There are a lot of really, really talented athletes out there. I am not one of them. In fact, to say that I’m athletically challenged would be an understatement.
I’m that student in jiu-jitsu class who watches the professor demonstrate the technique three times, only to forget it all the moment I move over to practice with my partner.
I’m that student who is utterly useless when performing a technique on the left side, even when I can (finally) do it correctly on the right side.
I’m that student who is often on the receiving end of comments like, “What exactly are you trying to do?” in the middle of a roll.
To sum it up, I’m not good at jiu-jitsu.
It’s not that I don’t try to be, of course. I train anywhere between three and five times a week for up to three hours at a time. I roll with people who are lighter, heavier, faster, stronger than I am. For years now, I’ve practiced and practiced and practiced in an attempt to make perfect… or at least something resembling it. Needless to say, it’s tough to see that there are people who are naturally gifted at jiu-jitsu without all that work, who end up submitting blue and even purple belts before they’ve even gotten the last stripe on their white belt. If you’re not one of them, though, that doesn’t mean you should give up. If anything, it’s even more of a reason to keep going.
When you’re not “good” at jiu jitsu, your time on the mat will be twice as frustrating as it is for people who naturally excel at it. You will struggle to comprehend techniques that they seem to get bored with.
When it comes time to roll, you’re going to be tapping more than they are. You might go to a tournament and feel like an outsider, like you don’t belong with all these people who are “real” athletes. While all of that can be extremely discouraging, it also has its benefits.
Just as a home-cooked meal has that magic touch that makes it taste better than takeout, achievements in jiu-jitsu tend to feel so much better when you know how hard you’ve worked for them.
It can be something as simple as finally nailing that tough technique in the middle of a roll or something as big as winning a match at a tournament by a single advantage point. Those of us who have to work hard for every single thing we accomplish in this sport value those moments that much more because we’re all too aware of the struggle and strife involved in making them happen.
Being forced to practice something over and over again while actively thinking about what you’re doing will also make you a more technical jiujiteiro. Many (but not all) naturally-gifted jiu-jitsu practitioners tend to miss small details that may go unpunished when they go up against lower belts, but are a bit harder to get away with when rolling with more advanced opponents.
Those who had to be constantly corrected on those minute details, however, aren’t likely to forget all the little things even in the middle of a high-intensity roll. Part of this comes from the absolute demolition of the ego that occurs when someone gets their butt whooped on the mats every time they show up to class. It’s almost impossible for those of us who aren’t good at jiu-jitsu to get cocky because, well, we have no reason to be. Many naturally talented BJJ athletes, however, are so used to dominating everyone they go up against that they forget that they, too, have to work at it if they want to achieve real success at the higher levels.
Jiu-jitsu has a beautiful way of leveling the playing field, even if it takes a while for you to see it happen. You may have heard how a human can outrun a cheetah in a race if the distance is long enough, and jiu-jitsu is one hell of a long race. You might be the lowly human stumbling after the speedy cheetah, but if that cheetah doesn’t pace itself or train to be a more strategic long-distance runner, you’re eventually going to jog right past it when it tires out before you do.
No matter how talented you are, jiu-jitsu requires hard work and dedication if you want to be good at it at every stage in your journey.
But you’ll never get there if you quit. The time it takes to be good at jiu-jitsu is going to pass whether or not you show up to train, so you may as well put forth the effort to improve no matter how slow the progress may be.
If you feel like you’ll never be as the guy at your belt level who seems to be years ahead of you in terms of skill, stop focusing on him. This is your journey, and the only person you’re competing with is yourself.
You don’t need to focus on becoming better than the person who only trains twice a week and then cruises his way through tournaments; you need to focus on becoming better than the voice in your head that’s telling you that it doesn’t make a difference whether or not you show up to train. Take your time. Stop and smell the armbars. Working hard and bettering yourself is jiu jitsu.
It’s okay to be frustrated when that really, really good lower belt starts regularly tapping you out, but if you want to keep moving forward, you have to use that frustration to drive yourself to work even harder. Once you achieve the goals you set out to conquer, you’ll realize just how far hard work can take you regardless of how much talent you have.