It all began with the new girl. She showed up a few months into my BJJ journey, slightly bigger than me and somehow already wearing a matching set of colorful rashguard and spats. I pictured myself patiently teaching her the one move I had learned, giggling at how awkward everything was, high fiving her after she survived her first round with “Blue Belt Bob”. (Are you picturing Bob right now? Whatever you are picturing is most certainly accurate.) I imagined us as a fantastic superhero duo, two powerful white belt ladies conquering the world.
You already know how this story ends. The new girl was very appreciative of my rear naked choke knowledge during the drills portion of class, and then submitted me five seconds into rolling. And then again five seconds later. It didn’t matter that she didn’t know any jiu jitsu yet. She was strong and aggressive. I found myself stuck underneath her mount, mourning the loss of my new bestie. Perhaps she played rugby in college? Or maybe I just really sucked at this.
Fast forward almost ten years. I have gotten significantly better at jiu jitsu. I know a lot more moves now; and more importantly, I understand a bunch of concepts that I didn’t before: inside control, positional advantage, how to be really heavy when I need to be, how to spot a mistake and capitalize on it, and so on. I can hold my own with most of the new people who walk in the door.
And yet, there are still those days. You know the ones. When you get submitted with moves you have been successfully defending for years. When you feel like you are two seconds behind on every escape. When you put your arm inside to “escape the triangle” and then realize that you actually just put your arm into the position where your partner can choke you instead. (True story, it happened last night!)
No matter how much you have improved over the years, it can still be so easy to fall into the trap of constantly comparing yourself to other people on the mat. Winning and losing are built into every roll! Black belt takes your back with a fancy berimbolo? No problem. New white belt catches you with that arm bar? You suck!
So how can we stop torturing ourselves? While I am certainly no expert, here are a few tips that have worked for me over the years:
- Keep notes on your progress. Not your wins and losses, but actual details. I was confused about where to put my hands on that pass, but today it suddenly clicked. I successfully escaped the back. And so on. This will help you see clear improvement.
- Notice your progress against that same person six months ago. Got submitted with that heel hook again? But this time you actually defended it in a way that made her have to change her grip in order to finish it. Sometimes your improvement is simply making it harder for them.
- No matter what we want to think, size and strength does matter. Yes, your skill can compensate, but not always. Some people will just be able to outmuscle you. Again, it helps to compare yourself to yourself many months ago. How would you have handled this situation when you were a white belt, compared to how you handled it now? Chances are you are doing so many things better!
- Tapping is your friend. Seriously, it is. Forget about who beat you. Instead focus on what beat you. Did you put your arm in a spot you shouldn’t have? Did you forget the proper defense? Did you just move too slowly? And if you don’t know why you got caught, ask! Usually there is a technical answer, not simply “because I suck at this.” These “loss” moments are the best times to learn something new.
- Finally, don’t forget to have fun! Remember you are a grown adult who chose to pay money to roll around on a mat in a superhero costume. It is fine to take your training and your progress seriously, just don’t take yourself too seriously. Because in the end most of us are not going to be world champions, but the joy we get out of our day to day rolling is worth far more.
So the next time you start comparing yourself to that new girl with the undercut (so cool!) remember that you are so much better than you used to be! One day at a time, one move at time, you are improving. Your jiu jitsu can not be summed up in any one round; it is a lifelong pursuit.
Jennifer Fremon is a sixth degree black belt in Kenshikai Karate and a brown belt in BJJ. She and her husband run UWS Kenshikai Karate & BJJ in Manhattan, where she teaches karate to children ages 3 and up. When she isn’t attempting to heel hook giants, Jennifer enjoys drinking coffee, walking her dog, making doodle art, and watching the sun set over NYC. She currently lives in Brooklyn with her husband and her fierce 12 year old daughter, and thinks there is no greater joy than seeing a child accomplish something new.