals to your own intrinsic motivation to train. We talk about this shift all the time in our sport, but you usually hear it called by the phrase, “getting bit by the jiu jitsu bug..”
Once you ‘get the bug,’ everything changes. Purple and brown belt are actually easier in some ways than white and blue, at least mentally, because you are no longer fighting the desire to quit. There are plenty of physical challenges & breakthroughs, training milestones, mindset challenges. But the ‘quit’ is gone.
When you hit black belt, you have to have answered all of these questions, experienced & overcome all of these obstacles. These are the obstacles that cause most people to quit along the way. You have to have maturity. And you have to understand that you’ve got more work to do on the other side of the black belt than all of the work you did to get there. And there are never anymore promotions to mark your progress. If you don’t have intrinsic motivation, the drive within yourself to improve with no desire for outward recognition, you’ll quit the day after you get your black belt.
Brazilian Jiu Jitsu is unique. In traditional martial arts, a lot of people who aren’t running a school really do quit training right after they earn their black belt. I hear it all the time from my students who have earned black belts in other martial arts. Brazilian jiu jitsu is such a long road, it requires a total transformation, & it becomes such an ingrained habit over a decade, that BJJ black belts tend to keep training long after they get that last major promotion.
Throughout my journey to black belt I kept hearing a line that I always thought was a cliche’. “The journey BEGINS at black belt.” I didn’t understand how that was possible because it took me 9.5 years to get my black belt. But I finally got it after one of my first tournaments as a black belt. I competed against Comprido. He was a reigning black belt world champion when I first started training. I can remember sitting on the mats with my friends as a white belt talking about how great he was. Fast forward 12 years.. Standing across from him on the mat, wearing the same color belt was surreal.
I lost that match, but I didn’t make HIS highlight reel. ;) That match gave me so much clarity to understand that my journey is, at most, half over. I have so much to learn as a black belt.
On MY journey, this stage of my development comes through helping my students achieve every level of success in their own games, a level of success they can’t necessarily picture on their own.
For anyone training with me at URSA Academy or through the BJJ Teaching Pro Online Academy, that’s my job as your professor; to guide your journey & help you not to fall or give up when you stumble along the path, coach you to train through the end of every round. Train every round until you can’t train any more, no skipping matches when everyone else is training. Train until you’re done. Push yourself to train more matches per day and make each day count. Try to increase the number of matches you do per day. 30-35 matches per week. Then work hard to make it your goal to be the last one training on the mat.
Maximize each training day & make it count. Then make every week consistent. Because consistent weeks turn into consistent months, which turn into consistent years… The challenge of getting your black belt is, in a lot of ways, more fun than ‘having’ your black belt. Every promotion is a different test & a different challenge. Enjoy every belt. You only wear it once.
The first time I started teaching jiu jitsu, I covered for someone else. I asked him what I should teach. He said, “Anything you want.” I wanted to do a good job so I picked 3 or 4 techniques that I really liked at the time and taught them all that day. Learning 3 techniques in one class was pretty standard where I trained. So, in order to do a really good job, I thought I would teach 4. I believed that more was better.
Years later, after I opened URSA Academy, I had to miss a class so I had a purple belt teach for me. I called him and asked what he taught. He told me that he taught his FIVE favorite arm bars or submissions that can come from an arm bar. FIVE TECHNIQUES in one class. He wanted to do a great job and blow people away with awesome stuff, so he packed as much as he could into a 90 minute class as possible.
There are two ways to be BETTER. Quantity.. or Quality. When you don’t understand how to improve ‘Quality,’ you err on the side of ‘quantity.’
I didn’t understand ‘quality’ when I first started teaching & neither did my guest instructor. In an average week, I did what I had always seen & heard. I threw a ton of techniques at people, roughly 3 per day, or 18 per week! If you’re training right now in an academy that teaches 3+ techniques per class, this scenario is probably pretty common. Warm up, learn a technique, break off into pairs, rep 2-3 times then sit & talk about it. Get back into the group, learn a new technique.. Then break off into pairs, ask your partner if they know the technique because neither of you were paying attention. Maybe rep 2-3 times, sit & talk, and wish you were rolling.. And then repeat the whole thing one more time for technique #3.. After that. You roll and NOBODY does ANY the techniques you just learned.
