In it to Win it: 5 Ways to Develop your Technical Growth on the Mats

By: Emily Kwok

As a teacher, I generally see incredible enthusiasm and growth within the infancy of a new student’s journey in our sport. They are always empowered by what they discover their bodies can do and surprised at how effective certain lessons can be. Most of us are not conditioned to use our bodies to  control another human being our size or larger. When we begin to learn the art of BJJ, we find ourselves lost in a puzzle of limbs. This mortal game intrigues by seducing us with our own creative expression and we experience ourselves as we never have before. We feel parts of our body that we didn’t know existed and we do things with our body that we had no idea we were capable of. We feel, for brief moments, that we are superheros and we long for the day when we harness complete control of our powers.

But as with any new relationship, once the honeymoon phase wears off and the stage lights dim, the rough edges and imperfections appear and we begin to question what we are doing and if it really is as wonderful as we once thought.

Brazilian Jiu Jitsu has to be one of the most complex and challenging sports in existence. There are an incredible number of variables that make it very difficult to measure success or progress. Though the rules and mats are fixed, it is the individual fighter’s internal conviction and process that influence the outcome. Learning how to handle ourselves in combat is a harrowing task and is exasperating to even the best.

BJJ is a hard sport to learn. Really f***ing hard. But for all the stress and frustration, I also believe it is unique in that it is constantly evolving and allowing us to explore and experiment. It is fluid and beautiful and continues to appeal to even the most accomplished and knowledgeable practitioners. I don’t think I’ve ever met anyone who quit because it wasn’t interesting, but I’ve met many who abandoned it because they found it to be overwhelming.

Once we know enough to get by, I commonly see students get stuck in a rut. It plagues every belt level and it’s happened to me throughout my career. I would hit a growth spurt and would be able to learn and execute new moves on my training partners and in competitions, then everyone would catch up to my technique, and I would get squashed, smashed and spit out. I would plateau, question my existence and wallow in my pity. Whether I was vocal or silent about the issue didn’t matter — I would still feel like I suck. White, blue, purple, brown and black — we are all vulnerable to this dynamic.

There are many avenues for growth feedback, but everyone responds differently to each. The following exercises emphasize internal process and incremental development vs. external results, like we might see in a competition or belt promotion. I feel like these are universally applicable to every type of student, from beginner to advanced, recreational to competitor. Hope you have some success with them if you try them out!

1. Additive technical focus

 Instead of looking to tap everyone out or not getting tapped as a marker for how awesome you are in training, boil your intentions down to the success of executing a new technique. Select a new move that you’d like to work into your repertoire — perhaps a sweep, pass or sub. Commit yourself to hitting that technique during each sparring session and consider each rep a win. This will keep you focused on learning new techniques against partners of any level or size.

2. Subtractive technical focus

If you know you’re prone to always looking for an americana from the top and want to incorporate new submissions into your game, don’t allow yourself to do the things you like to do. If we constantly rely on our go- to moves, it’s nearly impossible to develop new attacks because the ones we know and like are the ones that will present themselves most obviously. Remove the best elements in your game from time to time so that you’re forced to look for something you didn’t see before.

3. Structured positional sparring

If you’re a bigger training partner and start off your knees 99% of the time, there is a strong likelihood that you overpower your partner and work quickly to the top position and leave them squirming on the bottom. Though this feels nice for your ego, you will begin to plateau when your partners learn to work out of the bad positions while you continue to do what you like doing and are already good at. You are only as strong as your weakest link. Consider starting your matches in the positions you dislike. This will give you the opportunity to work unfamiliar challenges and open up your options. Growth never comes from being too comfortable.

4. Train with people your own size and adjust the experience level

Though BJJ is celebrated for the leverage it gives smaller people, training with someone your own size is very helpful when you want to know if something really works. When I try out a new technique, I always start with people my own size or slightly smaller, with less experience than me. As unsure as they are about training with a much more experienced belt, I am unsure of this new guard entry etc. As I am able to successfully set it up and execute it on these partners, I will begin to level up the experience, then size of my opponent. Stacking the odds against yourself by trying new things with bigger and more advanced students will usually set yourself up for failure too quickly out of the gates.

5. Give yourself a handicap 

Taking an asset away or training with a disadvantage can help other aspects of your game improve. Examples:

  1. Drilling double leg entries with no hands: helps with form and timing
  2. Guard passing with no hands (both partners): helps with foot and hip work, chest pressure and engagement
  3. Training with one arm: whole body coordination and timing
  4. Point disadvantages: forcing yourself to move to make up for the deficit with limited time.



  • Carly

    Love this, so helpful and looking forward to putting the ideas to work!

  • Sandra

    Thank you! This literally came at the time I needed it! I was feeling bad after class yesterday because I always feel overpowered by others who smash me down which means I’m defending 99% of the time. I haven’t got the ability to attack from the bottom yet.

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