10 Ways to Accelerate Your BJJ Growth

I can’t think of a more edifying moment in my Jiu Jitsu life than this one. I was talking to Emily on the phone in the aftermath of the Atlanta Open, where, for the first time, I managed to get onto the podium at an IBJJF event. My performance produced some mixed feelings: relief that I finally proved to myself that I belong at that level of competition, and disappointment that I lost my way in the semifinal. Emily cut through the thought thicket with this comment about my BJJ growth:

“Your growth is remarkable,” she said. “In a lot of ways, it’s like you decided to step out from the middle of the pack.”

When she said that, I felt for the first time that I was on the right track in my development as a grappler. What follows is the process I used to step out from the middle of the pack. But first, a few important things to consider:

  • This is a personal process: It in no way guarantees results. Treat it as a springboard for creating your own personal process.
  • Know and be realistic about who you are and what you want: Speaking of results, I have won one — count ‘em — one IBJJF bronze medal (a legit one, not a sympathy one). I decided to undertake this journey to become the best possible version of myself. That version probably doesn’t win Mundials, but he’s more creative, resilient, dynamic, and happier.
  • The process doesn’t stop: In order for this to work, you need to be fully invested in your process, not in its results. Processes of this sort do not end. Creating your own personal growth process for BJJ is committing to relentless evolution. That means work.

So, with the preliminaries out of the way, here are my 10 steps to accelerating your BJJ Growth.

1. Decide to be all in on Jiu Jitsu

All in means fully invested. You are dedicated to your training — mind, body, soul. All in is going to look different for individual grapplers. For me, it looked like 5-6 days weekly on the mats, with two strength and conditioning days thrown into the mix. Maybe you don’t have time for that. Fine. Commit to the maximum amount of training that you do have time for, and on those days, train like a professional.

2. Create a deliberate practice

Training deliberately in BJJ means training with intention. You show up, learn, and train hard. But that’s only half of the work. The other half is reflecting on that training. Where did you err? Where are there gaps in your game? Return to training and work on closing the gaps.

3. Systematize your deliberate practice

For me, this looks like writing lessons and observations from rolls down in detail. Creating mind maps of my game is also something that I do. I rely on questions. I pose them to myself about my game before going to bed, then scribble down my thoughts about the question in the morning, after my subconscious mind has gone to work on them. This often leads to more, albeit better, questions.

4. Cultivate presence

How good are you at paying attention? What was step one of this post? The fast pace and dynamism of Jiu Jitsu requires heightened levels of awareness, what I think of as Presence. In competition, there are often subtle signs that momentum is shifting in your opponent’s favor. To notice them, you need to get better at noticing. Meditation is an excellent habit for training this principle and sparking BJJ growth.

5. Train with purpose and intention

As specifically as possible, know what you want to accomplish every time you step onto the mat. Thinking, I want to win, isn’t specific enough. Think more along the lines of: the lasso sweep from last Tuesday, triangles from the bottom of side control, or you can think thematically, such as, I want to work on my composure by taking 5 deep breaths before each round.

6. Develop Resilience

Think of Resilience as grit, guts, or elan — maybe some combination of all three. Most think of it as a personality trait — something you either have or don’t. But in truth, it’s more like a skill. You train it by making small decisions, like choosing the better, bigger, strong opponent when you’re exhausted. Or, flipping the shower dial to full cold and controlling your breathing for 30 seconds. You do these things precisely because you don’t want to. You do these things because they’re difficult.

7. Embrace Dynamic Quality as a way of life

Robert Pirsig is the philosopher/novelist best known for Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, which is often described as a metaphysics (read: first principles) of Quality. In writing his book, Pirsig set out to explain how and why we know something is Good or not (painting in very broad strokes, here). I think the follow-up to ZAMM, Lila, is actually better. In Lila, Persig makes a distinction between two types of Quality: Static Quality and Dynamic Quality. Static Quality is fixed. It doesn’t change much. Things with Static Quality include institutions like government, the economy, or the legal system. By comparison, Dynamic Quality is ever-evolving. 

