5 Principles for Growth in BJJ

By: Emily Kwok

Before we breakdown some of the growth principles that have been helpful in my BJJ, let’s just clear the air here and demystify what the word ‘principle’ means in this context. All too often people will nod their heads when you mention, ‘Do you understand this principle?’ when they really have no flipping clue what you’re talking about.

I’ve experienced this in my own life many times over because I want to save face. It’s natural for most of us to want to appear knowledgeable, especially so to our peers. If we are in a highly specific or elevated social circle the desire further increases. However, there is a difference between understanding things on the surface and really committing oneself to internalizing the concepts being discussed. When I speak of internalizing, I mean viewing everything you do through that lens in live time, not thinking about it ‘as if’, ‘when the time comes’ or ‘when it happened’.

I want to share this vulnerability with you because I personally find that real growth comes through authenticity. Being authentic and true to yourself is humbling on a personal level and it is a welcome and refreshing trait to others. It’s something to hold on to and though it may not be perfect, it’s real. A genuine display of fear, embarrassment, sadness etc. is far more appreciated in than any type of fakery.

Being authentic and true to yourself is humbling on a personal level and it is a welcome and refreshing trait to others. It’s something to hold on to and though it may not be perfect, it’s real.”

So when we strip away the flowery language, how many of us understand what a principle is?

I often explain to students that a principle is a rule. It helps you determine what is important in any given situation or act.

Here are some rules that I keep in mind when I think about the mats. I use these guiding principles to organize my training. Keep in mind that being mindful of these themes in your training will often translate to subtly improving other aspects of your life:\.

The 5 Principles for Growth in BJJ

1. Less is more 

1. As a practitioner, learning to refine your repertoire to a few sets of interchangeable techniques vs. trying to implement every technique you’ve ever been taught will help you develop a more efficient and effective game when you are in execution mode. When you’re trying to expand your skill set and the pressure isn’t on to perform, open yourself up to learning as much as you can. In teaching, trying to impress your audience by showing them how much you know can become more ‘show and tell’ time and leave them with little accomplished. It can take months or years to really grasp a great move, so why not honor what you know and take your time teaching the details? It’s your personal interpretation that everyone is interested in.

2. Feel your partner

 You might have a hard time hearing the lyrics clearly in your favorite song if it’s blaring out of your speakers on full blast. You’re shocked and astounded if anything, and your entire body might tense up. Same thing happens in your BJJ. In order to combat your opponent effectively, learn how to turn the volume down. Sometimes it’s the right call to be hard and heavy, but you can’t sustain that for 5 min. You’ll exhaust yourself. At the highest levels, athletes are attuned to every little movement their partner makes. The twitch of a single fiber in their forearm can giveaway their next attack. If you put effort into relaxing a bit and feeling your partner, you will be able to read more into them. Being super aggressive and spazzy will make you oblivious to their intentions and worse yet, make your own position super predictable.

3. Time your movement well

At an advanced level, positions and subs don’t just magically open up. You must create the ideal situation by timing your attacks. Offensively, pushing and pulling gives you the openings you need to move forward. Defensively, movement should help you make the space you need to escape or to turn the tide. Know when to do these things – it’s quite nuanced. When timing is ill considered, your attack or your escape can be foiled because your partner is sensing it from miles away.

4. Embrace dynamic energy

Marcelo Garcia would always tell me to, ‘keep moving Emily!’. When you are the storm, you disorient your opponent because they can’t keep up with all the fronts to your attack. When you stop moving and allow yourself or your opponent to settle in, it can be very difficult to shift the action in your favor again. Ever been stuck in a terrible side control hold? Imagine how much better it would have felt if you didn’t let them pin you there and you just kept scrambling until you got out. It may be tiring to stay active, but the outcome is most certainly better than being stuck in an oppressive position.

5. Allow yourself to be vulnerable

Growth never comes when we are most comfortable. We often need to be pressed into a bad situation to find ways of either not getting there or getting out. If you are always ‘winning’ against your training partners you should ask yourself if you’re actually learning anything new or if you’re just good at doing what you like to do. Give your partner’s the upper hand when sparring starts, or limit yourself to performing a new move so that you are pushing yourself to be uncomfortable. This is the point where your game gets better.

There are plenty of good principles/rules/lenses through which we can all further ourselves. These are just a handful that I like use on regular basis. Many students I work with see an immediate improvement in their game once they start playing with these sort of themes because they see how they should string together what they know. It’s like a very exciting game of connect the dots. They begin to understand that getting better at something is not about how much you know, but about how well you live and apply it.


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