When you first start jiu-jitsu, every little win feels like a big victory. So, feeling lost and having everyone dominate you on the mats makes moments like passing someone’s guard or landing an almost-submission on an upper belt (even if they were letting you work) feel like monumental achievements. And to be fair, they are tremendous achievements. These moments are markers of your progress, and even though they may look like “just” a sweep or “just” a takedown, they’re the result of the culmination of time, effort, and knowledge that you’ve accumulated over the weeks or months that you’ve been training.
After you’ve been training for a while, these “little wins” in training will start to get bigger. You’ll start landing actual submissions on your higher-ranked teammates, even when they’re doing their best to fight you off. Your teammates will start to see you as more of a “threat” (in a good way!), and your coach may be thinking about acknowledging your progress with stripes or even a new belt.
As you start to become aware of your progress, though, you may also begin to realize your weaknesses, and chances are, those shortcomings will start to bother you more. Failed submission attempts will make you feel like you’ve bitten your own tongue, and that self-criticism of, “I know how to do this, so how did I mess it up?” will tear into your confidence.
As you move up the ranks, you’ll probably also encounter newer students who frustrate you more than you’re willing to admit. Suddenly, someone else is the white belt surprising the coach when they knee-cut through a purple belt’s guard. It’s not really a big deal until you’re the purple belt getting their guard passed by a new white belt.
In these moments, it’s easy to be hard on yourself. We all hit plateaus and often feel that our jiu-jitsu learning has gone stagnant. But feeling like you’re getting worse at jiu-jitsu is a whole other emotional animal to tackle.
It’s not that it’s impossible to get worse at jiu-jitsu. If you’re returning after a long break or an injury, your technique and physical fitness probably won’t be what they were when you were training regularly. And frankly, it’s normal sometimes to take two steps forward and one step back, not just in BJJ either. We may see this same pattern at work, in our relationships, or in our other hobbies, too. Our physical, mental, and emotional health play a role in our performance on the mats, and you can’t expect to be at your 100 percent all the time.
Most of the time, though, your jiu-jitsu isn’t regressing at all. It’s just that everyone else is progressing. When we first start training, we experience rapid growth in a short amount of time. We go from learning nothing to learning major techniques and concepts. The better we get, the more our technique is refined — the accumulation of small details takes us to the next level of our journey rather than the learning of vast components of the art. It’s the same thing that happens when we learn any new skill, but most of the time, you don’t have someone challenging you in one-on-one, hand-to-hand combat to indicate the rate of their progress and your own.
The rate at which we develop in jiu-jitsu means that, yes, there will probably be a point where your teammates start to catch up to you, even if all the little details you know still put you ahead of them in terms of skill and technique. It’s practically inevitable that one day, the once-brand-new white belt who didn’t know right from left will catch you in a submission, even if it’s years down the road.
So, if and when this happens, remember what it was like when you started doing better against the upper belts. Did you think the upper belt sucked at jiu-jitsu because you got past their guard? Did your teammates act embarrassed for the upper belt? Or was everyone (including you) simply focused on your impressive progress?
Remember, too, that progress looks different for everyone in jiu-jitsu. Your teammates’ lifestyles, genetics, and schedules may be utterly different from yours. If you work full-time or have kids or are over the age of 30, or can’t make it to more than two classes a week, your rate of progress will likely look very different than that of your nineteen-year-old teammate whose parents pay for his five-day-a-week training regimen.
It makes sense that your younger teammate with fewer responsibilities and more free time would advance more quickly than you, even if you started at the same time. And, even though it can be easier to see where we fall short, you almost certainly have your own set of advantages over some of your teammates, too… and chances are, they’re a bit envious of your skills.
Take a step back and try to see your situation from an outsider’s perspective if you feel like you’re regressing in BJJ. Would you think less of the more experienced students, or would you be impressed by the less experienced students? Extend yourself the same grace you’d give to your teammates if they expressed these concerns to you. Every time you show up to train, you get just a bit better, even if you don’t feel like it. You just have to remember that your teammates do, too.
Jiu-jitsu is a (mainly) individual sport, and it’s natural to be hyperfocused on your journey when you roll with other people. But next time you start to feel down about yourself, try to look at the bigger picture. If you do, you’ll see a group of people who are all developing at their rate with their own goals, accomplishments, and setbacks. While everyone has off-days, off-weeks, and even off-months, the long-term result is that we all get better together.
Averi is a brown belt under Nick Hughes of Trinity MMA and an ambassador for Grapple Apparel. Follow her on Twitter and Instagram: @bjjaveri.