I recently went on vacation, and like most of my vacations, I took a gi with me so I could get some training in. I was going on a backpacking trip in Alaska and I was able to attend a noon class at Gracie Barra Alaska both before and after my trip out of Anchorage.
It was my first time training there, and I had the opportunity to spar with a very good purple and a very good black belt for both noon classes. Before my backpacking trip I requested light rolling to avoid any chance of injury, and both partners obliged for some nice mostly flow rolls. I promised when I got back from the field I would give them the rolls they deserved. I was looking forward to some friendly competition.
When I got back and did the second class, we did a nice mount escape class with positional sparring at the end of class. After class, I went on to roll with the purple belt and the black belt I had rolled with before. The first roll with the purple belt went fine at first, but I was not performing at my normal level. So I did my best to rely on structure and timing to avoid submissions and wait for opportunities to get on top and finish my opponent. In the end, I didn’t get any submissions, and at one point I was choked nearly unconscious by a baseball bat choke that I thought I had more time to defend. It turned out it was far more locked in than I realized, and I barely got the tap in. It took a solid twenty seconds to recover with a couple different people asking me if I should be on my back with my legs up.
Then I rolled with the head instructor, who has fifteen years of experience. I knew going in that I was at a significant skill disadvantage, plus I had just put in twenty minutes with a purple belt and I was feeling less like myself than when I started the first roll. After several armbars that would make Royler proud, and a couple of chokes that I thought I could defend, we called it quits and everyone left the building.
By my normal standards, my performance was horrible. I replayed the rolls in my mind, and saw numerous timing mistakes, a few structural mistakes, and a general defensive mindset that I’m not used to carrying. In short, I sucked.
Why? What happened? I was able to speculate about many different sources. My diet for the last week had been radically different than normal and it was not designed for the kind of energy release I needed. I forgot my water bottle, and I was definitely dehydrated after class, especially when working with the little 4 oz cups at the water stand. I took the positional sparring seriously, leaving less gas in the tank than I’d like. I certainly didn’t expect to do a fantastic job against the black belt, but he brought an experienced, conservative, and heavy game that is difficult for me to counter even in optimal circumstances. The purple belt was very good with his baseball bat choke offense, and he did a good job of getting position on me. A couple days later my legs were killing me, so clearly I was stressing them in an out of the ordinary way.
None of those perfectly reasonable explanations made me feel any better. Ultimately I didn’t perform up to my expectations, and that always feels like a crime against myself and my team when I’m either at competition or at some other school.
Think about the last time you had poor performance on the mat. We’ve all been there. There may have been a logical reason for your troubles, or it may have been a complete mystery. If you have the drive to always be better than you were the day before, these blatant setbacks can be disturbing. It gets worse if you have multiple days in a row where nothing goes your way. It can make you question yourself and your training.
It’s all rather depressing, but there’s some great news. Everybody sucks at some point. It doesn’t really matter if there’s a good reason for it, it just happens. You can’t always be a beast on the mat. Jiu-Jitsu will humble you at some point, or you aren’t trying hard enough.
Don’t get bogged down by a bad performance, even if it’s in competition. You don’t have to be thrilled that it happened, but you also can’t let it consume you. Take an objective step back. Try to identify why your performance wasn’t up to your standards. If you are having trouble figuring out what went wrong, ask your coach — they have likely experienced the same situation, or they can help you pinpoint what’s different about that day from a physiological perspective. At they very least, they will understand, empathize, and tell you that yes, sometimes you just suck.
Always strive to do your best. Make each day of training worth the investment and become all that you can be. Sometimes, you’ll suck and there’s nothing you can do about it. Relax. You don’t have to like it, but you do have to accept and understand it. Find the lesson in what not to do. Talk about it with the upper belts who have been there before. Avoid sucking as best you can, but don’t fall apart when it inevitably happens.