That’s the quantity approach. And it’s the most common BY FAR. Almost everyone does this. But in jiu jitsu, (and in most things,) knowing a little bit about everything will leave you coming up short really quickly. The phrase, “Jack of all trades, master of none” comes to mind here.
The QUALITY approach is the best way to be successful. Period. There are examples of this at the highest level of any sport. Miguel Cabrera is a hitter. Steve Nash was a shooter, Dennis Rodman was a rebounder. We see the same thing in jiu jitsu. Roger Gracie takes people’s backs & chokes them out. Saulo Ribeiro takes mount & x chokes everyone. Rafa & Gui Mendes have their unique guard games. Of course, they know all styles, but they have perfected their own. That decision to focus one element and become the best at that thing has led all of them to the top of their respective sports.
When I began to understand the Quality Approach, I completely changed my teaching style. Over time, I went from teaching 18-20 technique to 2. In my most advanced class, which is offered 6 times per week, I teach 2 techniques per week. My goal is to set my students on the path to becoming experts on the techniques I teach. In private lessons, we niche this down even more. I work with each individual student to help them develop their own unique game. For example, if I’m working on more of a ‘smash’/power technique in our advanced class, and I’m giving a private lesson to a woman who is 103 pounds, our lesson is going to be about how to avoid getting smashed and getting back to positions that are more in her wheelhouse.
In our kids classes, I want them to be experts on self defense. I want them to be able to defend themselves in any position on the mat, or off. After that, one technique we like to work on is the simple arm bar. I want them to understand arm bars forwards, backwards, and upside down. We call them our little “arm bar hunters.” They should be so good at arm bars that they can spot them from everywhere, from the mount, the guard, the back, razors, etc. They may not know the latest Youtube submission, but they will be experts on a highly effective submission that they can apply from almost anywhere.
I always say that Saulo could teach a tutorial on his x choke and how to defend it. He could show it to his opponents, and still hit it on them in a tournament. He wins with simple techniques, not because it’s tricky, sneaky, or because people don’t know what’s coming. He wins because he’s the best in the world at what he does. How many hours do you think he’s practiced that top game in his life? I have no idea.. But from my personal experience training with him for years, I can tell you he’s practiced that game a lot.. I can’t count the number of times he’s x choked me.. But I can say it’s a heck of lot more than he ever trained inverted guard. QUALITY over Quantity.
At URSA Academy, and in my online curriculum The BJJ Teaching Pro, I developed a mind map that outlines the core techniques that jiu jitsu students need to be successful. People are often shocked when they see it because the number of techniques is pretty small. It seems like it couldn’t possibly be enough. When I first designed it, I wanted to outline the journey from white belt to blue belt. But by looking at the specialties of the greats like Roger Gracie and Saulo Ribeiro, I changed my mind. They used WHITE to BLUE belt techniques at the highest level and they won.
When you recognize the Quality Approach’s superiority over the Quantity Approach, you’ll understand that this mind map isn’t a beginner’s tool to be discarded when you get promoted to purple belt. Its the nucleus of your game that you’ll use for the entire length of your jiu jitsu career. And it’s the foundation for all of our curriculum for every program at URSA Academy.
The Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu landscape is roughly 85%-90% men. (An ‘official’ stat may exist somewhere, but this percentage is my observation based on our numbers at URSA Academy, tournaments, and my experiences with the sport for over a decade.) Our academy actually has more women than most jiu jitsu academies, but more on that later.
Not only CAN women train, but I believe they SHOULD train. Men get so many benefits from their jujitsu training: physical fitness, weight loss, muscle tone, social interaction, friendships, emotional balance, stress relief, healthy hobby, etc. NOT ONE of those benefits is gender specific. Not only these, but I personally believe that there is no better form of practical self defense for women than Brazilian Jiu Jitsu.
The main Brazilian Jiu Jitsu (BJJ) positions, closed guard, mount, back, side, etc. all take place on the ground with one person dominating the other. When you picture some of the worst case scenarios, or attacks that can happen to women, many of these attacks involve positions that look very similar to jiu jitsu positions, most obviously ‘closed guard.’
