Elements of Progress
Good progress in jiu-jitsu is obtained by a combination working on your knowledge, dedication, and performance. When I am evaluating the progress of my students (as well as my own progress), these three metrics are what I use to determine how much progress is being made.
Invariably, you must accumulate knowledge to be proficient at jiu-jitsu. Knowing the right technique to use at the right time is critical for success, and a solid base of fundamental knowledge is mandatory. Each level of jiu-jitsu requires a different kind of knowledge, from defense, to escapes, to control, to submissions. As you accumulate details of each of these areas, you’ll also build experience that tells you when to apply those details. As you gain experience, look for smaller and smaller details; they are there if you examine your jiu-jitsu closely. Even as an instructor, I still enjoy going to fundamentals classes so I can look for the tiny details.
Steady work towards your goals is the only way to advance towards them. I always recommend making a specific commitment for your weekly training. In a perfect world we could all train 2x a day, 6 days a week. We don’t have to be that aggressive, and most of us would have trouble convincing our bodies to keep up that kind of pace. Do at least what’s comfortable, and add a session. If you can do three sessions a week comfortably, try four. If it causes you any problems for work or family, drop it back. The important thing is to stay consistent and go train your target number of days per week, even on days you don’t feel like it. Jiu-jitsu must become a habit for you to get the most out a given level of dedication.
Jiu-jitsu at its core is about real life performance against a fully resisting opponent. You must take every opportunity to do live sparring, either positional sparring or free rolling. You must test yourself in a variety of circumstances to truly prove your jiu-jitsu skill. Against lesser skilled people, you should be able to control, attack, and finish. Against higher level people, you must be able to defend yourself and be a hard target. Against equally skilled people, you should have lively exchanges of give and take, exploring both your own and your partners jiu-jitsu.
When all three of these elements are consciously worked on, progress is the result. You will build your jiu-jitsu game and endlessly find ways to improve your game and keep jiu-jitsu interesting. No matter what your goal is, either short term or long term, efficient progress must balance these elements.
When one of these areas is lacking in your training, you create an imbalance that has predictable results.
If you lack dedication, you will routinely deal with belt rust, where you have to shake off the rust to get back to where you were before. I’ve talked to many black belts that say that if they miss a few weeks of training, like for injuries, the first thing they notice is a lack of timing. If you go longer, you start to lose a sense of what to do at the right time, even if you used to be able to hit a particular move instantly in the right circumstances. Go even longer, and you start to forget details of techniques. Jiu-jitsu is a perishable skill, and the longer you allow rust to accumulate, the harder the road back to your previous skill level.
If you get to a given level of progress, and stop trying to accumulate more knowledge and details, then your jiu-jitsu game will be stagnant. You may perform well in sparring, and you’ll maintain your level with dedication, but your progress will be slow if you aren’t trying to build your knowledge. Jiu-jitsu can still be fun, but it will be a very long road to get to the black belt level. You also run the risk of getting bored with jiu-jitsu.
Without performance in live sparring, you have what amounts to book knowledge of jiu-jitsu. It doesn’t matter how many techniques you can demonstrate if you can’t perform any of them in sparring. If you have any ambition to compete, then performance is critical.
It’s certainly not impossible to progress in jiu-jitsu if you are lacking in one of the primary areas of knowledge, dedication, and performance, but there will be a time penalty. Plus, as we get older (or more injured), our performance metric changes. Nobody expects a seventy year old black belt to perform the same as they did when they were twenty. They can still build their knowledge and maintain their dedication, but the performance metric may end up being that of their students as a proxy for their own. If they have other seventy year olds of a similar level to spar with, then their personal performance can be judged fairly.
If you work on all three of these elements in a balanced fashion, you’ll achieve progress significantly faster than if you focus on just one or two areas. In fact, this formulation of progress applies well to just about anything in your life, from your profession to hobbies. If you don’t lose sight of what it takes to make progress in your chosen endeavor, then progress is inevitable. If you are having trouble with your jiu-jitsu, figure out which of these elements are not where they should be.