Picture a train hurtling down the tracks. Dynamic Quality is the foremost point on the train. Metaphorically speaking, this is the cutting edge: The place where the envelope gets pushed. The place where the difference between brilliance and catastrophe is a hair’s breadth. This is where you want your BJJ game to be.

It’s also perhaps the hardest principle to train, but BJJ provides a wonderful feedback loop for training it. I think that the key to training Dynamic Quality through Jiu Jitsu is training for heightened sensitivity for the moments when you start slipping into Static Quality. It’s the moment you hold a position too long. You default to comfortable movements instead of experimenting in training. You refrain from trying new techniques for fear of embarrassing yourself or tapping to a lower belt. 

Meditation is also helpful here. Heightened Presence will make you more attuned to the moments when you slip into Static Quality. Over time (and believe me, this is still very much a work in progress for me), you’ll be more receptive to these slips from dynamism into the static.

8. Train Internal Orientation

Perhaps there’s no greater embodiment of the principle of Internal Orientation than Gen. Ulysses S. Grant. He was by all accounts a failure in nearly everything in life. But I would argue it was Grant’s Internal Orientation that made him exceptional and won a Union victory in the U.S. Civil War. Grant had what some called an unwavering conviction in success — and he held onto it regardless of the damage his enemy did. 

When he faced Robert E. Lee for the first time at The Wilderness in 1864, his officers wouldn’t stop yammering about Lee. 

“It was Bobby Lee this, and Bobby Lee that,” says historian Shelby Foote in the Ken Burns documentary, The Civil War

Grant wouldn’t have it, Foote says. 

“You think he’s going to turn a double somersault and land in our rear?,” Foote reports Grant as saying. “Worry about what you’re going to do to him. Bring some guns up here.”

BJJ growth requires us to channel our inner Grants and have the unwavering conviction that we can win. We do this by going into every round with a plan, and using everything our opponent does to our advantage — especially when things don’t go as planned.

9. Think beyond Jiu Jitsu

It helps to diversify your pursuits and interests, I believe. It’s something that Josh Waitzkin calls Non-Local Habit Creation, and it’s an essential tool for mastery. We can summarize the principle as: Using this to learn that. It’s contained in all of these steps. Using meditation or journaling to train Jiu Jitsu, for example. For me, it’s using writing to support my learning of the martial arts. I can’t tell you how many times I’ll have a Jiu Jitsu insight as I’m writing fiction, reading a novel, or editing someone else’s work. Learning is essentially forging new neural pathways in the brain. The more of these pathways we can form — especially if they’re in disparate parts of the brain — the more potential we have for new insights into our art. Writing is no substitute for training, but it has led to breakthroughs for me.

10. Stress and recovery

All of these steps describe action. Doing. Motivated grapplers have no trouble hitting the gas. They’ll keep hitting it until the gas tank is empty and they’re hurt or burnt out. This has certainly been my case. You need to prioritize recovery as much as stress. For me, this takes the form of a non-negotiable weekly day of no activity and an 8-9 hours of quality sleep nightly (with a nap thrown into the mix if that doesn’t happen). 

Granted, I don’t have children and I’m a self-employed consultant and writer. So that may be easier said than done for you. However, whatever your training plan looks like, the learning and growing is actually taking place when you rest and sleep. 

People don’t believe me when I say that I only lift twice weekly (and that yes, it’s all natural). My physical transformation is a product of disciplined pursuit of stress and recovery. That also means eating a strict diet 5-6 days a week (and all 7 days when in a competition camp), and drinking little to no alcohol. A wild night for me is some ice cream and bed after 10 p.m. But give your body and mind the right inputs, and they will surprise you.

Final thoughts

All of these principles are things I have learned in my consulting work with Emily and Josh Waitzkin. You can begin implementing them yourself, or learning about them in greater detail, by reading Josh’s book, The Art of Learning.

Please remember, this is my personal journey for BJJ growth. Following it like a road map might not work for you. Ultimately, if you want to step out from the middle of the pack as a hobbyist in this sport, if you want to accelerate your BJJ growth curve, you need to be accountable for your own growth and your own training. Your coaches can show you the way, but you need to plan how you’re going to walk it, start walking, and don’t stop.

Photo by Joshua Smith.

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