Getting Out of a Slump
do call it a comeback
A slump during your training is never sexy. No one posts about the brain fog that they feel when trying to understand a seemingly basic technique, the lack of inspiration that they experience in figuring out what they want to do next, and worst of all, the sinking feeling that they might be getting a little tired of jiu jitsu.
If you like jiu jitsu, and you’ve been training for more than a year, chances are that you’ve experienced a slump. There are a myriad of reasons why a slump can happen — depression, blue belt, life, burn out, physical injury/illness, depressing weather (just to name a few) — but I think the worst type of slump is the one that creeps up without a good, identifiable reason.
Putting mental health and physical wellness aside as obvious causes — for which a mental health professional and a doctor are likely better sources — I want to share the various slumps that I’ve had over the years of practice, and how I worked through them. That doesn’t mean that these slumps were free of mental/physical health challenges. But I’m choosing to focus on what I did to help myself out of it, in addition to the professional assistance I received.
Slumps from Non-Jiu Jitsu “Life Stuff”
Why It Sucks
It’s already hard enough to answer the question “how are you” when you’re just passing someone in the hallway, let alone expressing how you really feel when you’re just about to attempt to yeet someone for two points. Whenever things in life get out of control — whether it is family, friends, or financials — these stressors can have a very visible effect on how well you can focus in jiu jitsu. But, the opportunity to express it to someone, let alone have time to recover from it before class, is scarce.
Assuming that jiu jitsu can be a respite from these stressors is a worthy aspiration, but it doesn’t change the fact that sometimes we — especially working professionals — come into class feeling drained from decision fatigue and drama. Sometimes, a couple of nights of not sleeping well is enough to feel like we’re starting to careen off a cliff.
Dealing With It
The pieces of advice that I have for this type of slump are a bit…different, but it makes sense to share both so you can decide for yourself which one makes the most sense:
Keep going to class despite life stressors
Stop going to class/reduce training to handle life stressors
(Possible) Modulate between #1 and #2
My rule of thumb for figuring out which option involves taking a look at the nature of the problem and asking myself if my time and energy can help mitigate/resolve the issue, or if it’s a problem that will persist no matter how many classes I attend or don’t attend.
And, if I think that spending time can help with the situation, I also try to the degree of damage “doing nothing” may cause, the situation’s urgency, and the importance of resolving the issue on my life.
Some life stressors that have justified taking a break/reducing jiu jitsu were:
saving money to pay off student debt;
studying for work certification exams; and
improving my relationship with my husband
In each of these cases, I felt that I could make a significant amount of progress if I transferred my time/energy from jiu jitsu into these areas. I also knew that not doing these things might result in irreparable harm: impacts on my credit; loss of reputation; and a failed relationship.
What’s way trickier are the life stressors, that, in the moment feel terrible, but in actuality could wait until after jiu jitsu training. There have been times where I’ve had terrible days at work, gotten into a disagreement, or drained my mental battery even before lunch. As an unhappy attorney, this was be a chronic problem. However, as a mostly happy-go-lucky project manager, this was a temporary inconvenience. Knowing the difference between the two has helped me tell myself, “Okay, you might feel worse right now, but you’ll feel much better after going to class.”
Slumps from Post-Promotion (Or Lack Thereof)
Why It Sucks
For people who are promoted to a new rank, the hard truth is that everything looks great on the outside, but is actually way more stressful on the inside. A whole host of reasons can make this happen: imposter syndrome is a common one, followed by the depression that can sometimes accompany finished goals. On top of it, you may feel as if your feelings are a bit unjustified because you now have “something” that your teammates don’t.
For those who are not promoted, motivation may wane generally as you start to wonder if your efforts are ever going to be good enough to be promoted.
I know a handful of self-assured, reasonable people who, around promotion time, understand that they aren’t going to be promoted, and are able to celebrate those around them who do. Yet, promotion jealousy is real, and watching other people move ahead and receive recognition/praise can plague your ability to believe in yourself.
