Let me set the stage. You have been training for a few years now and you finally hit your stride. Your passing, sweeping, and submission games are on point. You are either smashing the new guys or keeping up with the guys who used to smash you. Overall you can’t believe how good you have gotten. Fast forward a few months and you’re stagnant. The new guys who you used to destroy are now giving you a hard time. The guys who you used to give a hard time to have progressed and are now destroying you on a nightly basis. You’re unmotivated, feel like all hope is gone, and are thinking about quitting. While there are no motivational words that I can share to get through this stage, what I can say is you are not alone.
THE LEARNING CURVE
Learning Jiu Jitsu is no different than learning any other skill. When we first enter the gym we start with little or no knowledge about the sport. Everything is new and we struggle with trying to retain knowledge. It is during this time that our excitement and love of learning something new helps people come back night after night.
At a certain point after a foundational base of knowledge has been created, your learning accelerates quickly. Moves that used to make no sense to you now make total sense. When you first started you had to see moves multiple times before feeling confident with pulling them off. Now you can see the move once and be doing it during a live roll 10 minutes later. This is a super exciting time in your jiu jitsu journey because you start to understand what this art is really about.
Like all good things this fun period also comes to an end. When you reach the plateau phase you start to make smaller gains in your skill level. This can be extremely frustrating because on the surface it appears that you are not making any progress. What can be even more frustrating is that sometimes our plateaus can last for a few training sessions or they can last for months.
It is during our plateaus that we start to question if we really want to continue training. This is the stage where I believe the true marital artists are separated from the people who are doing this just for fun. Sticking with jiu jitsu during this phase is difficult and requires a true passion for the art.
SO WHAT CAN YOU DO?
According to author Todd Henry there are four stages of growth that people progress through over time. Below are the four stages and a quick description of what each stage represents.
Discovery – When you first learn something. Your coach shows you a new armbar set up.
Emulation – You develop your skills by mimicking others. Your armbar set up is exactly the same as your coaches.
Divergence – You deviate from what you were taught and learn to develop your own style. Your armbar set up is slightly different from your coaches because you have modified it to fit your game.
Crisis – You are not taking chances and risks. You cling to what is safe. Your armbar set up is the only set up that you use.
According to Henry the Emulation and Crisis stages are where we can take steps to help break through our plateaus. Henry says that during the emulation stage we have two options. We can continue emulating and reap the immediate benefits (a tap, a sweep, or winning a round) or we can choose to diverge and try to define your own style. Diverging may mean temporary set backs. You will probably get swept, passed, or submitted. Over time though you will start to learn exactly what works for you and learn to create your own unique jiu jitsu game.
In my opinion the Crisis stage is the most dangerous phase in jiu jitsu. It is during this stage that we will stick to only a few moves in the pursuit of winning. In fact our main goal is winning. Instead of trying to pass the guard you always fall back for a heel hook. Instead of rolling with the higher belts you stick to rolling with people you know you can beat. According to Henry our two options from here are to hit the reset button and go back to the first phase or stay where we are and never break through our plateau.
Henry says that one way that you can defeat the crisis phase is to go back to the discovery phase and start all over again. One easy way to do this is to pick a new sweep, pass, or submission. Recently I decided to go rediscover the Kimura. Learning new Kimura set ups and drilling with my team mates has helped me get excited about jiu jitsu again. Rolling in class has become fun again as well. I now have a goal when I roll. My main goal is to try and get the Kimura grip whenever I can. This has made me better at passing, maintaining positions, and looking for exploiting openings.
Another way to help break out of the crisis phase is to subtract something from your jiu jitsu game. The idea of subtractive innovation is something that I have been thinking about a lot in regards to innovation and progress. Subtractive innovation is when you subtract old ideas to make room for new ideas.
While I didn’t completely subtract leg locks from my game, I have cut back on them. I try to only use them when I absolutely need to. By doing this I have found that I am focusing on my passing a lot more. So yes I am losing a few good positions, yes I am getting passed a lot more, and yes I am getting tapped but I am growing. One of my goals for 2016 was to be a destroyer of guards. By subtracting leg locks I am becoming that much better at destroying guards. Instead of only being able to threaten with a leg lock, I can now threaten with a pass or leg lock.
So let’s go back to the original scenario. You’re unmotivated, feel like all hope is gone, and are thinking about quitting. What you do next is really up to you. You can choose to stay in the emulation and crisis stages of growth and never progress or you can break away and start the growth process all over again. In other words you can learn to love learning jiu jitsu all over again.
To learn more about Todd Henry’s work I suggest starting his excellent blog post Where You Get Stuck (And What To Do About It). I would also recommend checking out his three books The Accidental Creative, Die Empty, and his newest book Louder than Words. If you are not a reader I would check out the Accidental Creative Podcast.