I think that is one of the most common reasons I’ve heard from women about why they don’t want to train. While some of them enjoyed the technique, many women don’t like the close contact involved in live rolling. Knowing that the close contact and the realistic situations are what makes the training both ‘real-world’ practical and essential, how do we help women to overcome these barriers?
First, choosing the right jiu-jitsu academy is crucial to your success. It really is the make or break element to a woman’s future in the sport. As with most things, this part of the culture is led by the Black Belt Professor of the Academy. If he or she is respectful, encouraging, and inclusive of women, most likely, the entire academy will be as well. If the Professor makes you feel like the exception, or awkward, or too fragile, then it’s going to be very difficult to get the most out of your training experience at that academy.
Women’s Only classes are not essential… In fact, in my opinion, women’s only classes can limit the growth of female BJJ practitioners. This may be a little controversial, but I stand by my opinion. Our academy has one of the largest single academy women’s teams in the state of Michigan. Many of the women who train at URSA Academy have expressed that while they genuinely enjoy rolling with other women in class & their camaraderie off the mats, they would not want a separate class just for them. We actually had a women’s only class in the early days of our academy, but it wasn’t until after we dropped that class that our enrollment grew! It seemed that many women who self select into male dominated sports are looking for an inclusive environment, not a separate ‘club within a club.’ While I initially eliminated the class because our clients were not interested, I am now a firm believer in having everyone train together. In my experience, separate training has never produced equal results.
Both male and female BJJ practitioners benefit from rolling with a wide variety of training partners. Women, especially those learning for self defense purposes, need to practice technique on men. Men and women, even those who learn and practice in the same academy, roll very differently. It’s important for women to roll with men to understand how their physicality changes the game. For men, it’s important to roll with women because women rely much more heavily on technique, especially at the beginner levels. At the white and blue belt level, women are far more likely to push their ego out of the way, experiment, and try out new styles or the technique of the day in the end of class matches. Everyone has something they can learn from a training partner who approaches the sport from a completely different angle and the only way that learning can happen is when everyone is training together.
Although she’s not currently training since she gave birth to our second child, my wife, Amy, is a blue belt in jiu-jitsu. While we were dating, she came to my tournaments but mostly stayed out of the academy because jiu jitsu was “my thing.” It wasn’t until after we got married and opened URSA Academy that she decided she wanted to start training. She said to me, “You teach people self defense for a living and I know nothing. If something ever happened to me, I would feel so stupid to have had jiu jitsu at my fingertips the whole time and never learned anything.” So, she put on one of my old gis, and jumped in a class.
Amy told me that her interest in BJJ started with purely self-defense in mind, but she quickly realized that there was a lot more to it. She started toning up, losing weight, & getting in great shape. She loved feeling strong. Her confidence increased & she walked on to the mats excited for the next class and for the next challenge. She was a high school/college athlete & decided that she wanted to jump in and compete almost right away. Since she had competed so much in the past and I knew that win or lose, tournament nerves or results wouldn’t shake her, we both entered a tournament together in London, Ontario, Canada. We also competed alongside my Professor, Saulo Ribeiro. It was a great experience & something fun that we did together.
In a very short amount of time, Amy got to see every side of jiu jitsu. She continued to train for her own benefit in our classes and at one of our affiliate academies, she learned ground self defense, she competed, & then she started helping me teach the kids classes & writing our BJJ kids curriculum. So, from the beginning, she has been part of our Academy. When I was on the mats, she was in the front helping clients. Our students always saw our academy as a husband and wife team or a “mom & pop” shop. I never liked testosterone driven ‘meat head’ gyms anyway. So, when we started ours, I wanted everyone to feel welcome. Throughout the years, my wife and I have continued to work together to create a culture at URSA Academy that is comfortable for our whole family, and for both men and women to train & socialize together.
For any women looking to train, I highly recommend that you try out as many academies as you can to see where you feel comfortable. If you walk in and it feels like a ‘boys club,’ it probably is. You have to decide if that’s a place where you are going to feel comfortable, or if you think that environment will inhibit your own training and development. Then choose the academy where your professor & your team will support & encourage you, and you can comfortably train, learn, & grow as a BJJ practitioner.