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Wednesday, 9 October 2013

Life is tough at the bottom

I've just got home from teaching two classes tonight, a beginners course lesson and a normal class which was made up of mainly white belts. This brought up a number of conversations relating to the experience of just starting out in jiu-jitsu.

The main thing I always try to stress to people is that jiu-jitsu is tough; physically and mentally demanding beyond anything else most people will have done before. This results in a big drop-out rate after people do one class or within the first few weeks... and I don't believe any instructor/club who say otherwise, unless they don't put people in to sparring straight away (which is just delaying the inevitable). If you are just starting out with jiu-jitsu and are struggling with the fact that you just get beaten up every round and feel sore as hell the next morning, realise that the tougher something is the more rewarding it is to overcome and prosper in.

But I want to look at some of the specific things I think people struggle with when they start...

- Getting your ass kicked in sparring
This is definitely the main issue for most people, but it can be a problem for different reasons depending on personality. For some people it's a straight up ego problem, they can't handle facing the fact they are the lowest rung of the ladder over and over. But if this is the case, why will hiding from it be any better? The other reason people struggle with this is they feel like it's pointless to try because everyone smashes them. Both of these reasons lead me to say the same thing... why would you bother training if it was any different? If you could walk into a jiu-jitsu academy and handle yourself against experienced fighters what would you have to gain from the training? Let your ego go, don't worry about being a novice (everyone used to be), keep training.

- Being sore after training
Jiu-jitsu is a highly physical activity. Except for beginners course lessons, I have an absolute minimum of 30 mins sparring every lesson and have done a 2 hour class of 20 min rounds straight through before. If you weren't sore after a class something would be wrong. As you body adapts, the soreness will become much less of an issue... you simply won't feel as sore after a session and you'll be used to it. There are also things you can do to reduce the soreness; when I started I used to soak in a really hot bath straight after training and found it almost totally prevented any feeling of soreness the next day. I hear alternating hot shower/ice bath is even better... but I'd rather not sit in a bath of ice myself!

- A feeling of not improving
This probably accounts for a lot of people who drop out after 6 months or so. It's easy to think that by that stage you should be able to do much better against the experienced guys, but in a lot of cases you'll probably actually seem to perform worse against them than a few months ago. There can be two things going on here... one is that the people you are comparing yourself to are training more than you so improving at a faster rate. This will mainly apply to people who aren't all that far ahead of you in the overall scheme of things. The second part of this can be that the other people are now going much harder against you in sparring; when you first started they were probably happy to let you work positions a bit, partly to help you out and partly so they can train certain positions/counters. Now that you have improved they will be less willing to give you so much room to work. You should see this as a positive... they now consider you more of a danger and so they work harder against you. Whatever the problem, if you feel you're not improving, you are.

- Feeling like you'll never be "good"
This is similar to the last one and what people deem "good" can vary a lot but usually it comes down to the fact that even after a long time training... years... you still won't be able to get close to the top grades. There is nothing much can be said about this except that jiu-jitsu takes a lot of training to get really good at. Even those considered prodigies (BJ Penn, Caio Terra etc) still took 4 years or more of full-time training to get to the top level (Mundials champion), and the sort of person who can achieve that makes up a tiny percentage of the population. So for most people a realistic goal of just becoming a black belt is still something which is going to take 10 years or more. Don't set out expecting to become high level in a short amount of time, because if you do you will probably be very disappointed.

- Becoming frustrated at fluctuating performance results
You do one session and all of a sudden you can land all the techniques you did last week, then the very next class you can't do anything to anyone. This might not even be the result of different level sparring partners, just personal performance. For the less experienced, even blue belt level, this can be easily explained by the fact that you still have big holes in technical knowledge so depending on the positions you end up in you might have quite a few options or none. This results in a huge variation in success during sparring, and all more experience will do is reduce the variation... a purple belt sparring with a higher level might do ok if they can get to their best positions, then next session they might get smashed because the same sparring partner manages to avoid them.

- Disappointment at competition results
I have seen so many students over the years who train a lot right from the day they start, they start to get good quickly, they can beat most of the white belt in training and maybe some of the blue belts... then they compete, and they lose, maybe even lose quickly. Why? Could be any of a number of reasons; adrenaline kicks in, the opponent is just better, they just make one mistake, they use poor tactics... whatever, the result is the same. I think the reason for quitting after losing in competition comes down to two things; ego and being unable to deal with losing or thinking that their training has been pointless/insufficient/lacking. The simple fact is... people lose. Even the best guys ever lose. If you compete you will lose at some point, nobody always wins. That doesn't mean you shouldn't care about losing, you should hate losing, I hate losing. Use it as a positive, when you lose you just go back to the gym and train harder or more intelligently. Talk to your instructor about why you lost and make any changes you need, or focus on any technical areas you are lacking in.

- Injuries
I covered this in depth in a previous blog but they are part of the sport. If you follow my advice in that blog hopefully you can reduce the amount of injuries you pick up, and more importantly the severity, but you will get injured at some point. There is no way around this.

The main thing here is that jiu-jitsu is tough, if it was easy I would never have bothered sticking with it. It's tough and it will make you tough. If you keep training you will one day wear a black belt and have serious fighting skills, no matter how long it takes... but if you quit and sit at home thinking about what you could have done you will be worse off than before you set foot in the gym the first time. If you don't like it, fine, jiu-jitsu isn't something everyone will like, but if you enjoy your first lesson all you have to do is never quit and you will reap the rewards.


  1. Rob - you highlight a lot of issues faced by almost every BJJ Practitioner, I try to emphasis to 'beginners' that they are better then what they were - sometimes we ALL hit a plateau but ultimately are we better then the year before - the answer more often than not is YES! I currently sit in the - 'A feeling of not improving' - however if BJJ was easy we'd all be Black Belts ;).

    Brilliant read

    1. There is no such thing as plateaus... I will cover this subject at some point in the future :)

      Just keep training, and you're right, judge yourself against your level a week/month/year ago, not against others.