This last week at the BJJ class, a few experienced blue belts brought up the topic of improvement. More specifically, how can you tell if you are getting better?
This is a fair question, especially if you aren’t an active competitor who has the opportunity to test your skills against strangers with different games. You have no idea what that competitor from a different team is going to bring, nor do they know your A game.
Your measure of if your jiu-jitsu is improving comes from feedback, both positive and negative, when rolling in your home academy with your regular training partners. This situation is where the vast majority of your rolling hours will take place.
When we consider a few factors, it makes it difficult to see if we are indeed improving:
A) All of our regular training partners are seeing the same positions taught by the same instructor. That removes the element of surprise when rolling against a strange opponent. Your regular training partners were at the same classes and know exactly what you are trying to do.
B) Your regular training partners will rapidly become familiar with your A game and quickly adapt and learn to defend your best techniques. Your success with those techniques will diminish and along with that your sense of actually making progress.
C) Everyone else in the class is also training regularly and getting better at the same time. There is a saying to the effect of, “When the water level in the harbor rises, all of the boats go up.” Everyone else is also improving their own level.
Outside of competition, how can you tell if you are improving?
When your coach watches training, they should be able to provide feedback on what they can pick out from your rolls. Coaches should not only be telling you when you are doing something wrong, but also catch you doing something right. The coach’s experienced eye can spot things you are doing better that you simply can’t see.
One of our experienced students (who is a non-competitor) travels back to his home country a couple of times per year to his original academy where he started training. He is quite eager to try out some of the new positions and see if he can pull them off with training partners who are not familiar with his game. It’s very gratifying to hear that his new sweep game was working.
A less obvious but significant question to ask yourself is, “Am I using new positions in my rolling or just doing the same things that I always do?” If you’re doing the same old standards, you might be stagnant. But if you’re seeing and actually attempting new positions, it is a good indicator that your game has expanded and you are now seeing more possibilities in the roll.
Progress in jiu-jitsu is mostly slow and often non-linear in nature, and it can feel like you aren’t going anywhere. But if you understand that it can be difficult to see small improvements, have faith they’ll compound into bigger improvements over the training year. Those improvements may well find you with a new colored belt around your waist come the end of the year.