A Better Way to Get Better (at Jiu Jitsu)
besides just going pro
I’ve been doing a lot of reflecting about how to get better in my jiu jitsu, and I think I’ve stumbled across several themes that might be of some interest to other practitioners.
Doing better in jiu jitsu has a lot of different meanings depending on who you are and what your relationship is to jiu jitsu. If you’re a competitor and you want to be a world champion, then doing better in jiu jitsu is usually code for doing better than everyone else, at least in the tournament context. If you’re a beginner trying out the art for the first time, and have limited bandwidth outside of class time to think or practice jiu jitsu, doing better may mean coming to class more often, learning new techniques, and applying them to sparring with increasing levels of success.
Whatever your ultimate meaning of doing “better” is, I think that these themes are applicable to everyone, since they transcend various contexts and reach more into one’s internal feeling states.
Practice Letting Go
One of the biggest barriers that I’ve faced in my jiu jitsu practice is attachment, namely attachment to the outcome. Other forms may include attachment to winning, fatigue, ego, fame, external validation, or attention.
When I get overly attached to something, I tend to pursue it to the exclusion of everything else (if it is something that I lack) or I protect it at all costs (if it’s something that I possess). Attachment is dangerous because it blinds you to the other opportunities that are out there — opportunities, that are only available if you free up the mental energy, time, and space to look elsewhere.
Usually, the difficulty of letting go stems from the fear of the unknown. After all, it is better to know the devil than to potentially meet an angel. Or, letting go is tied to (unfair) judgment of yourself. If you change for the better, it means admitting you weren’t great in the first place. Sometimes, failure to let go comes about because you don’t even consider it a realistic option (but it is).
For a long time, I was attached to the idea of competing often. I felt like I had to compete at least once a month, compete as often as some teammates, and that if I didn’t compete, I was no one, or even worse, a hobbyist.
For a while, that was my goal and nothing else. In one way, being attached to competing meant that excluding other goals was easy to do — after all, why wouldn’t I put all of my energy into a single priority? What I learned, however, is that the attachment to the idea made me unable to consider other opportunities in which growth was greater. And not just consider it, but actually change course, go out and be someone new.
In making a decision not to compete this year, my predominant emotion was fear. But it was also shame, too, at going soft. Regret for not realizing it sooner. I had thought that I could only be the best version of myself if I persisted through competitive adversity. Putting a pause on competing felt like I was taking the easy way out.
Yet, as I let go of competing, I realized that I was overcoming a different sort of obstacle — the fear that came from listening to what I needed to be myself, instead of what I needed to do to impress others.
My greatest adversity wasn’t in fighting other opponents, but instead, in confronting myself.
Letting go is a daily practice. As we let go, we find other sources of buried attachment, and so, we must let go again. And, unless you’re a gingko tree (which sheds its leaves all at once), it’s perfectly fine to take your time in letting go.
Nurture Intrinsic Motivation
Intrinsic motivation is currently a work in progress for me, but as I dig into this more deeply, I’ve found an increasing sense of satisfaction and excitement into learning jiu jitsu that I haven’t experienced before. When it comes to developing my intrinsic motivation, I ask myself two key questions:
What does it feel like?
What does it look like?
Some people get intrinsic motivation wrong. I’ve observed that a lot of extrinsically-motivated people claim to be intrinsically-motivated, simply because their Instagram is set to private, they don’t talk about winning, and they only share 40-50% of their struggles.
Here’s the deal: It doesn’t matter if the world knows or does not know about your goals, struggles, training, or secrets. What matters is what’s going through your head as you walk through the rain to go to jiu jitsu class, or wake up early to lift weights, or visit an open mat to spar with new people. If you’re thinking, “Wow, I’m so noble to be going through these struggles” and “wait until I talk about this next time I meet new people” then you have ego, not intrinsic motivation. A desire for prestige, respect, or clout of other people — even if kept to yourself — is still extrinsic motivation.
Intrinsic motivation is when you find yourself sitting on the toilet and daydreaming about passing spider guard.
If there was no one around to praise you for doing something, would you still find a good reason to do it? If you didn’t get extra fame or sponsors, would you still do it? For some, the answer is a quick yes. But for others, especially like me, who have not been taught to value an activity for the sake of doing so, intrinsic motivation is as mysterious as the processes in which cats choose who they like. We have to decode the language of intrinsic motivation as a toddler working its way through a new book.
If you have no idea how to start, think for yourself what activities you would do naturally (non-jiu jitsu context, please). There, you will have the first inklings of what intrinsic motivation feels like. I will willingly run across a street to pet a corgi; I will always find time to write; I will devour an apple turnover (or two) from my favorite bakery. I will text my sister because I love her. I do these things because I want to, not because I should.
Focus on What Can Go Right (Not What Can Go Left/Sideways)
Every week I set an intention for myself.
One day, I wrote this down:
If lightning bolt epiphanies exist, this is one of them.
Setting up myself for success is not a natural instinct. Instead, for almost my entire life, I’ve been focused on avoiding disaster. Study hard because if not, you won’t get into college. Overperform at your summer job, because if not, you won’t have an offer after graduation and you can’t pay off loans. Be hypervigilant and try to please everyone, because if not, people will get mad at you.
Perhaps you’ve experienced this before in a stressful environment, like a competition.
What if the opponent pulls guard? 🦈 What if I get submitted in 19 seconds? 🥀 What if I get put in a triangle and I pass out? 🥲 What if I have to pee 🌊 right before the match? 🤢 What if the ref is biased against me? 😵💫 What if I get trash talked? 🦤
Learning to avoid negative consequences is a good survival tactic. Once you’re past the survival stage, though, there are better ways to live. (As an adult with food, shelter, community and health, I am in this position.) So, my hard mental work is learning that I ALWAYS have choices, including choices in how I feel. I might not have had certain choices before, but my life is different now.
As a result, the shift from focusing on the negatives to the positives, particularly for future events, has given me a sense of empowerment that I haven’t experienced before.
And, in the jiu jitsu context, such a sense of empowerment has been nothing short of invigorating and intoxicating. I used to dread training because I put pressure on myself to roll every single round and execute on moves that I had only learned recently. Inevitably, I would show up to train feeling nauseous from anxiety — to say nothing of how much worse I felt come competition time.
When I focused on setting myself up for success, I found myself viewing my actions much differently. By starting with the end in mind, and working backwards, I was no longer trying to dodge the infinite world of “things that could go wrong.” I could concentrate on One Thing, which was having things go right. I focused on what I could control.
Your What If Machine runs on catastrophic scenarios, which your mind will happily invent if you’re not trained to do otherwise. The Success Machine runs on taking pragmatic steps towards success:
You go to class not because you want to avoid feeling FOMO, but because it’s fun to learn and to sweat.
You work on sleeping and eating well not because you want to avoid feeling sluggish or getting fat, but because it helps you concentrate better.
You practice guard retention not because you don’t want to be stuck in side control, but because you increase your chances of pulling off cool offensive sweeps.
This is essentially the “glass half full” versus “half empty” sort of advice but with a bit of nuance. The half full/half empty debate focuses on what already exists. Setting yourself up for success focuses on future outcomes.
These are not overnight solutions. There is, candidly speaking, no instructional on how to get better at jiu jitsu that will give you all the answers, not even John Danaher. But, with time and persistence, these themes will empower you to get better at getting better.