Dealing With It (When You Are Promoted)
Post-promotion jiu jitsu slumps are weird, awkward emotional roller coasters that I don’t want to ride, but I find that I almost have to in order to grow as a person. In the times that I have been promoted, finding a sense of direction has been hard, and gaining acceptance of that uncertainty has been even harder. I realize that with a new rank comes a sense of loss of the old, and likely comfortable, ways of showing up on the mat. As a four-stripe white belt, I felt as if I had nothing to lose. As a new blue belt getting triangled not once, but twice, at an in-house tournament by a white belt (while it was being livestreamed) hit a lot differently.
Where I am now when it comes to post-promotion slumps is that in truth, change is never always unequivocally bad or good. The ambiguity that surrounds the future after a big change is part of why the journey should continue, because the quest itself is either accepting that uncertainty, or finding clarity in the chaos.
Dealing With It (When You’re Passed Over)
There can be many reasons why someone is “passed over” for a promotion, though sometimes people can’t or don’t care to ask. (And even those answers might not be the actual “truth”). I think the best way to deal is to honestly do as little thinking as possible over the reasons why you weren’t promoted and to do a lot of thinking about your reasons to continue to train.
In the times when I wanted to be promoted (but wasn’t), I let myself feel disappointed but not discouraged. To accomplish this, I spent a lot of time thinking about my personal progress and understanding how that was still a very real thing even if it wasn’t acknowledged with a stripe or a belt.
For achievement-minded folks, telling us to “forget about the rank and just train” is advice that won’t land correctly, at least the first few tries. Put simply: If you feel bad about not being promoted, the answer is not to suppress it. I think the better way is to focus on what matters more. If you find yourself feeling like a failure because you didn’t get a shiny award, dig deep into places where jiu jitsu is (or can be) a positive experience for you, like: getting exercise, belonging to a community, wearing cool outfits, or learning a new skill. Looking at what you do have, and appreciating it fully, will eventually make you value those aspects of training more over the promotion itself.
Slumps from Injury/Sick Leave
Why It Sucks
Jiu jitsu is a bit notorious for how much people train and how much people think they have to train to be good. Consistency is good for skill development, but since jiu jitsu needs two, it’s just not the same when you’re trying to heal and need to stay away from the academy.
These types of slumps are also extra challenging because it’s a double whammy: first, you are in a mental slump because you miss out on mat time, but also, you’re likely not able to practice or do any sort of physical conditioning since you’re exhausted or too broken to move.
Dealing With It
A common debate in jiu jitsu is that too much analysis or too little thinking can be bad for your jiu jitsu development. The truth is, I believe that the actual thresholds for each depend on the context and your goals. When you are sick or injured, your situation for training dramatically changes. In truth, you won’t be able to do a lot of the physical labor required to get better in that time period, so you better get creative and lean harder into the cerebral side.
I can’t be bothered to quote the scientific studies here, but basically, if you use your brain to act like you’re doing the real thing, think and look at film or instructionals critically, you can actually make progress in different parts of your jiu jitsu. Just from anecdotal experience, when I take the time to reflect on my jiu jitsu while watching other professionals do it, my brain is focused on questions that I might not otherwise have time to consider if I was actively training or trying to learn the class curriculum.
Slumps from Overtraining
Why It Sucks
A slump from overtraining is the cruelest type of slump because it goes against the assumption that more is better. And generally yes, a person who comes consistently each week will generally learn more than someone who shows up sporadically. However, where things start to fall apart, at least for me, is when I forget to give myself adequate recovery. Starting in late November, I started to have brain fog during class and felt really uninspired and unhappy to train. I would try to lean more into greater effort as a way of breaking out of the slump, but I just felt like I was breaking apart more.
Dealing With It
To prevent the slump from becoming worse, longer, and harder to come back from, catching it early and taking time off is key. When you start to get signals that you are overtrained, it’s important to not be in denial too long. The body has a way of sending increasingly louder and louder messages to get you to slow down if you choose to ignore the first warning signs (see, e.g., the ringworm rash that took out a chunk of my back).
