Ebb and Flow… How to Always Progress Whether you Win or “Lose”
Is losing or a slump mean a tough bill to swallow, yes... but what if it was turned into a blessing in disguise that's just waiting for you to seize it... let's find out
Slump periods, plateaus, whatever you want to call them. We all go through them in life, maybe at work, school, or learning a new skill, but when it comes to the skill of BJJ, they make or break us.
The journey each of us goes through over the years is a personal and transformative experience. It isn't just about technical proficiency on the mats. In fact, technical proficiency has little to do with it; in my opinion, the mindset and attitude you develop as you evolve is more what it is about. To me, technical proficiency is the result of that mindset and attitude.
As the analogy goes, "sometimes you are the hammer, and sometimes you are the nail." Personally, I do not like that analogy; I think of it more as a pendulum swinging from left to right, from light to dark. However, the message is clear: sometimes you are on top, and you "win," and sometimes you are on bottom and you "lose." Irrespective of which situation you find yourself in, you are learning and evolving. The easier side of the coin is the "winning" side, but I think it is arguably where you learn the least. The hard side, the side that evolves your mindset through stubborn will, is where you are "losing" when you are on bottom, and it isn't easy. To be in that "losing" position for an extended period, not just a class but a period of time where everyone you roll with seems to get the better of you, is the essence of the journey (or at least a crucial part of it).
This is where a good blue belt friend of mine found himself recently. Talking to him about it brought me back to my own journey of those times where I felt I was getting smashed again and again. He spoke of the same feelings: that others were better than him, that nothing worked and that things that used to work for him were no longer working, that he had to compensate with attributes to overcome his opponents.
I think that a lot of people believe that when they get that blue belt, Jiu-jitsu will magically become easier. That somehow, they have attained a level of skill that makes the game easier to bear. This is not true though, the game remains the same, "success" at any belt ebbs and flows like the tide. This truth can be a bitter pill for some to swallow, which is why I think some disappear after getting that coveted blue belt. After a bit of consideration, I gave him my opinion and advice on how to move through this period.
My opinion is that the ebb and flow never stops at any belt, there is always someone better, and sparring is always a struggle. Enjoy the moments when you are "winning" in sparring, your ego gets a nice stroke, and your skills are validated, but the learning experience is lessened. Lessened partly because the ego relishes getting the validation of the "tap" of "winning" distracting you from the lesson. You have to force yourself to evaluate how you won. Did you force the technique with strength, speed, or flexibility? Or was it technically efficient and timed to perfection? How can I improve? What did I feel in that fleeting moment? What felt easy and flowed? What felt hard, rigid, forced? You get the idea…
On the other hand, when you are not "winning," what are you learning? The experiential gains of being smashed are vast, in my opinion. Why couldn't I escape? What were they doing? Where was the pressure coming from? How could I have done better? Did I mentally tap, accepting the position through attrition (we all do it, "fatigue makes cowards of us all" George S Patton Jr)? etc., etc.
This constant evaluation serves two purposes, firstly it distracts my ego and allows me to accept the punishment being meted out by my sparring partner. Secondly, it pinpoints holes in my game, weaknesses. This was the first piece of advice I gave him "train only weakness." To develop and grow exponentially, the correct attitude and mindset, in my opinion, is to embrace loss and slump periods. Put yourself back into the position you struggled with, understand how and why you failed, refine your response to it and test it again and again until you evolve. This dogged mindset is an integral part of the journey that is alluded to with useless analogies like "just train" or "more time on the mat." When you make your weakness your strength, you level yourself up. If, on the other hand, you choose to just play your A-game and "win," you will stand still; it is only through a willingness to lose and experiment that you will grow and evolve.
The last question I asked my friend was, what are his goals? Goals are another salvation during a slump period that have saved me time and again. Or rather, given my ego a humility slap round the face. For example, my friend's long-term goal is to improve his open guard game playing off his back. If I were him, hit by a training slump, I would pick an open guard style I did not know well and play only that. For example, if my De La Riva guard is utter crap, I resolve to play only that guard and accept that I will "lose," but I will go back to it. This gives my ego an acceptable out; it is placated because it knows it will "lose" through experimentation. Eventually, over time I will see improvement in my De La Riva skills... it might be retention or a sweep. This discipline helps me turn the corner and keep showing up.
My friend already knew this stuff because we talked about it a lot before. He has the right attitude; he trains Gi, No-Gi, wrestling, and a bit of MMA. He makes sure he goes to the fundamentals classes and doesn't just attend the advanced classes because he's a blue belt now. In a nutshell, he doesn't pigeonhole himself into one ruleset or style; he learns all ranges. Most importantly, he trains consistently; he is there each week – he has the Jiu-Jitsu obsession. One part of his attitude that I admire is that he is uninterested in stripes and the next belt; he trains in the now and focuses on legitimate mat skills and technical proficiency.
Capping this one-off, the hard things in life are the most rewarding, and that is one of the attractions of Jiu-Jitsu. It is hard, and just when you think you have "mastered it" and are "winning," something new comes along, and you get smashed. The truth of it is to embrace the grind, savor and learn
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