So, do yourself a favor and don’t keep digging at the hole that you’ve fallen into.
As a former perfectionist and workaholic, I do admit that I still have a ways to go to prevent overtraining. But I am learning that breaks are OK. Breaks of days in a row are even OK. Accepting this reality will certainly give you less heartache in taking the break. The time off may even allow you to do things that make you feel like a normal person again. And if it means anything, a trainer once told me that taking two good days off from any physical activity is usually enough to help you bounce back.
Slumps from “Losing”/Lack of Improvement
Why It Sucks
Slumps that involve feelings of inadequacy are probably the hardest to deal with, but they are deeply personal feelings. Plenty of people can relate to a pulled muscle or a bad knee. But it’s the wildly subjective turmoil that occurs when you think you’re not getting any better (and it seems like no one else can relate) that can really eat away at your jiu jitsu experience.
Talking to other people can be hard as well, because sometimes while the comments are well-meaning, they don’t actually get to the root of the issue, which is the perception of your own performance. After a while, the statements of “just keep going to class and showing up” and “progression is not linear” means little when you just want to stop getting flipped in the air every round and be able to smash for once.
And, for non-professional athletes, there’s a feeling that this existential crisis we experience in jiu jitsu is less justified because after all, this is a fun hobby. It can be possible to feel bad about feeling bad, especially around people who aren’t taking jiu jitsu seriously at this point in their journey.
These slumps last the longest and are the hardest to see improvement in, mainly because you’re the one who is doing all of the evaluating. And the criteria is not as easily measurable as seeing an increased range of motion in your joints or waking up feeling more rested.
Dealing With It
These types of slumps are the ones that I have the most experience with, and I still feel like there is room for improvement with how I deal with them. The primary method that I use now is to reflect on a single question, “What is it that I want?” which helps me re-focus on a hopefully more positive future, without ignoring all of the present unpleasant feelings. I find that asking myself this question repeatedly over the course of several days helps me at least find clarity, and from there I can work to find potential solutions.
In fact, in the times when I don’t take the time to let my thoughts simmer, and to take a hard look at why I feel unfulfilled, I often find myself rushing into the most readily available option — I just need to…drink more water! Or get a private lesson! Or…start lifting!
Putting that individual inquiry aside, there have been some mindset shifts, over the years, that have helped me out of these slumps in a more efficient fashion:
I remind myself that training is not about winning or losing, but rather skill development. I consciously fight against the temptation to see “failures” as a negative thing to avoid. I try to lean into a more consistent meditation routine, because that helps lower overall stress during the day and also puts me in a calm, present state.
I remind myself that I can think of my hobby/activity in whatever way that I choose. The fact that other people take it more or less seriously is irrelevant to me, but if I am to take it seriously, it has to be with a mindset that is healthy, productive, and sustainable.
I still engage in accountability by taking a good, hard look at why I’m not performing the way that I want. Because sometimes, the slump has come about through a slippage in how I can best train/learn on and off the mats.
I use the opportunity to learn how to give myself grace and compassion. I used to think that reminding myself that I was doing the best that I could was equivalent to making unhelpful excuses. This wrong assumption came largely from the rhetoric of people who spout messages that excuses = weak will. I think that giving yourself compassion is far from having a weak will. In fact, self-compassion indicates a level of emotional maturity and nuance that helps create acceptance, both for yourself and the others around you).
You see, we may encounter many defeats, but we must not be defeated. It may even be necessary to encounter the defeat, so that we can know who we are. So that we can see, oh, that happened, and I rose. I did get knocked down flat in front of the whole world, and I rose. I didn’t run away – I rose right where I’d been knocked down. And then that’s how you get to know yourself. You say, hmm, I can get up! I have enough of life in me to make somebody jealous enough to want to knock me down. I have so much courage in me that I have the effrontery, the incredible gall to stand up. That’s it. That’s how you get to know who you are. - Maya Angelou